what do you think drives lady macbeth's cruelty and do you sympathise with her at all?
This post and this post might be of interest. But I think ‘cruelty’ is the wrong word. Cruelty implies violence for the sake of violence and enjoyment of violence. (See here.) Lady M doesn’t revel in the violence. She doesn’t delight in it the way some of the characters in, say, Titus Andronicus do, or even Margaret in Henry VI does after the murder of Rutland/during the murder of York. For Lady M violence is always a means to an end. “Infirm of purpose” is what she calls her husband when he starts to get faint-hearted. He’s too full of the milk of human kindness “to catch the nearest way.” For her, it’s all about the outcome. The ends justify the means. Like I said in one of those posts, I think her driving force is ambition. She wants more than what she has.
Interestingly, she never expresses any personal desire to be queen. She does, however, use the singular possessive pronoun ‘my’ when she says “The raven himself is hoarse / That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan / Under my battlements.” She claims the crime as her own, and even though the idea of murder occurs to her and her husband independently, she is the criminal mastermind. She says, “you shall put / This night’s great business into my dispatch; / Which shall to all our nights and days to come / Give solely sovereign sway and masterdom.” And at the end of the scene: “Leave all the rest to me.” This regicide is her baby–and I use that word very deliberately. There are a million possible explanations for why Lady Macbeth is so desperate to seize this power for her husband. My guess is it has something to do with that baby she mentions in 1.7 which doesn’t appear in the play. A woman’s function at this point in history was basically to be a baby-making machine and ensure the survival of her husband’s line. She hasn’t been able to do that (for whatever reason) and her husband, at least, is already middle-aged, so that procreation window is rapidly closing, if it’s not closed already. By early modern standards, that’s a huge dynastic failure. My guess is that her power-grabbing is about agency and compensation. Maybe she can’t continue Macbeth’s line, but she can make him king. And she does.
But here’s the other part of it which I think is really important and often gets overlooked, and it goes back to the fact that Lady M never expresses a personal desire to be queen. She wants her husband to be king, and she thinks he is fully deserving of that office. “Thou wouldst be great;” she says, “Art not without ambition, but without / The illness should attend it.” AND THIS IS SO KEY. Because Lady M is nothing if not full of ambition. What she’s saying here is “You don’t have enough darkness in your soul to do this, so I’m going to do it for you.” Now. Is that somewhat fucked up? Absolutely. However, that is an enormous sacrifice to make. I’m not going to get into this in depth, but there’s a lot of natural law theory floating around in this play. What’s important to know is this: In the protestant ethos of this play, if you commit regicide, you are 100% going to be damned for eternity. There’s no doubt about that. So, in an insane backwards way, this is actually an incredibly loving, selfless thing to do on Lady M’s part. She is willing to sacrifice her own salvation to make her husband king. Let that sink in. That is so much more hardcore than just saying, “I’d take a bullet for you, babe.” She is willing to burn for all time to put him on the throne, and not only is she willing, but it’s her idea, not just something she does with her back against the wall. That is a crazy kind of love. And that’s one of my favorite things about this play. This is not a unanimous opinion by any means, but I firmly believe that even though the Macbeths are terrible tyrannical people, they are desperately, devotedly in love with one another. Their language is incredibly intimate. In his first letter Macbeth addresses his wife as “My dearest partner of greatness,” and throughout the play they are constantly struggling to help and heal one another. Theirs is a relationship built on love and equality, whatever else they do (and however their relationship is also sometimes toxic and fractures through the play). Look at Macbeth’s conversation with the doctor in 5.3 when his wife’s health begins to fail: “ If thou couldst, doctor, cast / The water of my land, find her disease, / And purge it to a sound and pristine health, / I would applaud thee to the very echo, / That should applaud again.” That. Is. Love.
So. Why does Lady Macbeth do the terrible things she does? There’s no certain answer. Ambition has a lot to do with it. But I think that ambition is rooted in guilt about what she hasn’t been able to provide her husband with, and a passionate yearning to make up for that, somehow. Leo’s character says in Inception that positive emotion trumps negative emotion every time, and I think that’s true here. Lady M doesn’t orchestrate Duncan’s murder because she’s inherently cruel. She does it for love.