Lady Macbeth is considered one of Shakespeare’s greatest antiheroes, from one of Shakespeare’s great tragedies, and for good reason. When it comes to the kind of moral ambiguity that Shakespeare was so well known for, you really can’t go past Lady Macbeth. There is truly a never ending rabbit hole of debate you can dive into surrounding this character, and a number of different theories surrounding her motives. But what’s so special about this Lady Macbeth monologue? Well this is largely considered to be the turning point in the Macbeth’s bloody rampage for power, and the pin drop moment when they decide to go ahead with their plan, and this particular Lady Macbeth monologue is a large driving force in making that happen. To better understand it, let’s take a closer look.
Now it’s not often that I find myself giving context for Shakespeare in regards to what’s happened before the play even starts, but this is quite an important thing to know when it comes to this monologue. Before we meet the weird sisters, King Duncan, or Birnam Wood, let’s briefly chat about who these people are. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are an upstanding, courteous and dutiful military power couple of sorts. Macbeth is an incredible warrior who is celebrated for his achievements, and Lady Macbeth is a strong, smart and efficient stateswoman, who is incredibly well liked in their community and circles. Long story short, they’re all around legends, and everybody likes them! They’re good people, who are good at what they do. Like most couples in that day and age they want to bring a child/heir into the world and they succeeded in doing so. However, as was quite common in that day and age, it sadly died in infancy, and left the Macbeths reeling, and grieving for their lost child.
Now to the start of the play In this scene, Macbeth is returning home from a bloody but victorious battle. On the way home from this battle he came across three weird sisters, or witches, who told him of a prophecy in three parts. First, that he would be Thane of Cawdor, a promotion! Two, that he would be King, an even better promotion! And three, that one of his comrade Banquo’s children would also be King, maybe not so good, but oh well what do these weird sisters know?
Either way he decides to tell his amazing wife about the prophecy by writing her a letter and sending it ahead to their home Dunsinane. Upon receiving this letter, Lady Macbeth becomes excited at the prospect that she could one day be Queen, and Macbeth could be King. She summons spirits to give her strength, make her cunning, and take away her ‘womanly’ qualities, so that she can do whatever it takes to become Queen.*
Fast forward, and Macbeth returns home from the war, and gee wiz are they happy to see each other, but Macbeth has some interesting news. He tells Lady Macbeth that King Duncan is on his way to Dunsinane to stay with them, and she tells him exactly what they should do and that she will take care of everything, but Macbeth dismisses the idea and simply says they will discuss it further at another time.
A few days later, King Duncan has arrived at the castle and Macbeth begins to question whether or not to really kill the King in this monologue*. But just as he finishes going over it with the audience, in comes Lady Macbeth wondering why he’s left the dinner table. He tells her he won’t go through with their plan to kill the King, to which Lady Macbeth says…
Was the hope drunk
Wherein you dressed yourself? Hath it slip since?
And wakes it now to look so green and pale,
At what it did so freely? From this time
Such I account that love. Art thou afeared
To be the same in thine own act and value,
As thou art in desire? Wouldst thou have that
Which thou esteem’st the ornament of life,
And live a coward in thine own esteem,
Letting ‘I dare not’, wait upon ‘I would’,
Like the poor cat i’th’ adage?
Prithee peace. I dare do all that may become a man, Who dares do more, is none.
What beast was’t then
That made you break this enterprise to me?
When you durst do it, then you were a man;
And to be more than what you were, you would
Be so much more the man. Nor time nor place
Did then adhere, and yet you would make both:
They have made themselves, and that their fitness now
Does unmake you. I have given suck, and know
How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me:
I would, while he was smiling in my face,
Have plucked the nipple from his boneless gums,
And dashed the brains out, had I so sworn
As you have done to this.
old form: affear’d
afraid, frightened, scared
wait on / upon (v.)
old form: vpon
old form: Addage
proverb, saying, maxim
old form: break
reveal, disclose, impart
Agree, suit, fit the circumstances
old form: vnmake
undo, destroy, make incapable
Were you drunk when you were so hopeful before?
Have you slept since then, and awoken sick and afraid at what you were so confident about?
From now on I’ll think of your love in this way.
Are you afraid to be as courageous and confident in action as you were in your wishes?
Will you not take the very thing that you said you wanted more than anything else?
Or will you live like a coward in your own mind, letting “I wouldn’t dare” rule over “I’ll do it” like the old cat who wants fish, but dares not get his feet wet?
I beg you, give me peace I dare to what’s right of a man Anyone who does more is no man at all
Then what beast were you when you first told me you’d do this?
When you dared to do it, then you were a man;
And to be the King you would be so much more of a man.
The time and place wasn’t right before, but you dared to do it then.
And now the time and place have presented themselves to you, and it’s as though this opportunity has scared you off.
I have fed a baby, and know how wonderful it is to love the baby that milks me:
I would, even as it smiled in my face, have torn my nipple away from its boneless gums,
And smashed its brains out if I’d sworn to do it like you have to do this.
Notes on Performance
There are three key things you should keep in mind when performing this monologue.
- Relationship (What is your relationship to Macbeth, this matters immensely because it will affect the way you deliver the text).
- Context (Know what has happened before this scene, and what you’re referring to in the future).
- Objective (Chasing Lady Macbeths objective in this monologue is of utmost importance because of how hard she’s working to get him to listen).