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From Tait's Magazine.
CHARACTER OF LADY MACBETH.
BY JAMES AUGUSTUS ST. JOHN,
Author of the “ History of the Manners and Customs of Ancient Greece,” &c. &c.
From Shakspeare's days to our own, criti- | person; and his sons being too youthful and cism seems to have mistaken the character of inexperienced to fill his place, he is compelled Lady Macbeth. She is supposed to be a to intrust the command of his armies to fierce mere fiend, untameably savage, who plays the and ambitious kinsmen, as likely to feel conpart of tempter to her husband ; or rather, tempt for his weakness, as jealousy of each sways his will like an irresistible fury, to grat-other's reputation and advancement. We ify some mysterious passion, tou hideous to behold them, flushed with victory, returning be confounded with ordinary cruelty. That, at the head of their clans, over a desolate with the play before them, persons should be heath, towards the Court. With what able to arrive at such a conclusion, appears to thoughts their minds were pregnant may be me not a little strange. Everything in the conjectured from the effect of their interview poet's unparalleled creation makes against it. with the weird sisters, which suggests at once I admit at once that she is wicked ; that in the easy transition from victory to a throne, the worst crime of which human nature can and begets, in one at least, supreme indifferbe guilty-the crime of breaking into the ence respecting the path by which it was to sanctuary of life—she has participated. But be mounted. a deliberate examination of all her acts and There is, perhaps, in this age too little words, motives, sentiments, and feelings, will, faith, for it to appreciate fully Shakspeare's I think, compel us to reverse our judgment, supernatural agencies. Nothing limits so and re-admit her into the circle of the human much as skepticism the resources of art, or family.
the enjoyment which its creations supply. With the progress and action of the great We must consent, however, to contemplate drama in which Lady Macbeth plays her the witches from Shakspeare's point of view, part, everbody is familiar. Almost from the if we would taste all the pleasure to be decradle we have conversed and sympathized rived from this play, and behold in them unwith Banquo, experienced pity and horror at earthly intelligences gifted with prophetic the fate of Duncan, and hovered over the deep powers, but inclined, by the laws of their nagulfs of remorse and fear which yawned be- ture, to incite to the perpetration of evil. neath the Thane of Glammis and the partner Still, it would be unphilosophical to infer that of his blood-stained throne. Yet, to render the original idea of his crime came to Macbeth our speculations intelligible, we must glance from without. He, doubtless, brought the over the principal circumstances which form germ along with him from the field of battle, the ground-work of the tragedy.
and the intimation of the weird sisters did no Scotland, a prey to foreign invasion and more than impregnate and quicken it. Then, civil broils, presents, when Macbeth first however, it was that he became fully conscious comes befores us, the startling picture of a of his own flagitious design, and began to look country overlaid with superstition and bar- it steadily in the face. He compared his barism, illuminated dimly in parts by intel youth and energy, his prowess in the field, lectual light; but, upon the whole, gloomy, his hardihood on the march, his influence frowning, and every way calculated to inspire over chiefs and clans, derived not from inert terror. An aged king sits upon the throne, tradition, but from personal qualities, with prevented by years from conforming to the the helpless decrepitude of the reigning practice of the times, by taking the field in king; and easily persuaded himself that any
course would be defensible, by which he could crowning beauty and excellence of the finest transfer the sceptre to his own vigorous work of art in the world. Macbeth, we will hands, and thus strike terror into the enemies suppose, has already set out for Inverness of Scotland, who now despised the unchival Castle, and knowing that the King, with all rous inactivity of Duncan. He suddenly re- his principal courtiers, is at his heels, rides as membered, too, that he had a young wife in fast as his horse will carry him, not simply to the Castle of Inverness, upon whose fair brow make preparation for a monarch's welcome, the golden round of sovereignty would sit but to consult with the fair recluse, his wife, gracefully. As soon, therefore, as he could on the “ bloody business” which he himself escape from the bustle of public rejoicings, he had already planned. While yet some disdisclosed to her adroitly, in a letter, his am tance from the castle, he finds irresistible bitious hopes and prospects, dwelling more weariness overtakes him, and therefore sends especially on the partial fulfilment of the forward a messenger, who, being poor, has no weird sisters' prophecy, and artfully exciting right to consult his aching limbs, but must on her thirst of power, that it might react after at the bidding of his superior, whether able to wards upon his own.
