Unsex me here…

Yesterday, I took a look at the “Tomorrow” speech in Macbeth which follows the news of Lady Macbeth’s death. Today, let’s take a look at another Lady M-related speech, this one from the opposite end of the play.

Upon hearing the news both of Macbeth’s meeting with the witches, and Duncan’s imminent arrival at Inverness, Lady Macbeth states her new-found purpose:

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 th’ access and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
Th’ effect and it. Come to my woman’s breasts
And take my milk for gall, you murd’ring 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!”
  • I.v.37-53

Interestingly, this comes just a handful of lines after she states her intention to “pour [her] spirits in [Macbeth’s] ear” (I.v.25) to convince him to kill the king

The first sentence of the speech (bookended by half-lines of broken scansion) points out to the listener that (external) nature itself (in the form of the “raven”) is aware of Duncan’s fate; she also takes ownership of the entire castle.

  ~ / ~ / / ~ /
 The raven himself is hoarse
~ / ~ / ~ / ~ ~ / ~

That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan
/ ~ / / ~ / / / / /

Under my battlements. Come, you spirits

And then she invokes spirits (with two line-ending trochees) of supernatural power. And her wish? For them to “unsex” her, take her gender and make her a man.

Her vision of an unsexed woman (man) is one of “direst cruelty.” And this male has blood thick enough to stop any remorse. She claims it’s natural to feel regret (“compunctious”) after such an act (as kill a king) or “nature’s mischief.” Thus, this nature stands between the purpose and the act (“th’ effect and it”); she must stop nature or make it mischievous. Compare this to nature in King Lear.

She then calls for her breast milk to be replaced by gall or black bile. Now, this I find fascinating. Way back when we were discussing Hamlet, I discussed the four humors. A lack of black bile or gall would make one sanguine (typically courageous, hopeful, playful and carefree). An excess of gall (which is what she’s asking for), however, would make one melancholy (typically quiet, analytical, serious… and oh, yeah, DESPONDENT). Looking ahead to Act Five, is this a case of “be careful what you wish for”?

The subjects of her invocation, these spirits, she also calls “murd’ring ministers” who can be disguised in the air as “sightless substances.” She also calls upon “thick night”…is this, too, a “murd’ring minister”? [remember that Macbeth, too, conjures the night in the run-up to Banquo’s murder…] Or is this different?

Regardless, we get some interesting imagery at the end of the speech. Her “keen knife” is going to make wounds. We’ve seen before how “keen” can take on a sexual connotation. And knife? Could there be a more phallic weapon?

Unsex me, she says. Remove my female-ness, my femininity. Make me a man. An analytical killer without remorse wielding a phallic weapon.

That’s one vision of manliness, I suppose.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *