Macbeth by William Shakespeare

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This passage is often used to illustrate Lady Macbeth’s inhumanity, and it is indeed inhuman to contemplate such an action. Properly understood, however, her lines here show her determination to suppress her humanity entirely and completely when it comes to a matter of naked willpower – in this case, the keeping of an oath. The same violent rejection of nature is taken to a level of strict impossibility when, in her second soliloquy, she wills to become a man – ‘unsex me here’ (I.v.41) she begs her ministering demons. Lady Macbeth’s determination to be something she is not makes an interesting comparison with Shakespeare’s male character Caius Martius Coriolanus, whose pride is such that he wills to become more than an ordinary man, taking on the characteristics of both a ‘god’ and a ‘dragon’ . Both Lady Macbeth and Caius Martius act against nature – something that never leads to a happy outcome in Shakespeare’s plays. The pattern with both is not dissimilar, despite their obvious differences as characters: for four acts they display quite inhuman strength and resilience and then their supposedly stern and immoveable characters suddenly cave in, becoming subservient to what is natural for a man or woman. Ironically, the ‘weak’ Macbeth is in a better state than his deranged wife at the end of the play, but by then he has schooled himself in horrors, so as to tame the imaginative faculty that had before dominated all his thoughts and actions.

The most dramatic and memorable instance of Macbeth being compelled to act by an image in his mind comes in Act II, Scene i, immediately before the murder of Duncan:

Is this a dagger, which I see before me,
The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee:–
I have thee not, and yet I see thee still. (II.i.33-5)

To risk stating the obvious, there is no dagger visible here to anyone other than Macbeth. It is conceivable that such a weapon could have been suspended somehow over the Jacobean stage, but quite impossible for an audience to see Macbeth put his hand straight through it, as these lines clearly indicate that he does. This is a ‘dagger of the mind’ ( Ibid ., 37) – and that is an important part of its significance. It is an impossible mental image and it fascinates Macbeth. He cannot help himself: he instantly grabs for it, and that impulsive action is his imaginative consent to the murder he is about to commit. That murder, viewed objectively, is a rather humdrum act of political assassination, one which could be paralleled by any number of similar killings in any century of human history. Such murders are usually cold-blooded affairs: a matter of what a Mafioso might term ‘business arrangements’.

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William Shakespeare