The marriage relationship between Lady Macbeth and Macbeth is ironically close, given their overwhelming personal ambitions. Throughout the play, the couple bonds over murder, guilt, and a hunger for the throne. Driven by their individual desires to attain and maintain a position of power in Scotland, Lady Macbeth and Macbeth feed off of each other. However, their relationship disintegrates not because they lack love or respect for one another, but because they succumbed to guilt and other personal psychological demons by the end of the play.
In Acts I and II, Lady Macbeth is by far the dominant partner in the relationship. She feels her husband is too weak, "too full o' the milk of human kindness," to do whatever it takes to secure the throne (I, v. 15). She wants to wear the pants in the family, to be "unsexed," so that she may perform acts of "direst cruelty," (I, v. 43, 45). At this early point in the play, it seems that Lady Macbeth's strength of character and her self-will are stronger than those of her husband. Reversing traditional gender roles, Lady Macbeth declares that her husband's manhood will be defined by his willingness to commit murder: "When you durst do it, then you were a man," (I, vii, 54). Succumbing to her wishes, Macbeth shows that his ambitions and his self-image are dominated by his wife. Shakespeare emphasizes Lady Macbeth's dominant role by offering her several soliloquies in the first act.
Lady Macbeth manipulates her husband to committing a heinous crime, but by Act III their roles reverse. Duncan's murder gives Macbeth bloodlust and he begins to contemplate other killings. Lady Macbeth now tries to talk him out of them, saying "What's done is done," (III, ii, 14). Though they share a strange bond from Duncan's murder, the couple is now full of paranoia and guilt. Lady Macbeth's ultimate suicide shows that although the couple felt connected by their mutual self-interests, their psychological problems and criminal acts prevented them from having a genuine, loving, trusting relationship.
The Porter's prose lines at the opening of Act II, scene 3 are a dramatic change of pace after the murder in the previous scene. Although the audience is not privy to the bloody details of the slaying of Duncan, the tension in the air lingers. The porter permits some of this tension to be relieved with some comic relief and a relaxed attitude. Although he is merely a porter and not a man of noble birth, his words suggest many truths central to the rest of the play.
First, the porter unwittingly provides an apt analogy to the crimes committed by Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. He acts as gatekeeper to Inverness and imagines the castle as hell. As hell's gatekeeper, the porter offers a warning to those who come through his gates. By seeing himself as a doorkeeper of hell's gates, the porter comes closer to the truth than he realizes.
Moreover, although the examples of the people knocking on the door to hell are comical, they nevertheless provide some foreshadowing. Additionally, the petty nature of some of the crimes he mentions actually makes the murder seem even more sinister. For one, the "farmer, that hanged himself on the expectation of plenty," is reminiscent of Lady Macbeth's suicide as well as her and her husband's expectations of success due to the witches' prophesy (II, iii, 4-5). Furthermore, the witches' clever and misleading statements are like the porter's "equivocator" who tells white lies. The tailor who cheats his customers is like Macbeth cheating his way to the throne.
The porter's joking about his drunkenness is an analogy for Lady Macbeth and Macbeth's being drunk on power, as well as the clouding of their moral judgment. Murder, like drink, can cause confusion. Both drink and murder have dualistic effects: as the porter describes both the positive and negative effects of alcohol, the audience is reminded of the concurrent effects of the murder: Macbeth is elevated to the throne, but he is also marred with guilt. He has proven his manhood but also his treachery as a ruler. Also, the porter mentions that drinking "provokes the desire, but it takes away the performance," (II, iii, 30). This is strikingly similar to Lady Macbeth's taunting her husband about his impotence.
The pronounced differences between Macduff and Macbeth are most evident when they hear the news about their respective wives' deaths. The former acknowledges his grief and despair, even while allowing for the possibility of revenge on Macbeth. Even the brash words of the angry Malcolm do not induce Macduff to convert his grief into anger right away. Macduff reacts maturely, with a healthy dose of sorrow. Macbeth, on the other hand, seems oddly numb and conflicted about his wife's suicide. Perhaps the different methods of their passing cause the different reactions in the two men, but it is more likely that Macbeth and Macduff differ in their psychological makeup.
Macduff cries "O hell-kite," when he first hears the news (IV, iii, 253). Indeed, it is Malcolm who reacts with the most intensity. He spurs Macduff to "dispute it like a man," (IV, iii, 256), but Macduff responds, "I must also feel it as a man," (IV, iii, 258). This is a profound admission of the necessity of pain. Macduff is confident that his grief does not belie his manhood. He vows revenge, but has enough peace of mind to declare that if Macbeth should escape his wrath, "Heaven forgive him too," (IV, iii, 272).
Macbeth's soliloquy at the time of his wife's passing is as full of sorrow as Macduff's, but Macbeth also lapses into self-absorption and bravado. At first, he mourns his loss, saying "She should have died hereafter," (V, v, 19). Macbeth then begins the "Tomorrow, tomorrow, and tomorrow" soliloquy, which reeks of hopelessness, despair, and nihilism. He feels that life is meaningless, and in so doing may be attempting to extricate himself from his own guilt. Lady Macbeth committed suicide because of her immense psychological trauma. Her husband transforms his guilt into self-righteousness and even after Lady Macbeth's suicide he still feels invincible because of the witches' prophesy. Whereas Macduff incorporated his loss and pain into a healthy psychological makeup, Macbeth transforms his grief into denial.
Lady Macbeth's famously disturbed behavior culminates in her sleepwalking in Act V, scene 1. The ruthless woman is reduced to a pitiful neurotic by the end of the play, and several behaviors illustrate her psychological trauma. Her sleepwalking is both a sign of her anxiety and a symbol of her being out of touch with reality.
Lady Macbeth must have a "light by her continually," (V, I, 18-19). Like children who are afraid of the dark, Lady Macbeth also requires that the candle protect her from the demons that lurk in the darkness. Only these demons stem from her own mind and are created by her own psyche. Her guilt over her murderous actions prompts her to fear the darkness that dwells within her mind and soul.
Lady Macbeth's obsessive hand washing is remarkable in Act V, scene 1. She has made a complete about-face in terms of her reaction to killing and crime. Whereas she laughs off Duncan's murder in Act II, scene 2, saying to Macbeth, "A little water clears us of this deed," Lady Macbeth now cannot use enough water to cleanse her soul. Like her disturbed sleep, this compulsive act indicates her extreme guilt and anxiety at this point in the play.
Out, damned spot!" exclaims Lady Macbeth in Act V, scene 1, before she states, "Who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?" Referring to the various murders her hands are stained with, Lady Macbeth cannot get rid of the evidence of…