When Alexa was choosing her A Level options, I believe I may have offered her everything available to persuade (read: bribe) her to opt for one of our English subjects offered. Fortunately, after the promise of providing her with cake every lesson and the next school building named in her honour, Alexa decided that both Language and Literature would suffice. Alexa is one of the rare students who is just exceptional at absolutely ruddy everything, often frustrating her proud yet envious teachers with her sheer brilliance. Alexa has been an enthusiastic, hard-working and high achieving student of English throughout all her Whitbread years. Always succeeding with an air of humility and humbleness, she worked incredibly hard to achieve her A* in Literature and should be very proud of attaining 100% in all components of her English Language GCSE; a truly remarkable feat. Her writing, which has always been a pleasure to read, is concise, sophisticated and her vocabulary developed. An exceptional example of this can be found in her Literature essay below, which scored 40 out of 40. Although she would hate for me to state so, Alexa is one of the finest English students in Whitbread history, and I look forward to her success in the future.
‘Brand, burn up, bite into its grace’ (The Laboratory)
The speaker in the Laboratory by Robert Browning and Lady Macbeth in Shakespeare’s Macbeth are both disturbed characters, but the speaker is more so. Discuss.
Firstly, the authors of these two works portray disturbed characters through guilt (or lack thereof). Before the murder of Duncan, Lady Macbeth attempts to push away any potential guilt about killing another human being by saying ‘stop up the access and passage to remorse’, implying that she knows that what she is planning to do is wrong and she expects to feel bad later, yet she believes that her quest for power is more important than simple human emotions. In contrast, Speaker displays no such expectations of remorse as she asks the apothecary ‘which is the poison to poison her, prithee?’ The repetition of ‘poison’ suggests a certain level of excitement, as if she thinks the whole idea of murder is an enjoyable game. This repetition also draws attention to the word ‘poison’, making it apparent that Speaker has a fascination with the method of death, not just the possible rewards gained upon the task’s completion, unlike Lady Macbeth, who upon first impression may seem as disturbed as a character can get, but in this case is outdone by Speaker.
After Macbeth has become king and Lady Macbeth is queen, the guilt she has tried so hard to keep under control takes over and her true feelings spill out as she sleepwalks. While imagining that Macbeth is by her side, Lady Macbeth admits that ‘all the perfumes of Arabia could not sweeten this little hand’. It could be argued that this scene is the weakest we see Lady Macbeth, and it is only in this scene that any character describes any part of her as feminine; she describes her own hand as ‘little’, a typically female characteristic. Finally she thinks of herself as feminine, when she is no longer strong and is too evil to be redeemed, which shows her disturbed nature in her disgust for her own sex, as although the inferiority of women was a commonly held view at the time Shakespeare wrote Macbeth, this extent of self-loathing because of it would have been unusual. The Laboratory finishes before any killings take place, but at the end, Speaker talks of her plans to ‘dance at the King’s’ once the deed is done. Even before the killings, Lady Macbeth never expresses such a blasé attitude towards the act of murder, whereas Speaker goes so far as to say that she wants to party, completely unaffected, demonstrating her extremely disturbed nature.
Love, one of the main themes in almost all literary texts, is somewhat put on hold in Macbeth and the Laboratory. Lady Macbeth’s feelings towards Macbeth are in no way romantic and she only uses him to gain power; after she has been informed of Macbeth’s potential to rule Scotland and she starts to come up with a plan, she spares not a though for Macbeth as she thinks about how Duncan will meet his end under ‘[her] battlements’. Since Macbeth is the man and Lady Macbeth should look up to him, this immediate dismissal of him proves that Lady Macbeth is disturbed. At the other end of the scale of ‘love’, Speaker is completely obsessed with Partner, so much so that she is unable to place any blame about his unfaithfulness on him, instead focusing her anger on Woman, whom Speaker believes has ‘ensnared him’. Speaker’s disturbed nature is enhanced by the delusion that Partner is weak and needs to be freed by her.
Lastly, the two’s dastardly characters are made all the more intense by their connections to the apparent devious nature of women. Their cruelty is part of this theme. Lady Macbeth is the epitome of cold calculation and believes Macbeth to be weak because he is ‘too full of the milk of human kindness’. To her, the ends more than justify the means – as long as the ends include her gaining power – and kindness is an obstacle that needs to be overcome. ‘Not that I bid you spare her the pain’ is one line in which Speaker’s own brand of cruelty is abundantly clear. Her sadistic satisfaction in imagining her victim’s pain and suffering as she dies shows how, while Speaker cares about the means just as much (probably more than) the ends, the particular way in which she wants the means to be carried out is disturbing, rather than just.
In the Jacobean era, when Shakespeare wrote Macbeth, people wholeheartedly believed in witchcraft and the evil associated with it was, in their minds, completely real. Women had always made up the vast majority of the accused of this then-crime, so seeing Lady Macbeth say ‘come, you spirits that tend on mortal thoughts’ would most definitely have had a negative effect on public opinion of her character. Some probably equated her with evil. In the Victorian times, when Browning wrote the Laboratory, though the government no longer punished so-called witches, there were still communities whose beliefs in the occult had not quite dissipated. In the poem, Speaker compares the apothecary’s laboratory to a ‘devil’s smithy’, yet she is still there, watching him work. This displays her somewhat demon-like nature, as no person with pure intentions would want to be in a place linked with the devil. As her enjoyment of this experience is revealed just a short time after she makes this comparison, it is obvious that she knows how terrible what she is doing is but she still derives pleasure from it.
The accepted views of masculinity and femininity were similarly rigid in both the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries; men were powerful and women were subservient (or else they would have been punished). Lady Macbeth, a strong female character, actually shared this view and even asked for spirits to ‘unsex’ her so that she could gain power. Extreme, perhaps, but she had been brought up in a world dominated by male leaders, with women in the background, so the only way to fulfil her desires would have been to be a man, as even women called queens and ladies (including Lady Macbeth herself) only had their titles because they were married to men with the equivalent status. The way her mind has been twisted to believe totally in her own gender’s inferiority makes Lady Macbeth a disturbed character to us in the twenty-first century, but to people living in Shakespeare’s time, it would have been very strange if she did not. The Laboratory, written 238 years after Macbeth, was still published in a period of gender inequality, even though the current monarch was Queen Victoria. When Speaker says that a certain poison ‘never will free the soul from those masculine eyes’, she is saying that Woman must have man-like features because she holds power over Partner. However, the way in which Speaker describes her plan to kill all parts of her victim’s femininity as she says ‘her breast and her arms and her hands, should drop dead’ implies that she values femininity, because she wants to remove it from Woman so that all that’s left is a masculine corpse, and the way in which she insults Woman’s character and then calls her eyes ‘masculine’ proves that, while Speaker recognises the fact that men hold the power, she actually thinks women are better. Feminists are still fighting to be heard today, and in Browning’s time they were almost unheard of, making Speaker a rather disturbed character due to her nonconformist views.