an unlikely line in the genome for compassion: Lady Macbeth

I had trouble writing this piece because I was composing for two audiences: myself and the general reader on one hand, while also for my students on the other.  For example, I enjoy the discursive circling around the two parts of my main idea, but I fear the elaboration may confuse some of my students.  This time around, I will err to the side of the general reader.  Students, hang in there while I try to explain.  Part of what I am doing in the paragraph below is developing the main idea–by rephrasing it, and by explaining the context from which it arose.  The main idea appears most simply in the first sentence, while the subsequent sentences develop that idea.  Part of the development answers the implied question of “Why are you spending time on this idea?  Why does it matter?”  In the case of the paragraph below, the main idea matters because many readers express a particular opinion of Lady Macbeth, and I disagree with aspects of that opinion.  I want to test the validity of that opinion against a different interpretation.  In my experience, the most compelling introductory paragraphs not only state the essay’s main idea, which some call a thesis statement, but also develop it enough that readers understand the value of the forthcoming analysis.  We tend to read things more carefully, when we have a sense of why the thing matters.  So here is my paragraph about Lady Macbeth.

Not only does Lady Macbeth have a conscience, but she also shows us where it comes from.  She reveals what lies at the heart of compassion.  She shows us a line in the genome for compassion.  Audiences often argue that Lady Macbeth is evil incarnate.  She is immoral to the core.  Yes and no.  She does act in a way that suggests this.  At the same time, though, she is not without a conscience.  Several spots in the play’s opening show that she has to work at being cruel, implying that she is not naturally so.  She has to force herself into ruthlessness.  For example, not long after she has read her husband’s letter about his good fortune, she says this to herself, trying to ready herself for Macbeth’s return home: “Come, you spirits / That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here / And fill me from crown to the toe topful /  Of direst cruelty” (1.5.38-41).  She calls on these spirits, in order to make herself cruel.  And not just cruel, but filled through and through with the strongest type of cruelty possible–the “direst cruelty.”  Why would she invoke the help of these spirits, if she were already cruel and without conscience?  She has a conscience and wants assistance in overriding it, expunging it.  This wish for inhuman cruelty explains what she worries about in her husband.   She wants to think Macbeth is equal to the task of murdering Duncan, yet she says, “do I fear thy nature, / It is too full o’th’milk of human kindness” (1.5.14-15).  She is afraid of his kindness.  Why?  Because it will get in their way. It will block the path to their being crowned.  She not only worries about this obstruction, but she is also afraid of Macbeth’s nature, in part because she understands kindness.  She has a conscience of her own, but she fears it.  We know she recognizes kindness and compassion because later, as Macbeth approaches her after having killed the king, she says, “Had he not resembled / My father as he slept, I had done’t” (2.2.12-13).  Notably, she says this to herself before he reaches her.  He is within earshot, but not close enough to hear her express this acknowledgment.  Perhaps she does not want him to hear her admit this.  With her private statement, Lady Macbeth reveals an essential ingredient in compassion.  Conscience is based on compassion, and Lady Macbeth’s whisper to herself reveals that it is much harder to harm people close to us.  When we know them, we hesitate.  At least, that is how natural conscience and compassion work.  Of course, Shakespeare’s play focuses on unnatural events.


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