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Macbeth Distorted Echo: A Comparison of Lady Macbeth's Character Before/After

Updated on August 12, 2010

Lady Macbeth: Complete Personality Change

A Comparison:

At the beginning of the play, Lady Macbeth is in her conscious state: she is still in full possession of her mental faculties. She is very in control and strong. Each time she is confronted by an emotional upheaval, she tries to cover it up by pushing far, far down into herself, refusing to let her emotions get to her. Sooner or later though, after one too many blows, she will have to let all those pent-up feelings out. And so, in Act 2, Scene 5, we see all her troubles come spilling out and we witness a huge change in her character. Lady Macbeth goes terribly mad.

-         Lady Macbeth is always washing her hands in the first scene of Act 5. This is a dead giveaway of the dramatic change in her emotional state. At the beginning of the play, she is very nonchalant about washing her hands. She entirely doesn’t think back then about the possible guilt she may feel for the murder and she does not understand Macbeth wanting to wash his hands. Macbeth, looking at his hands, wishes they were not bloody, in both interpretations. First, he wishes that they were physically not bloody, for blood is a very staining substance and it could very well incriminate him and Lady Macbeth. He also wishes that he didn’t have Duncan’s blood on his hands. This means he wishes he hadn’t murdered him.  Lady Macbeth, however, only takes it in its very literal sense, betraying what she thinks, subconsciously. She says that, oh, a little water will clear this mess up. A little water will get rid of the blood. Possibly, she could also be thinking that a little water would get rid of her guilt. How wrong she was. Later, when she goes completely insane, she cannot stop rubbing her hands, over and over again, mimicking the action of washing them. She can still see the blood and no matter how much she rubs, she feels that she cannot take it off. What this shows is that she will never be rid of the guilt she feels for Duncan’s murder, and it overwhelms her. She keeps referring to her hands, and that they will never be clean. She can also smell it on her; she says at one point that all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten her hand. What she means is that nothing, not even riches or titles, can cover up her deep guilt.

-         We also witness the change in Lady Macbeth’s character when we compare how she reacts to shocks in the beginning to right before her death. Right after Duncan’s murder, it is Macbeth who is the jumpy one. When they hear a knocking at the door, he is very alarmed whereas the Lady is still quite calm. However, in her somnambulistic state later she is frantic when she hears knocking in her mind. She tries to hide, to leave her nightmare by going back to bed, thus escaping. However, in the earlier scene, she is very cool and orders Macbeth to put on his nightgown and be calm.

¨      In Act 2, Lady Macbeth meets with her husband after he returns from performing the deed. Macbeth clasps hands with Lady Macbeth, which gets Duncan’s blood all over his wife’s hands. Lady Macbeth then states that her hands are of the same color as her husbands’. Even after having touched the King’s blood, she convinces herself that she did not participate in Duncan’s murder and that her heart is pure. Lady Macbeth believes that she is completely innocent; therefore she is ashamed to have blood on her hands. As the play goes on, however, her innocent feeling dissipates and she is overcome by guilt, which leads her to insanity.  

¨      In Act 2, Lady Macbeth was not worried about the consequences of her actions. Her husband and herself were positive that they would never get caught and that they would live a happy life as King and Queen. However, in Act 5, she exclaims that they are now living in hell and that it was self-made. She is also beginning to worry about her soul and what will happen to her after she passes away. Lady Macbeth is not living in the fantasy world that she had imagined with her husband. She regrets her actions; the guilt is slowly taken over her. She is no longer the confident woman from Act 2. The proof is that the beginning, she never took into consideration the consequences of her actions, whereas at the end it is not only the consequences here on earth that she has to face but the ones after death also.

¨      In Act 5, Lady Macbeth all of a suddenly mentions Lady Macduff. She is thinking about what happened to the poor lady, and she also puts the guilt of her murder upon herself, because she feels guilt for her husband’s actions. She probably thinks that she created her husband into a murdering monster; she thinks that she has pushed him to his downfall. However, she never used to care about what happened to the people she knew. Her and her husbands’ happiness was all that mattered. In this scene we can see that she is not completely unsexed as she portrayed herself in Act 2. Lady Macbeth is beginning to lose herself. All the guilt is getting to her head; she is no longer capable of controlling her emotions. The real woman in her is coming to the surface.

- In Act 2, Lady Macbeth acts impulsively during Duncan’s murder. She is so sure of herself and of what she is doing that she is able to take decisions on a whim, for example, her taking the daggers back up then slathering the blood all over the guards. However, in Act 5, Lady Macbeth goes over again and again the murder scene in her sleep as if she were trying to reassure herself. When she sleepwalks, she tells her husband to go get his robe and to look less pale. It seems as if she is trying to reassure herself by attempting to make sure that all will go as planned. Her insecurity shows through in a very obvious manner. She is fretful, and no longer cool, calm and collected as she was earlier. We all know that it is too late and that what was done can no longer be undone.

-         At the beginning she has nothing but contempt for Macbeth when he mentions his weaknesses, and he was so frazzled he could hardly think straight. He confesses that he messed up and forgot to put the daggers back. She keeps telling him to not take things so seriously, to not be so disturbed. She is the one taking decisions, the one ordering Macbeth about. It is as is they change roles later on. She is the one disturbed, overwhelmed by the ordeal.

To conclude, Act 5, Scene 1 is the distorted echo of Act 2 Scene 2. The roles have been reversed, and we see now how different Lady Macbeth’s character is. From beginning to end, Lady Macbeth’s character greatly, greatly changes. Shakespeare, in doing this, wanted to highlight Lady Macbeth’s insanity by showing the complete opposite of how she reacts at the beginning to how she reacts at the end. Lady Macbeth is a very complex character: her complete psychological change is astounding and probably the most important of all the characters in Macbeth.


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