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Studying Shakespeares Medea And Macbeth Characters English Literature Essay

Introduction

Medea by Euripides and Macbeth by William Shakespeare are plays renowned for their portrayal of frightening female characters; Medea and Lady Macbeth. Such female characters are particularly controversial as they contradict the social expectations of women. Society constantly attempts to mold women into soft, gentle and compassionate beings. Due to such a stereotype whereby women are perceived as weak, Euripides Medea and Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth are found to be quiet overly intriguing characters. Strong, fierce, angry and evil women were not heard of when such plays were written.

Medea and Lady Macbeth are both prominent female characters of classic literature. Medea is the protagonist of the Euripides play Medea whilst Macbeth’s Lady Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s most memorable female characters. There is a myth that lingers upon mankind suggesting that females are gentle, caring, weak beings and because the depiction of Lady Macbeth and Medea are quite the contrary, it is debatable whether they are in fact credible characters.

To be credible means to be believable, comprehensible and encompass human characteristics such as strengths and weaknesses. This allows the audience to empathize with the characters and create a shared sense of humanity with them. If it is argued that Lady Macbeth and Medea are possibly melodramatic characters, suggesting that they are exaggerated, two dimensional and hence commit evil purely out of malevolence then such an accusation undermines the quality of the plays. Melodramatic works may temporally thrill an audience however they offer little insight to the human condition and encounter no lasting, intellectually satisfying impact.

Consequently the question asked is, “are Lady Macbeth and Medea credible characters?” Whether or not Lady Macbeth and Medea can be appreciated as believable by the audience is absolutely vital to the play’s achievement; if they were simply seen as evil, the play’s would be regarded as melodramatic and hence fail to be literature of depth and quality. However, if the audience is given an insight into the human condition and is therefore able understand the motives behind evil deeds and the ways in which such actions impact the characters; the play will succeed in being credible and effective. Moreover, the success of each work as literature depends on the key characters being fully rounded and believable. The intention of this essay is to examine the two plays in order to prove that Lady Macbeth and Medea are indeed credible characters.

How are Lady Macbeth and Medea presented?

The opening scenes of the Euripides Medea commence with the play’s protagonist offstage. A strong sense of anticipation is developed as Nurse and Tutor discuss the dilemma whereby Jason has betrayed his loyal wife. The audience is subsequently introduced to Medea’s despair; she is heard off stage bewailing her situation, “If only I were dead” [1] . The way in which Euripides employs sound without having Medea visually appear onstage, contributes to the plays elements of stagecraft whilst emphasizing Medea’s heartbroken tone of voice and allowing the audience to focus on her speech. Medea gains the audience’s empathy early in the play due to such a passionate initial depiction. Lady Macbeth however, is initially revealed to the audience later in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. She first appears onstage whilst reading her husband’s letter; she is excited, anxious and thrilled at the prospect of Macbeth becoming King.

Love is the fundamental basis to Lady Macbeth and Medea’s disposition. They adore their husbands profoundly, and it is this sense of devotion which adds to their characters credibility. Throughout the entire play, Lady Macbeth is an utterly loyal wife. She is ambitious for Macbeth and hence on no account indicates a quest for personal glory. Lady Macbeth goes to great lengths in order to ensure Macbeth’s rapid succession to the throne; she is clearly his “dearest partner of greatness.” [2] In fact, it is her devotion for Macbeth which leads to her pursuit for evil. At first Lady Macbeth encourages her husband to sin; she is responsible for influencing his demeanor. Next she develops a strategy in order to murder King Duncan and prepares the murder scene for Macbeth, before taking part in the crime herself. Such actions were evidently driven by Lady Macbeth’s immense affection for her husband. Medea is also absolutely faithful to her husband and similarly assists him to achieve heroic status in regards to the capture of the Golden Fleece. Despite such loyalty on Medea’s behalf, Jason betrays her for a royal bed; this initial predicament causes a different side to Medea’s character to be unleashed and destruction to commence. It was Jason’s sense of betrayal following Medea’s unquestioning love which leads to her being involved with evil; she creates a scheme to murder her husband’s mistress before killing her own children.