outlive the fatigue or not. Introduced thus, by report as it were, to When news of the approaching royal visit this marvellous character, we almost immedi- is brought by this swift messenger to the ately experience the fascination of her genius. castle, Lady Macbeth, who had been brooding Never did poet display greater art than over the dream of sovereignty, is so startled Shakspeare in the delineation of Lady Mac- at the announcement, that she calls the atbeth and her husband. All her evil qualities tendant who informs her of it mad. She is blaze forth and burst open at once, after shocked by his abrupt entrance and message, which the baleful fire burns more and more as though the dreadful thoughts which she faintly and dimly as it retreats from us, until | herself could behold in all their naked deformit is at length extinguished in space : whereas ity, were likewise visible to him. It is only, Macbeth's wickedness, weak and vacillating however, the upper currents of her sympaat first, dilates and strengthens as it proceeds, thies, running on a level with the throne, consuming and bearing down everything be- that are chilled and polluted: those lower fore it, till the moment of the final catas ones through which the loftiest natures feel trophe.
their kindred to common clay, were still as It would be a strange delight that a man warm as ever. Against all pity for the good should reserve for himself, were he to defer old Scottish king, who tottered between her the reading or seeing of “ Macbeth” till his husband and the sceptre, her breast was as mind had acquired its maturity. He would hard as steel. But she could emerge from then, perhaps, be qualified to relish the high- her schemes of greatness to think of the est pleasure that mere human literature has humblest of her servants' comfort. to bestow ; for, assuredly, there is nothing in ancient or in modern times which stands su
“ Enter an Attendant. perior, as a work of art, to this. It consti “ Atten.— The king comes here to-night. tutes the apex of Shakspeare's writings, and “ Lady M.
Thou’rt mad to say it. is to Christendom what the Olympian Zeus is not thy master with him ? who, were't so, was to the Pagan world—the most glorious Would have informed for preparation. embodiment of the principle of art, to enjoy
“ Atten. --So please you, it is true; our thane which, for the time at least, is to be happy. One of my fellows had the speed of him;
is coming : But we too often mar the effect which this Who, almost dead for breath, had scarcely more drama is calculated to produce by premature Than would make up his message. study, or being too early present at its scenic “ Lady M. Give him tending ; representation. But our impatience is par- He brings great news.” donable. It is natural to thirst for that which is most excellent; and they who have been Now, the moment Duncan arrives at Inveronce made alive to the enchantment of poetry, ness, the fates, who have hitherto stood dimly can scarcely be expected to postpone indefi- in the back-ground, come prominently fornitely the beholding of its most glorious ward, and are beheld, though invisible to visions.
