Switching Positions (Macbeth) Essay, Research Paper
In Shakespeare’s tragedy, Macbeth, the characters and the roles they play are critical to its plot and theme, and therefore many of Shakespeare’s characters are well developed and complex. Two of these characters are the protagonist, Macbeth, and his wife, Lady Macbeth. They play interesting roles in the tragedy, and over the course of the play, their relationship changes and their roles are essentially switched.
At the beginning of the play, they treat each other as equals. They have great concern for each other, as illustrated when Macbeth races to tell Lady Macbeth the news about the witches and she immediately begins plotting how to gain for her husband his desire to be king. At this point, Lady Macbeth is the resolute, strong woman, while Macbeth is portrayed as her indecisive, cowardly husband. He does have ambition, but at this point, his conscience is stronger than that ambition. Lady Macbeth explains this characteristic of her husband in Act I, Scene v, when she says, “Yet do I fear thy nature; it is too full o’ th’ milk of human kindness to catch the nearest way.”
The next stage of change developing in the characters of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth is in Act II. This is the act in which Macbeth kills King Duncan. Macbeth’s character change is apparent because it is obvious that he has given in to his ambition and has murdered the king. He is not entirely changed, though, because he is almost delirious after he has committed the crime. He exclaims, “Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood clean from my hand? No; this my hand will rather the multitudinous seas incarnadine, making the green one red.” He believes that instead of the ocean cleaning his hands, his hands would turn the ocean red. Macbeth’s role has changed somewhat but not entirely, since he has committed the crime but his conscience is still apparent after the murder. Lady Macbeth’s role similarly changes somewhat in Act II. The reader sees a crack in her strong character when she tells Macbeth in Scene ii of Act II that she would have murdered Duncan herself if he had not resembled her father as he slept. Her boldness is still evident, though, when she calms Macbeth after the murder and believes “a little water clears us of this deed.” Unlike the roles of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, their relationship remains unchanged from Act I to II. Their relationship is still very close as seen through Duncan’s murder – a product of teamwork.
At the end of Act III, both the roles and the relationship of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth have reached the final stage of their change. Now that Duncan is dead and Macbeth is hopelessly headed toward a life of immorality, Lady Macbeth fades into the background. Macbeth takes it upon himself in Act III to plot Banquo’s murder without consulting his wife because he wants to protect her from the corruption that he has involved himself with. His role is now completely changed and there is no turning back for him. As Macbeth goes off on his own course during this time, Lady Macbeth’s guilt is overwhelming and, cut off from him, she descends into madness. Her guilt emerges in Act III, Scene ii when she says she would rather be dead, and it grows from then on until her death. Lady Macbeth’s character change is also evident in Act III, Scene ii when she backs out of Macbeth’s mysterious murder plan and tells him, “You must leave this.” The relationship between the couple is being torn apart by this time in Macbeth. They are headed in separate directions – Macbeth towards a life of evil and Lady Macbeth towards insanity and grief.
As Shakespeare developed the characters of Macbeth and his wife, their changing roles ironically ended up resembling the other one’s role. At the beginning of the tragedy, Macbeth was the hesitant character with a strong conscience, while Lady Macbeth was powerful and firm. However, by the time these two characters were completely changed, Macbeth ended up being decisive and greedy, as Lady Macbeth turned out to be weak since her guilty conscience drove her insane. Shakespeare’s exchange of roles in Macbeth is clever yet unusual, but after all, “things aren’t always what they seem.”