Literature

A Short Analysis of Lady Macbeth’s ‘Was the Hope Drunk Wherein You Dress’d Yourself’ Speech

‘Was the hope drunk wherein you dress’d yourself?’ So Lady Macbeth taunts her husband for his loss of resolve, in Act 1 Scene 7 of Shakespeare’s play. The scene, and Lady Macbeth’s exchange with her husband, bring the first act of Macbeth to a close, paving the way for the bloody events that will follow in the next act.

As is our way here at Interesting Literature, perhaps the best way to offer an analysis of ‘Was the hope drunk’ is to go through Lady Macbeth’s words and summarise their meaning as we go. (We have offered an analysis of the play as a whole here.)

LADY MACBETH:
Was the hope drunk
Wherein you dress’d yourself? hath it slept since?
And wakes it now, to look so green and pale
At what it did so freely? From this time
Such I account thy love. Art thou afeard
To be the same in thine own act and valour
As thou art in desire? Wouldst thou have that
Which thou esteem’st the ornament of life,
And live a coward in thine own esteem,
Letting ‘I dare not’ wait upon ‘I would,’
Like the poor cat i’ the adage?

Lady Macbeth begins with a mixed metaphor: hope is both drunk like a person, and something in which Macbeth dressed himself, like a piece of clothing. Since items of clothing aren’t known for their ability to get drunk, some editors have quietly altered ‘dress’d’ to ‘’dress’d’, i.e., ‘address’d’: that is, ‘what has happened to the confident tones in which you previously addressed yourself when steeling yourself for this moment?’

Other editors have altered ‘dress’d’ to ‘bless’d’: again, to avoid a mixed metaphor between drunk and dress’d. But Lady Macbeth probably means just what she says, as Macbeth’s use of ‘worn’, in the lines immediately preceding his wife’s, suggest: ‘I have bought / Golden opinions from all sorts of people, / Which would be worn now in their newest gloss, / Not cast aside so soon.’

Lady Macbeth then goes on to use the idea of a hangover to underscore the change in her husband’s attitude: he has (to continue the drinking flavour of the language) lost his bottle. He is like a hungover man waking up ‘green and pale’ and regretting his former boldness.

From this time
Such I account thy love. Art thou afeard
To be the same in thine own act and valour
As thou art in desire?

From now on, Lady Macbeth goes on, this is what she will think of his love (for her, but also for their plot to kill Duncan). She asks her husband if he is afraid to act the way he desires to; ‘act and valour’ is, potentially, an instance of a rare rhetorical device known as hendiadys, where ‘act and valour’ means ‘valorous act’. When coupled with Lady Macbeth’s mixed metaphor above, the effect of her speech is to disorient her husband through her strange and unsettling language, as if she is attempting psychologically to browbeat him into agreeing to their plan (which seems to be more her plan than his).

Wouldst thou have that
Which thou esteem’st the ornament of life,
And live a coward in thine own esteem,
Letting ‘I dare not’ wait upon ‘I would,’
Like the poor cat i’ the adage?

The crown of Scotland, which Macbeth prizes as the highest ‘ornament of life’ – his greatest ambition – is what he is after: does he actually want it? Or would he rather live as a coward, following up ‘I want something’ with ‘I do not dare’? Lady Macbeth then refers to an ‘adage’, which the use of the definite article ‘the’ suggests would have been well-known to Shakespeare’s original Jacobean audience. The adage or proverb in question concerns a cat that wants to eat fish that she sees in the river, but she didn’t want to wet her feet to get them. So (the implication is) the cat didn’t get any fish.

MACBETH:
Pr’ythee, peace.
I dare do all that may become a man;
Who dares do more, is none.

Macbeth calls for his wife to stop this attack on his manliness, pointing out that he is brave enough to do everything that is proper for a man to do – but anyone who would seek to do more than that is not a man at all (but, perhaps, some kind of evil demon, or wild animal).

Here we have an important theme of Macbeth which often gets lost beneath the analysis of ambition, kingship, prophecy, and so on: masculinity. Lady Macbeth tries to goad her husband to murder by making him believe that he’s less than a proper man if he shrinks from doing such a thing. But Macbeth counters that a true man is one who is honourable and fair and moral. It’s clear here that, whereas Lady Macbeth shows no moral qualms about killing a king (her later sleepwalking scene where she washes her hands probably stems more from her fears that her crimes have been found out than from any pricking of her conscience), Macbeth does have a sense of morality which he must consciously push aside to carry out the murder of Duncan.

LADY MACBETH:
What beast was’t, then,
That made you break this enterprise to me?
When you durst do it, then you were a man;
And, to be more than what you were, you would
Be so much more the man. Nor time nor place
Did then adhere, and yet you would make both:

From Macbeth’s ‘man’, the dialogue turns sharply towards its opposite: ‘beast’. Lady Macbeth reinforces the notion that to follow his ambitions and seize the crown is to be a man, and therefore his doubts about their plan must be some ‘beast’ seeking to ‘break this enterprise’ between the two of them.

When he dared to do it (‘durst’ is the past tense of ‘dare’), then he was a man, and if he did more than what he did then (i.e., not just talked about doing it but actually did it), he would be even more of a man. Lady Macbeth cunningly turns her husband’s argument around and argues that to go through with their plan would make him more of a man, not less.

Nor time nor place
Did then adhere, and yet you would make both:

In other words, ‘Back then when you talked boldly of our plan, neither the time nor the place was right, and yet you would have made the time and place right whatever it took, in order to carry out the plan.’

They have made themselves, and that their fitness now
Does unmake you. I have given suck, and know
How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me:

The time and the place have now ‘made themselves’: it’s the perfect time, and location, for the plan to be executed. But now the time is right, Macbeth has been unmade: he’s lost his nerve, because now he has to act. And he can’t.

The ‘I have given suck’ passage shows that, although Macbeth and Lady Macbeth don’t appear to have any children, clearly Lady Macbeth has suckled her own infant at her breast before. ‘How many children had Lady Macbeth?’ was the title of a long essay by the critic L. C. Knights, published in 1933, mocking the school of criticism (ultimately influenced by the critic A. C. Bradley) which seeks to ask, and answer, such questions about details hinted at, but not confirmed, in the play concerning characters’ lives.

I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have pluck’d my nipple from his boneless gums,
And dash’d the brains out, had I so sworn as you
Have done to this.

In other words, ‘While my own baby was smiling up at me, I would have plucked my nipple out of its mouth and smashed its brains out against the nearest wall, if I had sworn to do something in the way you have promised to do this.’

These words are often interpreted as a sign of Lady Macbeth’s callousness, even psychopathy. But note that she says ‘I … know / How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me’. She has known what it is to love her own child and care for it tenderly. This is hardly the language of someone with no understanding of the bond between a mother and her child.

As so often, it was Samuel Taylor Coleridge who most astutely analysed the true character of Lady Macbeth here: ‘Though usually thought to prove a merciless and unwomanly nature, [the passage] proves the direct opposite: she brings it as the most solemn enforcement to Macbeth of the solemnity of his promise.’ Lady Macbeth is not indifferent to motherhood or love, and uses this ghastly example to bring home the extent to which she regards the breaking of a promise to be a heinous act. She, unlike her husband, would keep her word at all costs.

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