him, swiftly weaving the web of his destiny. What “Macbeth” is to the rest of Shak. By the hands of his assassins he is led into speare's writings, and Shakspeare himself to the banqueting-hall; the gleam of daggers other dramatic poets, Lady Macbeth is to the mingles with their smiles; the beautiful ruby play in which she appears ; that is, she is the lips which, in conformity with custom, he
appears to have pressed on entering the a woman, that her eloquence lies in her sex, castle, were ere midnight to pronounce
his that the influence she exercises is based on doom. Shakspeare's imagination makes no innumerable acts of love and tenderness previfigure at a feast. He appears to assemble ously performed, by which she has thoroughhis guests to an entertainment of the Barme- ly fascinated her husband, and made him bend cide, where imaginary dishes rest on unreal to her, as with the authority of a superior tables. The mental exigencies of his nature nature. For evil or for good, his soul, we absorb the physical. Vehement passion has see, is in her hands, and experience the little appetite, and when a soul is to be vio- greatest terror at beholding her link herself lently unsphered, and sent before its time with the infernal powers to urge him towards into the untravelled wastes of eternity, he his doom and perdition. experiences little inclination to descant on the excellencies of sack or venison pasty. Long
“ Macbeth.- If it were done, when 'tis done, before the deed is done, the gloom of mur
then 'twere well der fills the Castle of Inverness. We smell
It were done quickly: If the assassination
Could trammel up the consequence, and catch, Duncan's blood through a whole act, and
With its surcease, success; that but this blow shudder at the dagger which haunts our fancy Might be the be-all and the end-all here, as palpably as it does that of Macbeth. Fain
Here only on this bank and shoal of timewould we put the confiding old man upon We'd jump the life to come. But, in these cases, his guard. The noise of the revelry offends We still have judgment here; that we teach us. If he cannot be saved, the desire still Bloody instructions, which, being taught, return presents itself, that he should be warned for
To plague the inventor: This even-handed justice
Commends the ingredients of our poisond chalice preparation, and not thrust unconsciously
To our own lips. He's here in double trust; out of the world with all his imperfections on First, as I am his kinsman and his subject, his head.
Strong both against the deed ; then, as his host, In dramatic poetry there is no scene su Who should against his murderer shut the door, perior in grandeur or depth of interest to the Not bear the knife myself. Besides, this Duncan ninth and tenth of the first act of this play.
Hath borne his faculties so meek, hath been Leaving the King with his wife in the ban
So clear in his great office, that his virtues queting-room, the Thane of Glammis, disqui- The deep damnation of his taking off:
Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued, against eted by the consciousness of his own projects, And pity, like a naked new-born babe, comes forth to think alone in an empty room Striding the blast, or Heaven's cherubim, horsed in the castle. The murder, which is as yet Upon the sightless coursers of the air, but phantasy, seems to be pressed upon
Shall blow the horrid deed in every eye, soul by destiny. He wrestles, as it were,
That tears shall drown the wind.--I have no spur with his own intentions, desires, and fears—is
To prick the sides of my intent, but only beckoned forward by ambition, and held back
Vaulting anbition, which o'erleaps itself,
And falls on the other side. by some remnant of moral sense.
He sophisticates with his own understanding,
Enter LADY MACBETH. sees the pathways to heaven and hell dis How now, what news ? tinctly traced out before his mind's eye, the
“ Lady M.-He hath almost supp'd: Why have
you left the chamber ? one comparatively obscure, but unsullied by
“ Macbeth.-Hath he ask'd for me ? crime, the other strewed with sceptres and
· Lady M.
Know you not, he has ? diadems, but intermingled with blood. Clouds
“ Macbeth. -We will proceed no farther in this of perplexity fall upon him. He longs to stop business : the motion of the heart which he has left He hath honor'd me of late; and I have bought securely beating at his hospitable board, but Golden opinions from all sorts of people, apprehends the rebound of the instrument Which should be worn now in the newest gloss,
Not cast aside so soon. which he means to wield in the process. While in this state of vacillation, his wife
“ Lady M. Was the hope drunk
Wherein you drest yourself ? hath it slept since ? approaches him like one of the Erinnyes, and And wakes it now, io look so green and pale by a mixture of love, scorn, and invincible At what it did so freely ? From this time, mental power, totally eradicates his scruples, Such I account thy love. Art thon afraid strips him of pity and remorse, and soars
To be the same in thine own act and valor
Wouldst thou have that before his imagination like a fiery Nemesis As thou art in desire ?
Which thou esteem'st the ornament of life, commissioned to bring fate to mortals. The
And live a coward in thine own esteem; matchless art of this scene is indescribably
Letting 1 dare not, wait upon I would, absorbing. Throughout every line of Lady Like the poor cat i' the adage ? Macbeth's speeches, we feel that she is “ Macbeth.
