When you here the word villain, who pops into your head? For me I think about Lex Luther from superman or the joker from batman. I even think about Scar from the lion king or maybe Jafar from Aladin. All those characters share an ultimate sinister quality that really catapult in to the top of the villain list.
One more person we can add to that list is Lady Macbeth, from Shakespeare's famous tragedy. In this episode, we are going to take a look at some of the main events from act 1. And then focus in on Lady Macbeth’s actions that put her there at the top of the list.
One of the main reasons, that act 1 is so important to Macbeth, is because we find out a lot of the exposition. The exposition is where you learn about characters and you start to see the conflicts that are going to arise in the play. So let’s take a second to talk about the important characters that we meet in act 1 of Macbeth.
The first we meet is Macbeth. And he is the namesake for the play. What we need to know about Macbeth is that he his introduced to us as a war hero. In fact he is described as “O valiant cousin, worthy gentleman.” These are the words that the king uses to describe him. And in act 1, we see that he's come back from war. And in return for his hardwork, he is promoted from the thane of Glamis to the thane of Cawdor by the king. So we see somebody that’s well respected by the king.
The next character we’ll read about is Banquo. And Banquo’s kind of like Macbeth’s right hand man. Banquo though is a little bit more logical than Macbeth. We see in the scene in act 1 where they run into the witches in the forest. But Banquo is a little bit more questioning, and doesn’t take them quite as much at the word as Macbeth does. In fact he says “Were such things here we do speak about/ Or have we eaten on the insane root/ That takes the reason prisoner.”
So we see he really seems to balance Macbeth well, while Macbeths really wants to jump on the train of believing the witches prophesies. Banquo really is that voice of logic that evens out Macbeth. More characters we meet are the weird sisters, which is just another name for the witches. But one thing to note about the witches, is they really give this idea of mysticism.
They are kind of these creepy bunch of women that are described through Macbeth's eyes. He says. “What are these,/so withered, and so wild in their attire,/That look not like th’ inhabitants o’th’earth/.” So we see them described as almost other worldly. They are very creepy and they come him in act 1 to give Banquo and Macbeth some prophesies about what their futures hold.
Another thing that we see the witches say, which is really important, is they start this idea of foul is fair and fair is foul. So they start off this juxtaposition of what things look like, verses what they really are. And again, we kind of see that echoed in who they are. They look like maybe they are real people, but again we see they are described as people that don’t look like they are inhabitants o’th’ earth.
The final character that we meet in act 1, is Lady Macbeth. And Lady Macbeth here is shown really honoring and lauding her husband as he comes home. She says “Great Glamis,worth Cawdor,/ Greater than both by the all-hail hereafter.” So here when we first meet her, we really see her outmost support of Macbeth. And as you continue to read you’ll see that she takes this to the extreme.
So now that we’ve talked about the characters that we meet in act 1, let’s take a little bit of time to look at the main events that you want to make sure that you pick up as you read through act 1.
The first, is the first prophesy that the witches give to Banquo and to Macbeth. Here in act 1 remember we see the witches promise that Macbeth will first be made thane of Cawdor, and then eventually be made king of Scotland. The next thing that we hear them say, is that Banquo will beget a line of king. So they say he won’t be the actual king, but his sons will be kings. So these are really important things to mark, because they are going to come back in the play to motivate the characters into some of their actions.
The next thing we need to know, is the letter that Macbeth writes to Lady Macbeth. And in this letter, he communicates everything that the witches have said to him. And we get to see a little bit of inner monologue from Lady Macbeth where she starts to consider what potential this has. The fact that the witches have promised Macbeth that he has the ability to be the thane of Cawdor, and to also be the king. This is the first time where we really see the evil side of Lady Macbeth come out. As she begins to plan along with Macbeth, a way to murder the king, so that Macbeth can in fact, ensure that prophesy that the witches gave him.
And finally, we close Act 1 with King Duncan arrive in at Lady Macbeth and Macbeth's castle. So we can’t help but anticipate the fact that maybe this plan will actually come to fruition.
Now what we want to do is take a look at the most important character in act 1. And that’s Lady Macbeth. We really learn alot about Lady Macbeth’s character when we see her reaction to the letter that Macbeth has sent to home to her, telling her that the witches prophesy, that he would be the thane of Cawdor and also be made the king.
What we see is that she has shown her evil side, her ruthless side and her unfeminine side, which are all really big trademarks of Shakespeare's women. Let’s a look at how she has expressed herself to be evil. If you note in response to that letter she gets, she says to herself, kind of talking to her husband, "Hie thee hither,/ That I may pour my spirits in thine ear/ And chastise with the valor of my tongue/ All that impedes thee from the golden round..." And here we see the golden round being referred to is the crown. It's being the king. So she wants her husband to come closer, to come quickly, so that she can pour her spirits into the ear. And so that she can get rid of anything that’s going to stand in his way of being king. This really shows us that Lady Macbeth deep down has some evil in her. And that she is really motivated to help her husband gain that position of king.
So we also said that she was ruthless and again we see that, and this to me is on me of the most disturbing quotes from the play about Lady Macbeth. Her ruthlessness really shines through. When she is talking to Macbeth about whether or not he's actually going to go through with their plan to murder Duncan, he says.”You know I’m not sure I don’t know how I feel about it.” He kind of says well if fate will make me king, then let fate do it and I won’t have to do anything.
Lady Macbeth reacts rather angrily to this and she says to him "I have given suck, and know/ How tender ‘tis to love the babe that milks me./I would while it was smiling in my face,/Have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums/and dashed the brains out, had I so sworn/as you have done to this."
So we get this image here of Lady Macbeth breastfeeding a child, her own child, and she says, if I had promised that I would kill King Duncan, I would rip my nipple out of its mouth and bash its brain, the brains that are my own baby if I had promised to do it.
So we see this idea that she is quite ruthless, even to the point where she says that she would sacrifice her own child to keep promises to Macbeth.
Finally, we see her unfeminine aside coming out. And this is a really important trademark because we expect ladies, especially at Shakespeare’s time, to be quite feminine and very polite and very couth, and often balance out the haggard and the rough side of the males in the play.
However, we see a little bit of unexpected feature in this from Lady Macbeth. When she says "Come you spirits/ That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here/And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full/of direst cruelty. So it’s almost as if she is begging the spirits above to change her sex, to allow her to be as cruel as she can be without feeling guilt. Again, this is really unexpected from a woman in Shakespeare’s plays. We really start to see Lady Macbeth as this motivating force behind gathering the power and doing whatever it takes for Macbeth to become king.
So we took a look at some of the most important events from act 1 of Macbeth. And then we took a look at some of the characters that we met, focusing specifically on Lady Macbeth and her evil deeds. Looks like we can tack her on the list of the world’s most vial villains. Wonder what a character would look like if Disney made a movie out of Macbeth.