Once both women are on the pathway of evil they begin to manipulate their husbands with remarkable effectiveness. When Lady Macbeth’s husband hesitates to murder Duncan the king of Scotland, she gives a chillingly disturbing statement emphasizing her sense of determination and pride, she would have “dashed the brains out” [1] of her own baby rather than go back on her word. She then attempts to undermine his manhood by referring to him as a “coward” [2] in order to influence his decision. Medea manipulates her husband Jason correspondingly. She engages in ruse, pretending to sympathize with her husband in order to bring him into her confidence, “First I’ll send a slave to Jason, asking him to come to me; and then I’ll give him a soft talk.” [3] Medea utilizes gifts in an attempt to break the ice between Jason, Glauce and herself. Ostensibly, the gifts are intended to convince him that the children stay in Corinth; little do Jason and Glauce know that the coronet and dress are in fact poisoned and will cause death to whoever touches them. Evidently, both women use their manipulative ability in order to skillfully persuade their husbands.

Lady Macbeth and Medea at times appears totally given over to evil. The aggression of these female characters is particularly striking as it defies prevailing social expectations of how women. Women are generally tender human beings however Lady Macbeth and Medea exemplify vindictiveness and determination; general characteristics of man. Our first impression of Medea allows us to bond with her; she is terribly devastated at Jason’s betrayal and the way in which she bemoans in her home is truly credible. As time elapses our impression of Medea alters as we gradually observe layers of her malevolence shed to reveal a tormented human soul.

It is universally accepted that women are compassionate and soft hearted due to their motherly nature however Medea is stunningly said to be stone and iron; determined to kill her sons despite their desperate cry for salvage. It is very difficult to comprehend how a mother could murder her children; subsequently Medea is portrayed as evil. Although she never felt a sense of guilt for her wicked actions, Medea hesitated slightly before committing infanticide, “I can’t do it” [1] she cried. Medea looks to her sense of pride for strength, “Are my enemies to laugh at me? …I must steel myself” [2] , subsequently she swiftly gets over such dither and proceeds with the killings of her two sons. Witnessing Jason suffer brought Medea great satisfaction that prevailed over her own remorse at killing them, “But my pain’s a fair price, to take away your smile” [3] . Although the audience is thoroughly informed of Medea’s brutal past, it was still very shocking and unexpected when she kills her children. At this particular moment in the play, the bond between Medea and the audience begins to diminish. Despite experiencing hardships and being emotionally torn, the audience cannot look past the brutality of such a scene.

In the early scenes of Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’, Lady Macbeth appears to be stronger and more ruthless than her husband. The fact that she is in control of all evilness suggests that her sense of evil is inevitable. Despite the many attempts to reach evil, Lady Macbeth recognizes the need to mask her womanliness in order to find assistance for her plans. Evidence of such is how she yearns for her female essence to be to be replaced with poison, “Unsex me...come to my woman’s breasts and take my milk for gall” [1] she cries. This statement is an extracted portion from Lady Macbeth’s soliloquy whereby she calls on the dark spirits. She clearly acknowledges her femininity and the fact that she lacks the complete capacity for evil; she is unable to kill Duncan herself in spite of being exceedingly driven towards brutality. If one is truly evil there is no need to be unsexed. This particular speech also serves to highlight Lady Macbeth’s great level of passion and the extraordinary lengths she would go to ensure Macbeth’s speedy succession to King.

It is understood that Lady Macbeth is familiar with religion and holds some religious conception. She realizes that she is contemplating a sin against God by wanting her femininity to be removed and consequently wants to be hidden from “heaven” [2] . This opens room to note that a cosmology which posits heaven above all also allows for hell, for guilt, for punishment. Although Lady Macbeth is aware that she will be punished for calling upon the dark spirits, she disregards such knowledge and sins. This form of negligence and ignorance indicates Lady Macbeth’s desperate desire. At this moment in the play, the audience scowl at her sense of hypocrisy.