I dare do all that may become a man:
eyes, an extremely lofty forehead, and a proWho dares do more, is none.
fusion of auburn or chesnut hair. Of course, “ Lady M. What beast was't then,
when the poet himself has purposely, as it That made you break this enterprise to me?”
would seem, left us in doubt, all we can do is Addison prefaces his description of Sir to substitute for certainty conjecture. AbRoger de Coverly with the remark, that as
sorbed by the mental qualities of his own soon as we experience an interest in the for- creation, Shakspeare did not in this case, as in tunes of an individual, we desire to know most others, dwell rapturously on the bodily something about his person, inquire whether presence of his heroine. He treats her as an he was tall or short, fair or swarthy, young or
incarnate intelligence, wearing, indeed, a old, rich or poor. It is the same thing with blandishments and beauty for its empire.
woman's form, but depending not on female a remarkable character in a play, when the Invested with the most consummate mental poet has not been communicative on such matters
. They who have seen Lady Macbeth accomplishments—with eloquence, with meton the stage, imagine, of course, they have a physical subtlety, with impassioned logie, seen the Lady Macbeth of Shakspeare. But above all things, with an indomitable force of have they? Let them look carefully into
will—she comes forward to reign over all
around her like a queen. the tragedy, and they will find that the poet has told them next to nothing on the point
But are we, nevertheless, to believe that in question. It is the imagination of the Shakspeare, while bestowing on her all this actress that has interpreted the idea of the intellectual beauty, thought she might dispoet. Mrs. Siddons, swayed by a popular pense with the inferior beauties of form and conception, represented Lady Macbeth as a
youth? In my opinion, the personal loveli
ness of Lady Macbeth is felt throughout the dark woman, with black hair and eyes, and
That she was, at any rate, a young past, I believe, the flower of her youth.
play. This idea has become traditional on the stage, *
woman, with a child at the breast at the very so that even Miss Vandenhoff, notwithstand- period of the murder, seems probable from ing the independent character of her genius,
her own language. She saysand her careful study of Shakspeare, in act
“ Come to my woman's breasts, ing adopts it.
And take my milk for gall, you murdering minBefore we proceed to witness those scenes isters, of the tragedy, the effect of which may be Wherever in your sightless substances to wrap our heroine in preternatural gloom, You wait on nature's mischief !” and present her like a fury to our imagination, let us look a little into the probabilities
an idea which could only suggest itself to a of the case. Is there any necessary connec woman then giving suck. Again, from a tion between a dark complexion and crime ?
speech of Macbeth, we may infer that she Does it appear from the history of our race had had few children, but might reasonably that moral guilt envelopes itself in physical expect many, because he tells herugliness? Is it proved by experience that women, in the greatest bloom of their beauty, “ Bring forth male children only.” when surrounded, like a halo, by the purple Besides, 'tis by the love with which she has inlight of youth; when the heart and the
passions have the freshest gloss upon them;
spired her husband that she wields his paswhen the feelings of tenderness and voluptu- sions and precipitates him towards his destiny. ousness should predominate over all others- | A Syren-like spell breathes through all her does it appear, I say, that under these circum- language. She seems conscious that she has stances, women are too gentle to be criminal ? but to be seen to command. People fancy and must we, before we can believe them her a sort of Scandinavian Hera—the comcapable of portentous wickedness, suppose panion, not of Zeus, but of the grim tyrant time to have hardened their hearts while it of Hades, her fitting consort. But nothing blasted their loveliness ?
of all this. She is a Scottish lady—proud, I represent Lady Macbeth to myself as a ambitious, thirsting fiercely for sway--but in beautiful fair woman, about twenty-four or
the heyday of prolific youth, who covertly twenty-five years
charms and the supreme value of her prefer* Miss O'Neil may be said to have formed one
Having exhausted all other arguments exception, since she performed Lady Macbeth in her to urge Macbeth to regicide, she falls back, own brown hair.
as her last resource, on this—that if he
faltered in his purpose, she would cast him | spiring a serene and almost seraphic love. contemptuously from her heart :
Yet the scion of the house of Cenci had
imbrued her hands in the blood of her father Lady M.
