“Macbeth”: “She should have died hereafter”

Whenever I show GCSE students clips of the Trevor Nunn production of Macbeth, they
always react to the intense relationship between the title character and Lady Macbeth.
The physical closeness of Ian McKellen and Judi Dench on stage is a clear dramatization
of the love between the power-hungry couple, and is replicated in subsequent
productions (such as the 2015 version starring Michael Fassbender). Yet when Seyton
enters to announce Lady Macbeth’s death in Act 5, Macbeth simply comments “She
should have died hereafter. / There would have been a time for such a word”. The
cold and distant diction is a far cry from the earlier passionate assertion that Lady
Macbeth is “my dearest partner in greatness”. But, perhaps, the seeds of Macbeth’s
dissociation from his wife are sown in this naming in Act 1 Scene 5. Does the pronoun
“my” hint at his possessiveness and desire for dominance in the marriage, rather than
showing his unconventional reliance on her? Does the word “partner” indicate that
Lady Macbeth is only useful insofar as she helps him to achieve his ambitions, and once that is done is she expendable? After all, Macbeth describes Banquo as “dear” in Act 3 Scene 4, knowing that he has already died at the hands of the king’s murderers.

The first thing that strikes me about Macbeth’s initial response to Seyton’s announcement is the use of the very impersonal pronoun “she”. Whilst Macbeth demonstrates his devotion and dependence on his wife by addressing her passionately in Act 1, by Act 3 he is dismissive. Telling her to be “innocent of the knowledge [of the plot to kill Banquo], dearest chuck”, he takes her words (“look like the innocent flower”) and twists them, suggesting that he has seized control of the relationship and no longer requires her support to commit terrible deeds. The adjective “dearest” is no longer loving, but belittling, as is the diminutive nickname “chuck”. The inverted gender roles of Act 1 have now been realigned as the coldness of the pronoun “she” indicates that Macbeth has now become the hypermasculine hero Lady Macbeth wanted him to be (no longer is he “too full of the milk of human kindness”); instead, his callous cruelty is clear and we are aware of the corrupting effect of a lust for absolute power. Is Shakespeare warning his audience that gender equality or the ascendency of women cannot be sustained?

Then we have the modal verb “should”. There are different possible interpretations of this: Lady Macbeth’s death was inevitable at some point, or she should have died later when there would have been time to mourn her properly, or she should have died later when Macbeth’s greatness was assured. In the first of these interpretations, Macbeth’s preparations for battle overwhelm his desire to mourn the loss of a wife that he genuinely loved and on whom he depended. However, in the latter interpretations, we see Lady Macbeth’s death as an inconvenience in the midst of much more important military preparations. “Should” might also hint at the concept of fate; Macbeth believes that he was promised dominance and power by the witches, and Lady Macbeth has interrupted this pre-destined plan by taking control of her own death. There is a sense that she has stepped out of line and refused to follow the plan that unfolded before Macbeth’s eyes when he first met the witches. It could be argued that Lady Macbeth’s suicide prompts a moment of anagnorisis in the subsequent soliloquy, in which Macbeth realises the futility of realising his ambitions. However, I don’t read it like this. Whilst Lady Macbeth’s suicide is a result of her guilt and her feeling of isolation from her husband (along with her loss of power now that Macbeth has marginalised her from his plans), this does not seem to impinge particularly profoundly on the new king’s conscience; he realises that his life is now one of emptiness leading to an inevitable death, but he still believes staunchly in the witches’ prophecies and foresees his own demise to be a long way off in the future.

This emphasis on time is one that echoes throughout the play. For example, Lady Macbeth felt “the future in the instant” in Act 1, and when Duncan is killed time becomes confused as “dark night strangles the travelling lamp”. References to time proliferate in Act 5 Scene 5, where there is a tension between the lack of “time” as the battle is about to begin, and the expansion of time in Macbeth’s line “tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow”. Squeezing an additional syllable into this first line of the soliloquy highlights the juxtaposition with the shortened seven-syllable line “she should have died hereafter”. In his commentary on this section, Ian McKellen points out that the loss of three syllables from the anticipated iambic pentameter causes the actor to pause on the adverb “hereafter” (watch McKellen on https://youtu.be/zGbZCgHQ9m8). Is this to communicate a sense of loss, or to emphasise the double meaning of the word? Whilst as an adverb “hereafter” indicates that Lady Macbeth has chosen the wrong time to end her life, when used as a noun the same word can mean life after death. And, of course, we remember from Act 1 Scene 7 that Macbeth dreads “the life to come” as he believes he will be punished for the crime of regicide. So perhaps the silence that floods in after the word “hereafter” is filled with Macbeth’s unspoken fear of what is to come when he also meets his end. As a reader who feels a huge amount of sympathy for Lady Macbeth, Macbeth’s hubristic, self-obsessed response to his wife’s death seems to be to be the ultimate rejection; her desire for power at all costs may not be admirable, but surely her drive to achieve greatness in a patriarchal world deserves a better epilogue than becoming a mere footnote to a man’s downfall.

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