Why do they follow an evil pathway?

Medea is human, however she is also related to the gods and worships Queen Hecate. Obviously elements of fantasy propel her story however she appears before the audience as a woman and must be understood as one. Clearly Medea’s love for Jason was all consuming; she was willing to do anything and everything for her beloved. Such passion is evident from Medea’s complete obedience; she abides by her husband’s every word. As previously mentioned, all of the plays events proceed from the initial dilemma whereby a heartless husband betrays his obedient wife; this is why Medea results to her evil ways. She feels shamed, trampled on and unappreciated as she had supported and did great deal for him, for example she fled her home country and family to live with her lover. Medea even murdered her own brother for Jason. In addition to such, she persuades the daughter’s of a King to murder their father.

Medea’s deeds were unselfish and self sacrificing which is why Jason’s betrayal drove her wild. To many it is incomprehensible for women to be driven by such an extent of ambition, love and betrayal as to call upon evil. However, Medea was harshly betrayed by the man who was her “whole life” [1] ; the audience can understand this motive for calling upon evil and desiring revenge. Jason lacked the decency to simply stop for a moment before wedding his young bride to recall all the extraordinary deeds Medea had done for him, actions she took for his benefit alone and which he could never express enough gratitude for.

Such a degree of unfaithfulness evidently shreds Medea to pieces. The audience observes Medea’s character evolve before their very eyes. Such is understood through the employment of soliloquies which are an essential element of stagecraft. Soliloquies are speeches made to oneself which allow the audience to hear the inner thoughts of a character. This permits the audience to be drawn into the character’s mind and build a bond with the character. Soliloquies are of particular importance in Medea as they give the audience an insight into the way in which Medea’s temperament evolves. It is Medea’s self directed speeches which allow the audience to understand her state of mind and comprehend her thoughts as time elapses.

Our first impression of Medea is that she is absolutely distraught and suicidal, “If only I was dead” [1] . This is an understandable and human response to such devastating rejection. The audience can relate to being betrayed and can hence understand why Medea later turns to evil; this adds to the credibility of her character. As time progresses her strength and passion drives her to mad; the first time Medea appears on stage she is “not shaken with weeping, but cool and self-possessed.” [2] If it were not for her soliloquies prior to her appearance such as, “Oh, how I hate living! I want to end my life, leave it behind, and die” [3] , the audience could not possibly understand or acknowledge her suicidal state of mind. Later Medea goes on to use her manipulative cleverness to avenge Jason’s disloyalty with a series of murders, “I have in mind so many paths of death for them” [4] . Prior to such a statement Medea was begging Creon in order to allow her and her sons to stay the country for one more night. If it were not for the preceding soliloquy it would not be understood that Medea had manipulated Creon. The soliloquy reveals her true feelings; she will “strike dead” [1] her enemies.

Medea is a descendant of the Sun god and is capable of passions of far greater intensity than mere mortals. Her only desire was to watch Jason suffer and she was willing to do absolutely anything to achieve just that. Medea is a proud woman, consequently when Jason trampled over such pride, compressing her ego and self concept, she was to avenge him, “you were mistaken if you thought you could dishonor my bed and live a pleasant life and laugh at me” [2] . Medea’s fury bubbled and boiled to the severe extent whereby it began to take over her heart, mind and body. She is completely overwhelmed with anger and willing to even harm herself in order to wipe the smile off his face, “my pain’s a fair price, to take away your smile” [3] she says. Medea successfully devastates Jason by killing her own flesh and blood, her two sons despite the heartache it would cause her, simply to torment him. The way in which Medea gradually follows an evil pathway rather than undergoing a sudden transition of character makes her believable.

Lady Macbeth’s love for Macbeth is also all consuming however not of the intensity of Medea’s. She was also keen on doing everything and anything for the sake of her beloved. After Macbeth is informed of the prophecy he becomes “rapt withal” [4] and consequently his “dearest partner of greatness” [1] becomes determined to secure his position as King. Lady Macbeth begins to take control; she analyses Macbeth’s personality and considers him too straight forward and honest to be involved with evil, “Yet do I fear thy nature, It is too full o’th’milk of human kindness, T’catch the nearest way” [2] . Lady Macbeth was immensely spellbound by the prophecy, she desired it sooner rather than later; she saw that her husband was ambitious to be king. Lady Macbeth notices that Macbeth requires her strong words to prompt him; subsequently she uses her influence to encourage him.

Lady Macbeth’s evil desires escalate from this moment onwards. As time progresses she begins to take further control and eventually plans King Duncan’s murder. She employs a metaphor of hypocrisy, “look like the innocent flower, but be the serpent under’t” [3] which is used in order to disguise her intentions of harming King Duncan. This particular metaphor is extremely prominent as it reveals a great deal of Lady Macbeth’s character. The audience begins to observe her strength of spirit and identify her opposite outlook to Macbeth. In addition Lady Macbeth’s willingness to be associated with evil is emphasized in this statement.

The fact that Lady Macbeth becomes furious and challenges her husband’s courage and honor when he has serious second thoughts about killing Duncan, indicates that she is indeed more brutal than he at this stage of the play. Lady Macbeth prepares the murder scene but was unable to kill Duncan herself claiming that the King “resembled my father” [4] as he slept. This exemplifies that she is not as ruthless as she appears and that she is rather vulnerable and compassionate. This particular statement adds to the credibility of Lady Macbeth’s character. It helps define that although one might carry out evil actions, certain things dear to them will expose their vulnerability.

Lady Macbeth returns with bloody hands after smearing the chamberlain’s with blood in order to disguise herself and Macbeth of the deed. At the time the image of her bloody hands has no affect on her and she bluntly says, “a little water clears us of the deed.” [1] However in time, the memory of her bloody hands, which is a significant part of stagecraft symbolizing guilt, haunts and torments Lady Macbeth’s mind. As previously mentioned Lady Macbeth is aware of God and believes in heaven and hell. She acknowledges that she has sinned; consequently her guilty conscience begins to disturb her sleep. In time Lady Macbeth begins to experience the regular occurrence of sleepwalking. Whilst sleepwalking, she rubs her hands in a washing motion which modern psychology would regard as an obsessive compulsive disorder; she is unable to wash the guilt off her hands. Whilst performing the hand washing routine Lady Macbeth soliloquizes; “Wash your hands; put on your nightgown; look not so pale… what’s done cannot be undone.” [2] This further emphasizes her extent of her anguish.

Soliloquies are a prominent element in regards to understanding and appreciating Lady Macbeth’s change of thought and attitude throughout the duration of the play. They help reveal the severe extent of her distress and disturbance. Along with soliloquies, symbolism is another form of stagecraft which is evident in the play; evidently Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking is a sign of her great level of guilt. It is particularly ironic how earlier in the play Lady Macbeth calls upon darkness in order to hide her deed, “Come, thick night” [1] and how she now fears the dark; “she has light by her continually” [2] . Lady Macbeth’s sense of guilt and vulnerability towards the end of the play allows the audience to empathize and connect with her. In demonstrating such human qualities, her credibility was enhanced as unlike Medea, her actions did affect her conscience. The audience is able to relate to Lady Macbeth’s sense of guilt and therefore appreciate her credibility. Her guilty conscience affects her terribly, drives her to contemplate death and eventually commit suicide. The way in which Lady Macbeth gradually breaks down physically and mentally, demonstrates her human essence and hence makes her character credible and realistic to the audience.

What is their involvement with evil?

