Literature

A Short Analysis of Lady Macbeth’s ‘The Raven Himself is Hoarse’ Speech

‘The raven himself is hoarse / That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan’: so begins Lady Macbeth’s first great soliloquy or monologue in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The speech comes in Act 1 Scene 5, immediately after Lady Macbeth has received news from a messenger that Duncan, the King, will be arriving at the castle that night, accompanied by Lady Macbeth’s own husband, Macbeth, who has just been made Thane of Cawdor by Duncan.

Before we launch into a summary and analysis of Lady Macbeth’s speech, here’s a quick reminder of the text of her monologue:

The raven himself is hoarse
That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan
Under my battlements. Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full
Of direst cruelty! make thick my blood;
Stop up the access and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
The effect and it! Come to my woman’s breasts,
And take my milk for gall, you murdering ministers,
Wherever in your sightless substances
You wait on nature’s mischief! Come, thick night,
And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell,
That my keen knife see not the wound it makes,
Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark,
To cry ‘Hold, hold!’

Perhaps the best way to offer an analysis of Lady Macbeth’s words is by summarising them, section by section. So, here goes:

The raven himself is hoarse
That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan
Under my battlements.

Ravens are often heralds of misfortune or even death: they are ill omens, and Macbeth is a play full of strange omens (later on, Duncan’s own horses will famously turn and eat each other). The raven here is croaking to announce the arrival of Duncan at the Macbeths’ castle: it is a ‘fatal entrance’ not just because it will be fateful (Lady Macbeth, in persuading Macbeth to kill Duncan while he is a guest at their castle, will make her husband King) but also because it will clearly be fatal in the most literal sense for the doomed Duncan himself.

These lines have been interpreted by some commentators as a metaphorical reference to the messenger who has just announced to Lady Macbeth that Duncan and Macbeth are on their way, but it’s more likely that Lady Macbeth means just what she says: the raven really is a raven.

Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full
Of direst cruelty!

Note that ‘Come, you spirits’ completes the line of blank verse begun by ‘Under my battlements.’ But the line of verse is missing a syllable; some editors have amended the line, e.g. by making ‘Come, you spirits’ something like ‘Come, all you spirits’, but as Kenneth Muir argued in his notes to “Macbeth” (Arden Shakespeare: Second Series), this spoils the dramatic quality of the line – and, from a practical perspective, the pause between ‘battlements’ and ‘Come’ gives the actor playing Lady Macbeth a chance to take a deep breath before commencing a long invocation.

And what an invocation! The ‘mortal thoughts’ which these spirits ‘tend on’ are deadly thoughts: i.e. thoughts of murder. Lady Macbeth’s command that these spirits ‘unsex’ here seems to be a request for her femininity or womanhood to be drained out of her, so she is more ‘manly’ and ready to kill. She wishes to be filled instead with ‘direst cruelty’ from head to toe.

Elsewhere in Macbeth, Lady Macbeth uses imagery associated with motherhood and femininity in negative terms, such as when she talks of dashing out the brains of her own infant child that sucked at her breast (in Act 1 Scene 7).

make thick my blood;
Stop up the access and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
The effect and it!

Lady Macbeth wants her blood to be made thick so pity cannot flow through her veins and reach her heart, thus reawakening her sympathy and weakening her murderous resolve.

The rest of this section of her speech develop this point: she doesn’t want ‘remorse’ (here used in the more general sense to denote compassion) to be flowing freely through her because her ‘fell [i.e. evil] purpose’ would be shaken by such compunction, or pricking of conscience.

The final image (‘nor keep peace between / The effect and it!’) summons the idea of a peacemaker trying to calm down two opposing forces: i.e. her resolve (to murder Duncan) and her conscience and its effects (that will try to persuade her against killing him).

Come to my woman’s breasts,
And take my milk for gall, you murdering ministers,
Wherever in your sightless substances
You wait on nature’s mischief!

And here we have it: another example of Lady Macbeth’s reference to her womanhood/motherhood (although the question ‘how many children did Lady Macbeth have?’ is impossible to answer for sure), which she wishes to undo or erase to make way for heartlessness, her milk (for breastfeeding) replaced with ‘gall’, implying boldness but also bitterness.

Alternatively, however, we might analyse Lady Macbeth’s words here in a different way: ‘take my milk for gall’ might be interpreted as an offering to these spirits, that they should come and suck at her breasts like babies, using her milk to sustain and build their boldness (or ‘gall’).

The word ‘sightless’ in ‘sightless substances’ is usually taken to mean ‘invisible’ rather than ‘blind’: these spirits that will spur Lady Macbeth on cannot be seen, and are responsible for all of the bad, seemingly unnatural things that take place in the natural world.

Come, thick night,
And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell,
That my keen knife see not the wound it makes,
Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark,
To cry ‘Hold, hold!’

Note how ‘thick’, formerly applied to Lady Macbeth’s blood, now refers to the night: it’s as if those spirits are already rushing through the darkness to attend on her, and having thickened the air they will go to work on her blood. (This idea of ‘thick night’ will be echoed by Macbeth’s famous line, ‘Light thickens’, later in the play.)

This idea of night being ‘thick’ then informs the rest of Lady Macbeth’s speech, which builds on the idea of those spirits being ‘sightless’ or unseen. The word ‘pall’ foreshadows the ‘blanket of the dark’ two lines later: both were probably suggested by the stage on which Macbeth was first performed (the stage was hung with black drapes when a tragedy was performed), but of course, ‘blanket of the dark’ also suggests the idea of night covering the world at night. ‘Pall’, meanwhile, summons death, as in a funeral pall.

The word ‘dunnest’ refers to the dun colour, a sort of dull greyish-brown. Lady Macbeth wants the smoke from hell to rise up to her on earth and shroud her hand as she takes the knife and kills Duncan; she fears that, if she could see what she was doing as she plunged the dagger home, her conscience would cry out for her to leave off (‘Hold, hold!’). This detail is, of course, significant: ‘my keen knife’ tells us that Lady Macbeth initially planned to carry out the deed herself, until she persuades her husband to do it instead.

Leave a Reply