I was struck earlier today by a comment my student made in our tutorial session, whereby he mentioned that Lady Macbeth is the driving force behind Macbeth killing King Duncan in the great Scortish Play, as it is known by superstitious actors who refuse to say the name. I am no such animal.
In this scene, a number of things happen but a lot of students do not fully grasp what Lady Macbeth is saying when she asks the spirits to come and “unsex her.” Like with any kind of analysis, there is a danger of just thinking literally, that she wants to have all her female sex taken from her. It is one of those moments when we read this in class, from this teacher’s perspective, when 14 boys and 16 girls all give different responses to those words. The girls gather their lips together and there is a sharp intake of breath, usually, whereas the boys usually titter out loud, sometimes making some form of saucy comment. Such is life in the English department in most High Schools and Academies across the country.
So, what is she asking? Here is the text for you….
Give him tending;
He brings great news.
The raven himself is hoarse
That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan
Under my battlements. Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full
Of direst cruelty! make thick my blood;
Stop up the access and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
The effect and it! Come to my woman’s breasts,
And take my milk for gall, you murdering ministers,
Wherever in your sightless substances
You wait on nature’s mischief! Come, thick night,
And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell,
That my keen knife see not the wound it makes,
Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark,
To cry ‘Hold, hold!’
She is saying a number of things here. The first is that she wants something to come to her. She calls them “Spirits” which usually means something from the deepest depths of hell itself. Now whether or not you believe in such things is irrelevant for the people in the days of Shakespeare, most notably King James I, did and so what was written was for an audience who would jump at such a comment. To use a more modern example, it is written like the scene in the film, Poltergeist, where the little girl shrilly says, “They’re here!!!” The effect on the audience would have been palpable at the time. It is meant to be the same today but we do not believe in things like that to the same extent any more.
So, she wants the spirits to come and “unsex” her, but what does that mean? Does it mean to take away all her sex? What then, does that mean? To answer that, you need to think about why old fashioned phrases like “the fairer sex” and “the weaker sex” were used on women through the ages by men, in our patriarchal society. For ages now, men have believed women to be weaker than men, fairer in their ways. Or, to put it more correctly, women have the capacity to love more, to be more tender, more able to show compassion and whilst this is true, even today, when one kills someone, it means you are stepping over the line from what is natural and good, into what is heinous and evil. So, before this speech, she is reading a letter from Macbeth about the witches and their prophecy and she is reading how they said Macbeth will later become King.
She knows that for him to become King, the current King has to die. She also knows that her husband has “the milk of human kindness” in him, or that he is too damn soft to be able to kill a King as good as Duncan to fulfill the prophecy. But she is not prepared either, to wait for King Duncan to croak. No, here is a woman who is driven by what she has just read. Thane of Glamis [pronounced Glarms] becomes Thane of Cawdor, just like the Weird Sisters said he would and then will become King. To her, the questions are when and how. So, she hatches a plan for her to kill Duncan at her castle in Inverness. Read the scene above and before you get to the bottom line, you will see what I refer to.
So, when she says “Come, you spirits that tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here and fill me from the crown to the toe top-full of direst cruelty,” she is asking for everything that makes her a woman to be taken from her. Take all my tenderness, compassion and love and turn it top to toe into “direst cruelty” so that she can commit the horrible act. “Make thick my blood,” she says and “stop up the access and passage to remorse” referring to the way we do something wrong and then feel guilty. She wants none of that. She wants Queenship and at any cost. She does not want the “compunctious visitings of nature” to come upon her [her natural state in other words] to “shake [her] fell purpose.” Her purpose now is to secure the throne for her husband.
Now, I wonder how many wives would get a letter like she does and then plot to kill the King? It is a nasty thing to do indeed; treasonous in every way. But she wants to be able to plan and execute the killing and then act as if there has nothing bad happened at her hands. It takes someone very special [in the vilest manner] to be able to kill another. So she calls on these spirits to “come to my woman’s breasts and take my milk for gall.” She is asking for her milk to be dried up. She wants no sign of moistness, or softness, no sign of female femininity getting in the way of what she has to do. So, this calling on these “murdering ministers” [note too the alliteration throughout this] is a sign that not only does she believe in such things like witchcraft [note the term used mentions a witch = female, another widely held belief at the time], but she is also willing to have them come and take control of her. That is what she is asking for here.
Another more modern take on this would be that she is telling herself to ‘switch off’ everything that she has about her personality that makes her tender, so that she can do the deed. She cannot wait for the night almost [note the night symbolizes darkness, which in turn symbolizes evil] and says “Come, thick night” with all your mist and fog [remember pathetic fallacy here?] as if to summon up the hosts of hell herself, to make such a change in her as to be completely overtaken by the demons she is calling upon. In essence, this will make her have no memory of what is to follow.
Now we all know that even though she calls on these spirits to work in her and to take away all feeling from her, she does go off the deep end towards the end of the play and kills herself, proving that she is not successful in summoning up enough reserve to kill the King. There is some element of softness still in her that festers and sends her mad with grief at what she has done.
See her wringing her hands before her death and wonder why.
So, when we assess what it is that Lady Macbeth is asking for here, do not get stuck on the idea that all this is to do with is some sexual thing. Seeing the greats like Dame Judi Dench act this scene [there are many different ones on on youtube] will make a young lad think one thing because of where some actresses use their arms and hands all over their bodies, but there is more to it than that because she then utters these words: “And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell, that my keen knife see not the wound it makes.”
MY CRUEL KNIFE!
At this point in the proceedings, she is the one with murder on her mind. She is to be the killer, according to these words. It is only later that things take a turn and Macbeth does the deed. At the end of this scene, or this excerpt at least, what we see is the desire of Lady Macbeth, the true villain of the play, desiring one thing, being prepared to use sorcery and witchcraft to get what she wants and someone for who becoming Queen is more important than life itself. She may ask for the spirits of the Underworld to come and tear her apart, taking away all her tender, feminine side, but what she does not realise is the danger she is putting herself in. Our lesson for the day then, is to be careful when analysing anything, for there is always more than one way to interpret a line of poetry, or in this case, the text of a Shakespeare play.