The Macbeths’ Fall

The biblical story of the fall of man has been studied for thousands of years. Many scholars have concluded that the serpent was culpable for Adam and Eve’s transgression. Without the serpent’s persuasion, Adam and Eve might never have tasted the forbidden fruit. However, others maintain that Eve is responsible for man’s fall; not only was she too weak to resist temptation, but she also caused the downfall of Adam. Shakespeare seems to agree with this interpretation. In Macbeth, he cleverly portrays Lady Macbeth as an Eve who leads Macbeth into damnation.

Lady Macbeth first arrives on stage alone, and proceeds to give a chilling soliloquy. In an apostrophe to Macbeth regarding his foretold ascent to the crown, she declares “Yet do I fear thy nature, it is too full o’ th’ milk of human kindness to catch the nearest way.” This statement implies that Lady Macbeth wants Macbeth to attain the crown immediately, and to seize it by unscrupulous means.

Still within the same soliloquy, she entreats Macbeth: “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…” The imagery of Lady Macbeth pouring her spirits into Macbeth’s ear evokes the scene of the serpent whispering in Eve’s ear. The word “tongue” emphasizes the image of a serpent flicking its tongue into Macbeth’s ear. Thus, Shakespeare depicts Lady Macbeth as both the serpent and Eve, eliminating the possibility of transferring the blame from Lady Macbeth to a serpent which tempts her.

When Lady Macbeth asks Macbeth when King Duncan will leave their castle, he replies “Tomorrow, as he purposes.” She assures him: “O, never shall sun that morrow see.” From this interchange, Macbeth clearly did not plan to murder Duncan, at least not that very night.

Instead, Lady Macbeth is the one who passionately insists upon it. She even requests Macbeth to “put this night’s great business into my dispatch,” accepting complete responsibility for the deed; and she entreats him to “look like th’ innocent flower, but be the serpent under’t.” Using this simile, Shakespeare again alludes to the biblical serpent. Although Lady Macbeth directs this advice to Macbeth, she ironically describes herself. Alas for Macbeth, he cannot penetrate his wife’s beauty to perceive the wickedness that slithers underneath.

Later that night, while Duncan is eating dinner, the Macbeths discuss their plan to murder him. Macbeth asserts that “we will proceed no further in this business.” He whole-heartedly opposes the plan. However, Lady Macbeth will not relent. She first ridicules Macbeth’s womanish fear, and then describes to him how she will drug Duncan’s guards, after which: “What cannot you and I perform upon th’ unguarded Duncan? What not put upon his spongy officers…?” During Lady Macbeth’s lengthy and manipulative speech, Macbeth responds with comparatively few words. Shakespeare’s decision to give Lady Macbeth disproportionately more lines reinforces Lady Macbeth’s role as the instigator and Macbeth’s role as a passive participant. Her words overwhelm his both literally and figuratively, and he finally succumbs to the flower’s beauty and the serpent’s charms.

The Oxford Shakespeare: The Complete Works 2nd Edition

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16 thoughts on “The Macbeths’ Fall

  1. One of the best Macbeth’s I have seen was Michael Sheen at the Young Vic theatre a year or so ago. It was fantastically staged and I think it went down well with a lot of folk.

    Good read, thanks 🙂

  2. This is a great analysis, I definitely got the sense of Lady Macbeth’s power in the recent production starring Claire Foy in that role. As the only Macbeth I’ve seen I don’t know if it was the best, but I very much enjoyed it (if you can enjoy a tragedy…)
    I’d be very grateful if you could give my review a read, any feedback would be really appreciated. 🙂

  3. A good analysis. I agree that Lady Macbeth is the driving force at the beginning of the play however, as the drama progresses it is Macbeth who takes centre stage. Later it is Lady Macbeth who overcome with grief and guilt kills herself giving rise to Macbeth’s wonderful “tomorrow, and tomorrow and tomorrow” speech.

    • Thanks for your comment Drew. Yes, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth take drastically different moral trajectories after Duncan’s murder. This post merely analyzed the catalyst for the murder, and the similarities between the Biblical story of Man’s Fall and the play.

      In the future, I hope to post an analysis of Macbeth’s subsequent descent into depravity. His “tomorrow” speech is truly haunting, and one of the most memorable speeches in all of Shakespeare.

      • I look forward to reading your further analysis. I haden’t previously considered Macbeth in the context of Adam and Eve’s fall from grace although, having read Paradise Lost I should have done so!

      • I think the comparison between The Fall is even more poignant when we know Lady Macbeth’s fate. She is not as in control as she thinks – just like Eve. Maybe it’s Eve’s fault, maybe it isn’t – I’ll leave that to the theologians – but Eve’s illusion of control is shattered and she discovers herself naked, afraid, ashamed…

    • Ah yes, the Shakespeare authorship question. Everyone seems to have an opinion on that topic. However, I know with 100% certainty who the true author is, but “Zounds, an I were at the strappado, or all the racks in the world, I would not tell you on compulsion.” 🙂

  4. Very nice. I do agree with your premise that it was Lady Macbeth who wanted Duncan dead but the thought crossed Macbeth’s mind, too. In his first aside after meeting the witches, his thoughts jumped to murder right away. Not being made of the same stuff as his wife, the thought terrified him. (Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair, And make my seated heart knock at my ribs.) When most people get good news, they celebrate. These two plan felonies. Match made in heaven.

    • Thanks for your comment Kathleen 🙂

      Yes, I recognize that Macbeth’s first thought after listening to the Witches was of murder. However, during the feast at Inverness, Macbeth tells Lady Macbeth that “we will proceed no further in this business.” He whole-heartedly opposes the plan at that time, but Lady Macbeth subsequently convinces him to “eat the forbidden fruit.”

      This post’s thesis is that Lady Macbeth is ultimately responsible for the downfall of the Macbeths. I do not deny that Macbeth thought about murdering Duncan, but I argue that he would not have killed Duncan were it not for Lady Macbeth’s manipulation. Of course, this is only my interpretation, and there are myriad plausible interpretations, which is what makes reading and re-reading Shakespeare such an enjoyable activity.

  5. Pingback: SHAKESPEARE: Macbeth | Great Books of the Western World

  6. Man, you cover some serious literature–your blog puts my reading history to shame!

    I studied MacBeth in high school–my favorite passage is MacBeth’s final soliloquy, which ends with, “Life…is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

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