Lady Macbeth: Fearing Painted Devils

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Many people will have an idea of what Lady Macbeth looks like in their mind’s eye. This image of Vivien Leigh best illustrates the way I tend to think of Lady Macbeth. The photograph comes at a crucial moment as she takes the daggers – still warm with King Duncan’s blood – from her husband and returns them to the scene of the regicide: ‘Infirm of purpose! / Give me the daggers.’ (2.2.50-1). This turns out to be her worst mistake. What she sees burns into her memory and torments her sleep.

Framing an extraordinary scene of ultimate breakdown and penetrating insight, the ordinary and loyal duty of the Doctor and Gentlewoman provide a bridge from Lady Macbeth’s nightmares to the audience. One of the pleasures of the great sleepwalking scene, when we see Lady Macbeth trying to wash imaginary blood from her hands, is how far the audience can make connections between what Lady Macbeth sees and hears in her sleep, and what we saw her do earlier. Her observation that ‘Hell is murky’ (5.1.34) is both comic in its degree of understatement, and utterly terrifying in it being a voice of humanity struggling against its own personal torment. But it is her observation ‘Yet-who-would-have-thought-the-old-man-to-have-had-so-much-blood-in-him?’ (5.1.36-8) that is perhaps the most disarming. Her eyewitness account patters out in monosyllables, which the actor can speak as slowly or as quickly as the moment warrants. Here Lady Macbeth refers to that imagined, off-stage reality that only she was privy to when she returned with the daggers and smeared Duncan’s blood over the sleeping grooms. Her sigh, signified only by the exclamatory ‘O, O, O,’ in the text (5.1.49-50) can be as terrible or as pathetic as the actor chooses. Dame Judi Dench makes it last for a shattering twenty-seven seconds in the Granada Television version. Harriet Walter described her approach to the moment as wanting: ‘the audience to feel they were eavesdropping on Lady Macbeth cocooned in her private Hell’. Here we see Lady Macbeth terrified of the dark, like a child, always wanting light by her. Her journey from having scorned Macbeth because he was afraid to return the daggers – ‘the sleeping and the dead / Are but as pictures. ’Tis the eye of childhood / That fears a painted devil’ (2.2.51-3) – is now at an end. We even hear a pathetic moment of tragic childish nursery rhyme: ‘The Thane of Fife had a wife, where is she now?’ (5.1.40-1). To paraphrase the famous essay by the great Sir Francis Bacon, Lady Macbeth fears death (both her own and other peoples’) as children fear the dark. Death, even the very smell of it, has become the same as the dark to her, and both are equally frightening.

The great eighteenth-century actress Sarah Siddons (1755-1831), another great Lady Macbeth, felt every bit of the fear that the play can instil when, at the age of twenty, she was studying for the first of her three portrayals of the role over thirty years (1779, 1794, for the opening of the new Drury Lane Theatre, and 1809, for the new Covent Garden Theatre). She writes:

‘I went on with tolerable composure, in the silence of the night (a night I can never forget), till I came to the assassination scene, when the horrors of the scene rose to a degree that made it impossible for me to go farther. I snatched up my candle, and hurried out of the room in a paroxysm of terror.’

That’s what reading Shakespeare late at night can do to you. You have been warned. As a character, Lady Macbeth continues to haunt my imagination and to shape my understanding of Shakespeare’s play.

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Author:Paul Edmondson

Head of Research and Knowledge and Director of the Stratford-upon-Avon Poetry Festival for The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Follow Paul on Twitter @paul_edmondson

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