Lady Macbeth' Postpartum Depression Essay

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Lady Macbeth is a leading character in Shakespeare's Macbeth, set in 11th-century Scotland. Throughout the centuries, Lady Macbeth has always been seen by audiences as the villain and mastermind behind this tragedy. Malcolm dubs her a 'fiend-like queen' in the final scene of the play, sealing her fate and reputation among Shakespeare's audiences for all time. That is, until now. I believe she is undeserving of this title, and that modern audiences would agree with this opinion. In this tragedy, both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth struggle with their desire to be the most powerful. Through this desperate grasp for power, they become exceedingly paranoid, savagely slaughtering innocent friends whom the Macbeths come to see as dangerous threats to their ascension to power. While Lady Macbeth is deeply flawed and a complex character, there are factors that a modern audience would consider that would lead them to conclude she is not purely evil.

Macbeth was written around 1606, just three years after King James was crowned Elizabeth the First's successor. The play itself is a tribute and honor to King James. Some critics suggest the play is an alternative representation of Guy Fawkes' plot, and that it presents the calamity that would have occurred if this plot was successful. In this tragedy, Shakespeare presents the chaos that would ensue if a devilish act of regicide was successful. It is further implied in Act 3, Scene 3 in which Banquo's son escapes the murder plot which is designed to mirror James's escape from the Gunpowder Plot. While Lady Macbeth does encourage Macbeth to commit the act of treason and to act upon the witches' prophecy, she has been falsely designated the title of a 'fiend-like queen'. A fiend is an evil spirit or demon. Although Shakespeare does present Lady Macbeth as a woman with evil intentions, her fiend-like actions are a manifestation of her deeper psychological issues, specifically her shame and guilt for her inability to bear a child, which would have been expected of her in the 11th century, and her inability to be the quiet, subservient wife to her noble husband. Modern audiences view Lady Macbeth with more sympathy as we now have more compassion for women and encourage their strengths rather than harboring a general hatred towards them. Furthermore, we now understand mental illnesses and would consider the role of postpartum depression on her overall well-being.

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In the 21st century, women are praised for standing up for what is right and are, generally, celebrated and supported as feminists and for being self-sufficient. This is a stark contrast to how women of the 1600s were viewed and treated. Women of that time were tortured and abused for speaking out and for challenging men. This misogyny affected the way Jacobean audiences viewed Lady Macbeth and ultimately led them to view her as an evil woman deserving of her ultimate destruction. Elizabethan and Jacobean women who spoke their minds or spoke too loudly were punished with physical torture. This included things such as using chucking stools, charivari, and the school's bible. These methods of torture were just a few of the disturbing ways woman were scolded for simply talking back to their husbands in the 16th and 17th centuries. Lady Macbeth would not have met the 16th century's expectations for acceptable behavior and Shakespeare knew this when he penned her line describing how she would 'have plucked' her child from her 'nipple... and dashed the brains out' if she had committed to doing something as Macbeth had. Her determination to go through with the plan to kill King Duncan, as well as the way she forced and threatened Macbeth into going through with the plan would have been shocking for a 17th-century audience; however, because we are living in a less patriarchal society, it is easier for a modern audience to view her as a more nuanced character rather than as one who is purely evil because she is a strong woman.

Shakespeare illuminates Lady Macbeth's deteriorating mental health in Act II when Lady Macbeth is seen to 'rise from her bed' and mutters anxious words. She hallucinates bloody spots on her hands and wants the 'damned spot' to be gone. These hallucinations are manifestations of her fear and guilt of what has happened and what is yet to come. Her manifestations of fear further support the idea that she is not a 'fiend-like queen', she is instead a woman completely undone by guilt, proving her emotions are human and completely justified. Furthermore, a modern audience would recognize Lady Macbeth as having the symptoms of postpartum depression: mood swings; anxiety; sadness; irritability; feeling overwhelmed; crying; reduced concentration; appetite problems; and trouble sleeping. Lady Macbeth is deeply affected by the guilt as she remembers the smell of blood. The blood is such a significant smell to her that 'the smell of blood still. All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this smell', remembering that blood represents guilt, which shows that she feels she will remain guilty forever. Additionally, Lady Macbeth is presented by some critics as descending into madness, making her more 'fiend-like' as the play goes on. I feel this was just a deterioration of her mental health. The attitude and knowledge about mental health contrast further the view of Lady Macbeth as a modern audience and the 16th-century audience. The 21st-century audience can recognize this as the decay of her well-being. This is most obvious when Lady Macbeth dies alone without her husband Macbeth by her side in Act II. This fact makes her story all the more tragic and sad. She is left all alone without support or love to deal with her constantly decaying mental health while her husband allows himself to be guided by his ego and lust for power. His reaction to Lady Macbeth's death is appallingly emotionless and uncaring, 'she should have died hereafter'. Macbeth almost suggests she has died at an inconvenient time and all he seems to care for is his title, not his dead wife. She has been done a great injustice and we should be appalled and ashamed of the way women were treated at the time. It is clear to any modern audience that the inequality in this play practically pours from all the characters. Macbeth's reaction is a clear example of the role women had to play. As she was not supporting her husband by possibly killing herself at the wrong time she is a horrible wife. There is no true love or caring in Macbeth as Lady Macbeth struggles alone in the dark. This is further portrayed by her absence from the play. Her absence portrays her isolation from the love she craved and needed. No wonder her mental health suffered such a rapid decline. Critics such as Muhammad Safiur Rahman argue Lady Macbeth's absence from the play suggests she is a manipulative, 'fiend-like queen' who orchestrates the murder and controls Macbeth behind the scenes. I strongly disagree with this and argue her absence from the majority of the play illustrates that Lady Macbeth suffers tremendously - both from her guilt over their murder of King Duncan, and Banquo and the MacDuffs, but also from her general depression and grief over untold lost children. And instead of supporting her, Macbeth dismisses his wife, not caring or taking time to notice her obvious, cataclysmic descent into a black hole of depression. The audience should emphasize her as she is pushed away and left to perish. The appallingly immoral ways men were allowed to treat women of the 11th century and the more obvious inequalities in their flawed relationship further illustrate that Lady Macbeth's story is the most tragic and is unjustified to call her a 'fiend like queen'

