The Lady Lives

“The queen, my lord, is dead.”  

Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 5, abruptly announced the death of Macbeth’s nefarious queen with these words spoken by Seyton.  But is she really dead?  

In the context of the play, yes.  In the context of literary and popular history, the answer is not so straightforward.  The spirit of Lady Macbeth continues to be a powerful image of ambition, subtle evil, and mental turmoil.

Allusions to Shakespeare’s Lady are widespread in popular culture and literature alike.  

For an example of the fascination of this character, check out the book Lady Macbeth by Susan Frasier King (2007). Read a review here.   

“Look like the innocent flower, but be the serpent under’t” (Act I, Scene 5) has become a catchphrase for treachery and seemingly innocuous evils.  The allusions range in topic from salary inequality in sports (see this forum thread) to book titles.  Consider the 1973 murder mystery The Serpent Under It, by Edith Taylor and The Serpent Under, published in South Africa by Rob Marsh.

Then there is the sleepwalking scene, with Lady Macbeth’s fixation on the blood she thinks she sees on her hands: “Out, damn’d spot! out, I say!” (5.1).  Apparently, she was not seeing age spots.  I might not have made that connection but for this article about skin treatments published in the Houston Chronicle.  This scene can also represent the idea of obsessive compulsive behavior, or simply seeing something that is not there.  A blog on the American Civil War battle of Bull Run uses this metaphor. 

The issue of gender is powerfully portrayed in the speech in Act 1, Scene 5 when Lady Macbeth begs the spirits “that tend on mortal thoughts” to “unsex me here” in order to allow her cruelty to run unhindered.  This article in The Harvard Crimson uses the image of Lady Macbeth to discuss the (non)role of gender in leadership.  In the U.K., to call a political figure a “Lady Macbeth” is a controversial act, at once labeling the individual strong and potentially “fiendlike”.

“The milk of human kindness” that Macbeth possesses in too great quantities (Act 1, Scene 5) has gone on to appear in dozens of places.  

It is nearly always used in a positive context, rather than that in which it originally appeared in Macbeth.  In the Albert Finney film Scrooge, based on A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, the Ghost of Christmas Present forces Scrooge to drink it.  Charitable projects around the world have also used the phrase (see Google News). 

The list could go on.  Whether as a cautionary tale or an example of strength directed wrongly, Lady Macbeth’s brief, five-act life remains potent as a cultural phenomenon.  John Mullan of The Guardian says it well: “Subtle as well as baleful, Shakespeare’s Scottish queen is no cardboard character.”  Instead, she is a reminder that evil always leaves its mark, on the hand or on the mind, or on the heart.

[EDIT – 9/25/08] See? Once again, the age spots…


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