Was the hope drunk —that is, had been guilty of almost the Wherein you dressed yourself? hath it slept since? worst conceivable crime.* And wakes it now to look so green and pale
Brinvilliers, again, who consummated her At what it did so freely ? From this time, Such I account thy love.”.
guilt with parricide, and had, besides, perpe
trated so many murders that she appeared In this, moreover, as in most other things, to have lived only for the destruction of Shakspeare was true to nature ; for, from the others, looked, after all, so tranquil and fastestimony of history, it appears that nearly all cinating in ber loveliness, that even the clearwomen who have been guilty of great crimes est evidence of her guilt could scarcely suf-the Marchioness of Brinvilliers, Beatrice fice to establish belief in it. Her regular Cenci, Johanna of Naples—have done so in features, her fair and soft complexion, her the fieriest noon of youth, of which it is not golden tresses, the clear deep blue of her difficult to discover the cause.
eyes, and the remarkable expression of tranthen more under the influence of the passions quillity which pervaded the whole, irresistiwhich blind the reason, not yet endued with bly suggested the idea of innocence. Comstrength to resist them. They feel much and pared with her, nevertheless, Lady Macbeth reflect little ; seldom can they persuade was an angel, for she could not, to gain a themselves to look forward to the end of life. kingdom, kill a stranger wbo looked like her They act as if they were immortal. From the father in his sleep. moment they emerge from girlhood up to a That Sbakspeare himself entertained gencertain point of time, which varies, perhaps, erally on this subject the same opinion with in each individual, the passions acquire fresh me is quite clear, since he observes “there strength, so as sometimes to predominate is no art to find the mind's construction in completely over the reason. Afterwards, the face;" and, from the whole behavior of every year gives additional lustre to the intel- Duncan, it is evidenċ that he had been lect, and diminishes the force of their tem- charmed and fascinated by the seemingly perament, so that she who was the slave of open and loving looks of his “ fair and noble feeling at a given period, in a short time hostess.” Had she appeared the sinister, becomes swayed by thought and obedient to scowling devil, sometimes presented to us on the impulse of enlightened motives. Ambi the stage, he would have shrunk from her as tion, however, rules longer than any other from a serpent. But, on the contrary, she passion, though it soon throws off from its so wins upon his confidence by her cheery eyes the scales of youth, and learns how to and welcome countenance, that he kisses, and pursue its course with clear-sightedness; in afterwards presents her with a diamond, to other words, to avoid the allurements of show his unusual satisfaction. crime.
This power of mastering the internal emoIt may, perhaps, be out of place to allude tions of the mind may, I grant, create in us here to the ordinary statistics of guilt; but a more startling idea of Lady Macbeth's among female offenders, the proportion of wickedness. But, 'tis her personal beauty I those under thirty years of age to those above am now endeavoring to prove. Lord Chesis as five to one. It happens too, somewhat terfield, the Lycurgus of compliments, caucuriously, that among the women who have tions his son against praising an ugly woman infringed most daringly the laws of ethics, the for her beauty, for she will know, he says, most remarkable have been fair, with auburn it is a falsehood, and will almost inevitably hair and bright blue eyes. This was the interpret it into an insult. Old Duncan case with Beatrice Genci, whose golden hair, would have anticipated Lord Chesterfield carefully described by the author of her life, on this point, and been careful not to apply kindled the fancy and deified the art of Guido the expression of fair and noble hostess to a Reni. The face of this same Beatrice may thin, swarthy, grim fury, calculated to freeze assist us in our speculations upon Lady Mac- the very heart of him by her aspect. Lady beth. It is soft and gentle, slightly lan- Macbeth herself is careful to let us know that guishing, because taken after she had suffer- she was mistress of what Tacitus calls the ed much pain; but the features are all beautifully moulded, and an inexpressible tender
* I may here remark that Shelly, in the tragedy ness and harmony breathe over them, capa- which he ħas written on this subject, imitates, I might ble, as we should conjecture, in life, of in- | almost say copies, whole passages from Macbeth.