The audience is introduced to action from the moment the plays commence. The opening scenes of Macbeth introduce the audience to the prospect of Macbeth being king. Our first impression of Lady Macbeth is that she is a loving wife and excited and happy for him; the atmosphere is blissful. On the hand, the opening scenes of Medea introduce the audience to an atmosphere of misery. Jason has betrayed his wife for a royal bed and we first see Medea as distressed and a heartbroken woman. The audience is later informed of Medea’s past; we understand that she has previously committed acts of evil including murder however such actions were driven by her love for Jason. On the other hand, the audience is not informed of Lady Macbeth’s past; it is presumed that she has had no prior involvement of evil.

Medea has committed several murders before the play commences. She has killed her brother and whilst in her home town, Colchis, Medea used her devilish ways to manipulate the daughters of the local king and rival Pelias, into slaughtering their own father. From such details it understood that Medea is capable of committing horrifying deeds and that it was her love for Jason which ultimately suppressed her sense of evil throughout the course of their marriage. Consequently it was expected that once Jason hurt her Medea, she would revert to her violent demeanor and resort to greater brutality than that of which she had encountered out of love for him. After being rejected, Medea lays out a cunning plan pursuing a violent rampage in order to torment Jason. She manipulates Jason into trusting her and sends her sons off with a supposed gift for Jason’s new bride. The gifts have been poisoned and princess Glauce endures a horrible death, “The stuff was eating her flesh. Her eyes, her face, were one grotesque disfigurement; down from her head dripped blood mingled with flame; her flesh, attacked by the invisible fangs of poison, melted from the bare bone, like gum-drops from pine-tree’s bark- a ghastly sight.” [1] When Medea gloats, “You’ll give me double pleasure if their death was horrible”, [2] she is close to being considered melodramatic however we see enough of her humanity to prevent her from becoming theatrical. This statement highlights how deeply Jason’s betrayal scarred his loyal wife. Although Medea fails to be struck by guilt after committing infanticide, she evidently wavers before killing her own children which illustrates her sense of humanity; she is not a cold hearted murder.

Lady Macbeth only calls upon evil after she was informed of her husband’s prophecy. Similarly to the way in which Medea reached out to evil out of love for Jason during their marriage, Lady Macbeth called upon evil with her husband’s best interests at heart. She was ambitious for him to be King and desired to share such a royal status with him. Lady Macbeth begins her pursuit for evil by using her influence to manipulate Macbeth into killing Duncan; she ultimately becomes her husband’s backbone encouraging the involvement of evil. Unlike Medea, Lady Macbeth didn’t waver when sinning however her bad actions impacted on her and eventually her conscience and sense of guilt drove her to her own grave. The way in which Lady Macbeth is unable to endure guilt emphasises her weaknesses as a human being, thereby reinforcing her credibility.

Conclusion

In conclusion, at particular moments in the play Euripides Medea and Shakespeare’s Macbeth appear close to being melodramatic whereby the audience questions, Are Lady Macbeth and Medea credible characters? Eventually the audience sees the women’s sense of humanity whereby it is clear that both Medea and Lady Macbeth are indeed credible. Lady Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s most renowned and fearsome female characters; however after deeply analysing her character, one cannot restrain himself from feeling empathy for her. It is understood that although she reaches out to evil and commits terrible acts, Lady Macbeth’s sense of faith, guilty conscience and feminine essence restrains her from being a killer with no conscience; she is a criminal whose actions and guilt deeply affect her. It is her sense of humanity and weakness which ultimately leads to her destruction. This disregards her as a frightening character and emphasizes her credibility.

Medea is also said to be a frightening female character. Although her actions were horrifying and savage, Medea’s conscience and vulnerability allows her to waver before killing her children; a truly evil character would not waver before committing evil. Medea was heartbroken, scared, bruised and battered which was her ultimate drive for destruction. Consequently, the audience also empathizes with Medea after understanding and acknowledging her sense of humanity and connects with her emotions. Thus, despite the fact that Lady Macbeth and Medea’s female roles go against the ordinary depiction of women, they are by no means melodramatic evil characters. If Lady Macbeth and Medea were melodramatically evil, the audience will feel that the plays are unconvincing thereby unjustly diminishing the playwright’s achievements.

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