« PreviousContinue »
Observations on Mrs. Siddons's Estimate of Lady Macbeth's Character,
and on that given by Mrs. Jameson, in her “Characteristics of Wo
THOSE who have read Mrs. Jameson's admirable " Characteristics of Women," must have remarked the general similarity of her opinions respecting Lady Macbeth's character, to those delivered by Mrs. Siddons in the foregoing critique. If there be any difference, it is that the former goes a shade farther than Mrs. Siddons in her advocacy of Shakspeare's heroine.
Whether Mrs. Jameson heard of Mrs. Siddons's ideas on the subject, which she might by possibility, as the great actress made no secret of them, I have never been in the least anxious to ascertain, because it is plain, from her writings, that Mrs. Jameson has a mind too original to require or to borrow suggestions from any one. But, in deprecating all suspicion of obligation on the one side, I have an equal right to exclude the possibility of its being suspected on the other. Mrs. Siddons showed me these Remarks on the Character of Lady Macbeth some nineteen years ago, so that there can be litile doubt of their having been earlier written than those of the authoress of 6 The Characteristics."
In a general view, I agree with both of the fair advocates of Lady Macbeth, that the language of preceding critics was rather unmeasured, when they described her as “ thoroughly hateful, invariably savage, and purely demoniac. It is true, that the ungentlemanly epithet, fiendlike, is applied to her by Shakspeare himself, but then he puts it into the mouth of King Malcolm, who might naturally be incensed.
Lady Macbeth is not thoroughly hateful, for she is not a virago, not an adultress, not impelled by revenge. On the contrary, she expresses no feeling of personal malignity towards any human being in the whole course of her part. Shakspeare could have easily displayed her crimes in a more commonplace and accountable light, by assigning some feudal grudge as a mixed motive of her cruelty to Duncan ; but he makes her a murderess in cold blood, and from the sole motive of ambition, well knowing, that if he had broken up the inhuman serenity of her remorselessness by the ruffling of anger, he would have vulgarized the features of the splendid Titaness.
By this entire absence of petty vice and personal virulence, and by concentrating all the springs of her conduct into the one determined feeling of ambition, the mighty poet has given her character a statue-like simplicity, which, though cold, is spiritstirring, from the wonder it excites, and which is imposing, although its respectability consists, as far as the heart is concerned, in merely negative decencies. How many villains walk the world in credit to their graves, from the mere fulfilment of those negative decencies. Had Lady Macbeth been able to smother her husband's babblings, she might have been one of them.
Shakspeare makes her a great character, by calming down all the pettiness of vice, and by giving her only one ruling passion, which, though criminal, has at least a lofty object, corresponding with the firmness of her will and the force of her intellect. The object of her ambition was a crown, which, in the days in which we suppose her to have lived, was a miniature symbol of divinity. Under the full impression of her in tellectual powers, and with a certain allowance which we make for the illusion of sorcery, the imagination suggests to us something like a half-apology for her ambition. Though I can vaguely imagine the supernatural agency of the spiritual world, yet I know so little precisely about fiends or demons, that I cannot pretend to estimate the relation of their natures to that of Shakspeare's heroine. But, as a human being, Lady Macbeth is too intellectual to be thoroughly hateful. Moreover, I hold it no paradox 10 say, that the strong idea which Shakspeare conveys to us of her intelligence, is heightened by its contrast with that partial shade which is thrown over it by her sinful will giving way to superstitious influences. At times she is deceived, we should say, prosaically speaking, by the infatuation of her own wickedness, or, poetically speaking, by the agency of infernal tempters ; otherwise she could not have imagined for a moment that she could palm upon the world the chamberlains of Duncan for his real murderers. Yet her mind, under the approach of this portentous and unnatural eclipse, in spite of its black illusions, has light enough remaining to show us a reading of Macbeth's character such as Lord Bacon could not have given to us more philosophically, or in fewer words. All this, however, only proves Lady Macbeth to be a char
contrast with that partial shade which is thrown over it by her speare conveys to us of her intelligence, is heightened by its sinful will giving way to superstitious influences. At times she is deceived, we should say, prosaically speaking, by the infattation of her own wickedness, or, poetically speaking, by the agency of infernal tempters; otherwie he could not have imagined for a moment the cham Earlains of 1
the 2 pite
that a sudden, lamentable fate awaits him. Yet, so far from offering any opposition to Macbeth's murderous designs, she even hints, I think, at the facility, if not the expediency, of destroying both Banquo and his equally unoffending child, when she observes that, “in them Nature's copy is not eterne.' Having, therefore, now filled the measure of her crimes, I have imagined that the last appearance of Banquo's ghost became no less visible to her eyes than it became to those of her husband. Yes, the spirit of the noble Banquo has smilingly filled up, even to overflowing, and now commends to her own lips the ingredients of her poisoned chalice.
“The Fifth Act. “ Behold her now, with wasted form, with wan and haggard countenance, her starry eyes glazed with the ever-burning fever of remorse, and on their lids the shadows of death. Her everrestless spirit wanders in troubled dreams about her dismal apartment; and, whether waking or asleep, the smell of innocent blood incessantly haunts her imagination:
• Here's the smell of the blood still.
“How beautifully contrasted is the exclamation with the bolder image of Macbeth, in expressing the same feeling !
• Will all great Neptune's ocean wash the blood
And how appropriately either sex illustrates the same idea!
During this appalling scene, which, to my sense, is the most so of them all, the wretched creature, in imagination, acts over again the accumulated horrors of her whole conduct. These dreadful images, accompanied with the agitations they have induced, have obviously accelerated her untimely end; for in a few moments the tidings of her death are brought to her unhappy husband. It is conjectured that she died by her own hand. Too certain it is, that she dies, and makes no sign. I have now to account to you for the weakness which I have, a. few lines back, ascribed to Macbeth ; and I am not quite without hope that the following observations will bear me out in my opinion. Please to observe, that he (I must think pusillanimously, when I compare his conduct to her forbearance) has been continually pouring out his miseries to his wife. His