Macbeth
William Shakespeare
Contributed by Sharon Fleming

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Act 1 Scene 5
Summary

Lady Macbeth reads a letter in which Macbeth describes the witches’ prophecies. Then she receives word that King Duncan will visit soon. Upon receiving this information, Lady Macbeth decides to murder the king during his visit. She feels determined to hasten Macbeth’s prophesied reign, but she worries he lacks the willpower to commit murder. Macbeth, she says, has “too much milk of human kindnesses.” When he returns from King Duncan’s court, Lady Macbeth tells him of her desire to kill the king.

Analysis

Lady Macbeth reads Macbeth’s letter alone, a notable staging. Just as she stands alone when she learns of the prophecy, she remains headstrong and forceful in her efforts to make it come to pass. Interestingly, Macbeth’s letter omits the prophecy concerning Banquo. Perhaps it reflects of the pain or fear Macbeth feels, either toward the prophecy or his wife. Yet, Macbeth describes her as his “dearest partner of greatness.” While she becomes his partner in crime, her role in his life increases as she takes charge of controlling his interests and actions.

After she finishes reading the letter, Lady Macbeth starts scheming. In fact, her language patterns, such as the repetition of “shalt be,” mirror those of the witches. Lady Macbeth herself has turned into a specialist of fate, much like the witches. She ponders Macbeth’s weaknesses, thinking he is “too full with the milk of human consideration” to contemplate murder. Lady Macbeth doubts her husband has was it takes to kill, so she becomes determined to force his hand at it.

Lady Macbeth stands out as one of literature’s most infamous female characters. As she stands alone on stage, she reveals her deepest thoughts, which are laced with symbolism of death and destruction. When she speaks, in one of her monologues, of her “fell purpose,” she describes her expectations in bizarre and terrifying terms. From the beginning, she asks the spirits to take away her of her feminine virtues, to thicken her blood, and to remove her capacity to sob.  She also asks that those same spirits ought to suckle her, transforming what ought to be her mother's milk to “gall” or bitterness. Finally, she calls upon the night itself to conceal her activities in a “blanket,” words that mirror those of Macbeth’s in the previous scene. Through their shared language, Shakespeare creates a verbal bond between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth that holds up throughout the play.

Macbeth enters the castle, and his wife greets him with words like those that the witches had used in a previous encounter. Lady Macbeth uses the expression “all hail” to address Macbeth, something the witches also said to him. The couple’s next conversation happens in a rush, hurried and urgent. Shakespeare employs half-line breaks to describe the play’s dramatic turn of events.

Continuing with the conversation, it is essential to note that Lady Macbeth uses figurative language to communicate some complex issues to Macbeth. She says Macbeth’s face appears like book upon which men may read strange things. Whereas Macbeth tends to conceal his plans and desires, Lady Macbeth appears straightforward, openly discussing her desires in front of the audience. At the end of the scene, Lady Macbeth expresses resolve. “Leave the rest to me,” she says, indicating that she will take charge of what happens next.

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