The death of Lady Macbeth used to trouble me.
Undoubtedly one of his greatest creations, it always struck me as strange that Shakespeare not only denies Lady Macbeth a death that takes place on stage, but also that he goes a step further and denies both Macbeth-and the audience- the time and opportunity to process, confront, and react to the news of the mysterious death. Macbeth simply states that his wife ‘should have died hereafter’ and then launches into a soliloquy deliberating on the futility of life, rather than the grief he feels for his wife. In doing so, Macbeth directs the audience to consider his existentialist crisis also, rather than the death of Lady Macbeth.
In fact, in the ‘Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow’ soliloquy, Shakespeare actively encourages the audience to distance themselves from any emotion they might have surrounding Lady Macbeth’s death.
Shakespeare does this through the use of meta-theatre. That is, he makes considered reference to the fact that what the audience are witnessing is in fact, just a play, and not real life.
Consider this. In Act 5 scene 3 of the play, the audience bears witness to Macbeth (or the actor playing Macbeth) strutting and fretting round the stage as he realises that the witches’ prophecy is being fulfilled. His raging use of imperatives (‘give me my armour’; ‘Take thy face hence!’; ‘Bring me no more reports’), directed at the last hangers-on of his dwindling army, reveal him to be a man who, actually, in spite of his insistence to the contrary, does indeed, ‘taint with fear’ at the fact that his head is soon to be little more than stopper for the end of Macduff’s sword.
When, in Act 5 scene 5, of the play, Macbeth says that life is little more than a ‘poor player’ (rubbish actor) that ‘struts and frets his hour upon the stage’, Shakespeare, or rather, the actor playing Macbeth, is referencing himself. It’s a joke! The audience has just found out that one of his greatest ever female characters has died and Shakespeare is trying to make the audience laugh. It’s a joke that says, ‘life is like a shite actor that struts and frets across the stage and that’s what I was just doing in that scene earlier remember? Remember? This is a play. And I’m an actor. None of this is real.’
Of course, this is not terrible writing; Shakespeare wants the audience to feel exactly the same as Macbeth does upon hearing of his wife’s death: nothing. After all, killing Duncan cemented the end of their relationship. Other things, like power and greed and the golden round got in the way.