It is not just unjust to call her a 'fiend like queen' it is merely inconsiderate to not sympathize with Lady Macbeth. From Lady Macbeth's first entrance in Act 1, scene 5, Shakespeare implies that Lady Macbeth has recently lost a baby as she asks for the spirits to 'take [her] milk for gall'. The fact that Lady Macbeth is still producing milk suggests that she has only recently lost a child. Justin Kurzel's 2015 film adaptation of Macbeth opens with a funeral pyre and scenes of the Macbeths giving their baby a funeral as they hold themselves close to it before the scene transitions to the three witches. This adaptation supports the theories of the Macbeths having lost a child and further illustrates Lady Macbeth has a justifiable reason for her descent into madness. The director's decision to open by focusing on their loss is more likely to invoke the audience's sympathy for Lady Macbeth, further portraying Lady Macbeth as a woman who is struggling, which is further evidence that Lady Macbeth is not the 'fiend like queen' that Malcolm suggests, but rather she is a lost woman suffering from poor mental health.

Lady Macbeth may be grasping for power to compensate for her inability to keep a child alive, which was one of the only duties a wife was expected to fulfill during the misogynistic time of the 11th century. Lady Macbeth's first appearance in the play is her soliloquy in Act One, scene 5 in which she begs for her own body to be purged of her femininity as she wishes for the 'murdering ministers' to 'take [her] milk for gall'. She is so desperate to be seen as a powerful male warrior as her femininity is a burden to her. Her feelings of uselessness manifest into this imperative monologue which is just her feelings of exhaustion of not being understood. A poignant sense of irony is highlighted when she calls on the evil spirits to 'unsex [her] here', further illustrating her being caged by sexism and expectations of a woman. This further confirms one of the themes in Macbeth: what goes around comes around. She torments and encourages Macbeth to be a 'true man' and bribes him to commit regicide with the false illusion that he would be 'so much more the man'. She pressures him and manipulates him which contrasts with how a typical woman in Shakespearean, would be expected to follow their husband's wishes. Lady Macbeth feels she must reject her 'natural' femininity so she can commit the unnatural act of regicide.

Shakespeare presents the audience with an interesting and unusual dynamic in the relationship between Lady Macbeth and Macbeth. Lady Macbeth encourages Macbeth to 'Look the innocent flower but be the serpent underneath that flower'. This metaphor encourages her husband to disguise his intentions, contrasting to the 'submissive' wife that the audience of the 16th cemetery would be used to. Shakespeare's use of the metaphor 'Serpents' is significant as they move elegantly and discreetly, yet they are powerful and feared. This is a significant illustration of Lady Macbeth and suggests a snake to be mirroring her personality. This scene is in the privacy of their home, possibly insinuating Shakespeare is illuminating the reality of marriages mirroring his own. Pressing upon this metaphor, it is manifesting biblical allusions. This refers to the Garden of Eden and original sin. In 1606 was Christian under the rule of KIng James who was baptized Roman Catholic, but brought up Presbyterian and edged towards Anglican during his rule. In the Christian book of the bible, Adam and Eve were the first humans placed on the earth and they were the first to sin. This original sin of eating from the tree in the middle of the Garden of Eden paved the way for more wickedness to enter the world God had created. Since Shakespeare was Anglican and followed the Bible, it is apparent and clear that he would use it as a literary reference for his writing, which he did many times in his works. In Shakespeare's tragedy Macbeth, Shakespeare creates this enormous metaphor for the original sin of Adam and Eve when he writes of the murder committed by Macbeth and arguably his wife. The parallels are obvious in the resemblances of the characters and the events. This use of metaphor further implies that women have always been cursed.

To conclude: it is clear that Malcolm is unjustified in calling Lady Macbeth a 'fiend like queen'. She is merely struggling with her guilt as well as controlling her unpredictable king, Macbeth. She is a victim of the patriarchal society she is caged in. Lady Macbeth's character and personality traits are completely contrasting to the creature she is compared to. She is loving and passionate but does not get this love back which furthers her insecurities. However, it is important to disclose and consider the rise of feminism and the obvious and shameful mistreatment of women in the 16th century, which has a direct influence on how audiences across the ages would see this complex character and the two audiences' opinions on Lady Macbeth.

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Lady Macbeth’ Postpartum Depression Essay. (2024, April 18). Edubirdie. Retrieved June 21, 2024, from
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