The Analysis of The Quote “Unsex Me Here” in “Macbeth”
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 topful
Of direst cruelty!
Macbeth Act 1, scene 5, 38–43
This quote is one of the most famous in the whole play and shall sound quite strange and ominous for the modern reader. It seems that Lady Macbeth asks the spirits for demonic possession, does she really wants it and why?
Let’s start from the moment when we hear the quote and what happens before. This powerful scene happens when Lady Macbeth receives a letter from her husband and reads it, learning that King Duncan will soon arrive. But while reading she concludes that her husband still has hesitations about whether he should betray and kill the King.
This fact enrages Lady Macbeth, sending her to the brink of despair. She can’t count on her husband, Macbeth is not ambitious enough to overcome his caution and loyalty and isn’t ruthless enough to fulfill his plan without any moral dilemmas. Unlike him, Lady Macbeth is devoted to the goal of becoming a Queen fully. This speech, one of the best in “Macbeth”, reflects her blinding desire to rule and determination. She is ready to give up her conscience, her humanity, her very soul to achieve her goal. Let’s follow this quote sentence by sentence.
“The raven himself is hoarse that croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan under my battlements”
Lady Macbeth herself feels the bad omens that follow the appearance of King Duncan. The raven – the symbol of death and doom – is a metaphor of all the misfortunes that await Macbeth and his wife for what they are going to do – kill the King. Something in her says that their plan is a big mistake. It’s the point of no return that will have the horrifying consequences.
Moreover, despite being infuriated by her husband’s hesitations, she isn’t completely sure herself. Lady Macbeth understands that they are going to do something hideous from God’s and people’s points of view. So she goes to the next step: if her plan can’t be approved by either God or man, she asks for help the evil spirits.
“Come, you spirits that tend on mortal thoughts”
So what spirits does Lady Macbeth call? She gives the answer herself. They are not the ignorant spirits of nature that may be used by witches to cause rain or draught. They are clearly interested in humanity, to be precise – in the thoughts of people. Moreover, to help in such a deed these spirits should have clearly malevolent intentions. This phrase shows the devotion of Lady Macbeth – she is willingly offering herself for possession just to be sure that the plan will be done.
But also we again see that she is unsure in its success. The King is protected by the divine power for his reign is blessed by the Church. So, God Himself protects Duncan. To pierce this protection Lady Macbeth seems to address her pleas to the servants of God’s direct opponent – Satan, transferring Satan’s rebellion against God, his vanity and desire for power to the earthly conflict between Duncan and herself.
“Unsex me here”
Gradually we come to the most important part: the subject of the plea. But why Lady Macbeth asks to “unsex” her, to strip her of her physical sex? She doesn’t need power or courage, but sees her sex as the main obstacle. To understand that, we should remind ourselves the image of women and femininity in the times of Shakespeare.
Women were seen as cunning, but weak and fragile, prone to temptation. A woman would more likely be responsible for poisoning, adultery, treason, or even murdering someone in rage – but this is not the case. Lady Macbeth needs to be as cold and calculating as it is possible. These qualities were considered masculine. Men were thought to be ruthless killers, who could prepare a plan and proceed to it step by step.
But still, the husband of Lady Macbeth is hesitating. He is manly enough to be the new King, he is a warrior and a ruler of his domain, but in Lady Macbeth’s opinion he also lacks the qualities that are needed for conducting the murder. She considers herself on charge and, before this great responsibility, she wants to get rid of her feminine weaknesses, but also not to become like her husband.
She doesn’t follow him like an obedient wife, she is now the leader and she seeks support from someone who can disrupt the average order. As an embodiment of evil, not a woman, she has the right to argue with her husband, scold him and even force him to act.
Also, the prefix “un-” is extremely common in “Macbeth”. Both Macbeth and his wife use it frequently as if they desperately want to undone so many things in their life. If we compare this “unsex” with later words with “un-”, we can conclude that all these words are expressions of regret for what happened or what was done.
If it is so, than in this quote Lady Macbeth regrets that she was born woman and, maybe, that she can’t take the crown by herself and for herself alone. She is limited, and only someone above the human state of order can lift her above her femininity.
“And fill me from the crown to the toe topful”
I break the last phrase apart deliberately to look separately at the subject of her plea and the way Lady Macbeth wants it to be fulfilled. She asks to fill her, right after “unsexing”. She is associating herself with her female sex so much that without it she needs to be filled with something else. And how – from the crown to the toe! Not from the head but from the crown. Lady Macbeth desire for power is so great that she addresses her crown as the part of her body, something that belongs to her naturally.
This line tells us a lot about the character and her obsession with power. She is ready to become an empty vessel, stripped of any personal qualities, possessed by the evil spirits, but the only thing she wants to preserve and thinks of is her crown. She doesn’t want to be a woman, but a Queen in her own rights. This, and not her husband’s raise in status, is her main goal. Lady Macbeth prays to become the new ruler, not the wife of the ruler.
“Of direst cruelty!”
Finally, we see what exactly lacks this dreadful lady. It may seem strange, regarding everything we heard from her before, but she lacks cruelty. This is the final piece of the puzzle. Now we see the full picture and the primary case of “unsexing”. The antonyms to “cruelty” are “compassion” or “kindness”. These traits were (and are) considered very feminine. In the times of Shakespeare, this, along with chastity and modesty, was the defining trait of a woman.
Lack of compassion was considered a deviation for woman. Lady Macbeth also defines her through this essense of femininity. As a woman she lacks cruelty needed to betray and kill her guest and meet the consequences (getting rid of witnesses etc). She also lack cruelty to use her husband more like an inanimate tool, manipulating him and pressing his vulnerable points. We don’t know if she loves Macbeth, but her love would also be taken from her as her feminine quality.
Moreover, she wants the “direst” cruelty inside her soul. She wants to be the most cruel, the most ruthless, not just cruel enough to conduct the plan. Lady Macbeth doesn’t want to leave any space for something else, there is only one thing she wants to be fulfilled with. This tells us a lot, foreshadowing the latter events. If Lady Macbeth rules the land, using her husband, with “direst cruelty”, the rebellion and the hatred towards Macbeth are inevitable.
This image, portrayed in a short quote, makes Lady Macbeth an iconic example of an Evil Queen that is exploited in mythology and fairy tales. The people of Middle Ages saw the woman who throws off her passive feminine traits as a horrible aberration that is clearly dangerous, even more so than men of her status and intentions.
The woman refusing to behave like one is an enemy one can’t predict, so it is common to suppose she is possessed with demon or is a demonic being herself. For the medieval audience, this brilliant monolog of Lady Macbeth is the the point of no return, her moral event horizon that clearly defines her as the character beyond any redemption.