Lady Macbeth and Hecuba – an exploration of trauma

Guess who has been working all hours on this post and 0 hours on her reports?

This post draws heavily on Chapter 2 of my thesis in which I explore traumatic memory in Euripides’ Hecuba. It has been cut heavily to suit the demands of the post, so if you are interested in reading my arguments in more detail, with fuller referencing, do have a look at the thesis! I hope it works in this context, in which I examine it alongside the traumatic behaviour shown by Lady Macbeth, something that interested me while teaching for coursework on unnatural women in Macbeth with two of my GCSE groups.

It’s slightly nerve-wracking uploading it now, as I should really spend another few days rereading and editing but I need to get it out of my hair so that I can focus on my actual job! So, here it is:

‘Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?’

Individual vs communicative trauma in Lady Macbeth and Hecuba (from Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Euripides’ Trojan Women respectively)

When Lady Macbeth speaks these words, as she sleepwalks, in Act 5, scene 1 of Macbeth, one feels the full force of her horror. The sentence is entirely monosyllabic, drawing it out, and it is slowed further by the juxtaposition of ‘have’ and ‘had’ in the middle of the line, causing the emphasis to fall heavily on the equally weighted ‘so much blood’. There is a sense that every time she replays these events, she is brought up short by the unbelievable atrocity she sees in front of her.

Though psychological trauma is a relatively recent concept, its study dating from the late nineteenth century, the sleepwalking scene in Macbeth shows that Shakespeare was no stranger to its mental and physical symptoms. According to modern theorists, the traumatic experience is one which is so shocking or horrific that the brain cannot process it. Rather, it remains present and dominant in the traumatised person’s consciousness, often causing them to feel disconnected from the world around them and from their former identities. This gap, or disconnection, is known as an aporia and it is marked by ‘compulsive repetition’, either in (always failed) attempts to articulate their experience or in a subconscious replaying, in dreams, for example.[1] We know, from the Gentlewoman’s words, that such sleepwalking is not a first for Lady Macbeth and that the repeated gesture of handwashing, is an ‘accustomed action’ at such times, implying that Lady Macbeth has replayed this many times before. The ‘compulsive repetition’ of this gesture is also symptomatic of aporia: it symbolises Lady Macbeth trying to regain a former state of purity which is no longer possible for her: the ‘spot’ on her hand, as the corruption of her soul, is permanent. In addition to this, it is apparent that she is compulsively repeating the events of the night of her trauma, the evening of the murder of Duncan. Her words, ‘One, two. Why then ‘tis time to do it’, recall the way in which Macbeth was summoned to the murder by ‘The bell’, and the line about the ‘old man’ discussed above, clearly refers to the moment at which she returned to Duncan’s chamber, in order to ‘gild the faces of the grooms’ with his spilled blood. According to modern trauma theory, therefore, she feels a sense of aporia – a gap in her identity caused by the experience – and her subconscious compulsively repeats the moment of her trauma, in a futile attempt to process it.

As modern trauma theory now understands, Lady Macbeth’s trauma is no less profound because she is a perpetrator rather than a victim, though this may well affect the audience’s reception of it in the theatre, as I will go on to discuss below.[2] Euripides’ Hecuba, however, seems every inch the victim. Her words and actions in her opening speech of the Trojan Women are expressive of deep, unresolved trauma – a result of the fact that she has witnessed the murder of her husband and children and seen the destruction of her city. She wishes that she could express her grief in ‘endlessly weeping’ but cannot and so it remains internalised, dominating her psyche. This is also shown as she questions what remains for her future, ‘What is there but wailing for me, whose fatherland, children and husband are gone?’ The mainstays of her existence have been taken away and are replaced only with her inarticulate grief.

In modern theory about testimony to trauma, it is widely accepted that trauma is evidenced in the victim’s speech – punctuated by eruptions of emotion – and in the victim’s appearance.[3] Here too, Hecuba fits the bill. In the first speech, again, she counsels herself to endure her situation and not to ‘set the prow of the ship of life / against the swell’, but her traumatic memory breaks through and her speech explodes into an inarticulate αἰαῖ αἰαῖ of pain. This happens too in Lady Macbeth’s speech which tails off at 5. 1. 46 into ‘O! Oh, oh—’ when she realises that ‘All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand.’ Hecuba also refers to her head as ἐκπορθηθεῖσ’ οἰκτρῶς (‘pitifully pillaged’). She means her torn hair but the cause of this tearing is unclear. Cropping or tearing hair was a sign of ritual mourning but slaves’ hair was also cropped. In the word ἐκπορθέω both interpretations accentuate the trauma of its occurrence. The word is usually used to signify the pillaging of cities and is not used anywhere else to refer to hair cutting, so this is no snipping of a ritual curl![4] It is an act of violence which either Hecuba has inflicted on herself or which has been inflicted on her by the Greeks. The termἐκπορθέω here suggests that what Troy has undergone as a result of war, Hecuba has embodied in microcosm.

However, there is a key difference in the trauma that these two women experience and this difference has a profound impact on the political make-up of the plays. Whereas Lady Macbeth’s trauma leads to her retreating into herself, away from the main action of the play and finally, to suicide, Hecuba’s is a collective, communicative trauma, which leads to a redefinition of political identity in the world of the play and possibly also in its first audience.[5]

Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking marks her final appearance in the play and reinforces the fact that her political influence is at an end. Early on, she sought to negate her femininity, famously calling on the ‘spirits / That tend on mortal thoughts’ to ‘unsex’ her. She wanted them to ‘make thick [her] blood’ and ‘take [her] milk for gall’, drawing on post-Aristotelian beliefs about the female body: that thick blood was associated with age and sterility and that breast milk was blood from the womb that turned white as it passed the purity of the mother’s heart.[6] That she asks for hers to turn to poison suggests that she seeks the unfeeling hardness of an unnatural woman who would kill her own children (an image to which she returns), her thickened blood blocking her weak, womanly ‘passage to remorse’. This leads her to act in such a manner that she dominates her husband, putting an end to his vacillations about the murder and planning every stage of it herself. After she has been in to bathe the daggers in the king’s blood, she says to him, ‘My hands are of your colour – but I shame / To wear a heart so white!’ drawing a direct comparison between her husband’s cowardice and her own strength and honour. There are intimations early on that perhaps she is acting this role and critics and directors have speculated as to why this might be – her own ambition? Her obsessive love and ambition for her husband? – but it is clear that by Act 1, scene 5, the ‘passage to remorse’ has been unblocked and she is humanised again in her weak, helpless femininity, unable even to control her own mind.

For Hecuba, on the other hand, trauma forms the start of a new kind of political power, even as Troy, the city of which she was queen, is being destroyed. At the end of her first speech, she says that she will ‘begin the chant’ of mourning, ‘a very different measure from that which [she] once led’. She brings the other Trojan women onto the stage, saying that she will lead and orchestrate the mourning as she once did the festivals of celebration in Troy, continuing her role as queen in this new capacity.

When she says to the other women, ‘I will sing my swansong over the blessings of my life’ and ‘in this way I will enhance the pathos of my sufferings’ she makes her intention explicit. The juxtaposition of her blessings—her noble status and marriage, and her many children—with her testimony to their slaughter, is an unequivocal attempt to elicit a sympathetic, or even empathetic, response from her audience. In the narration of her memories, she is re-membering her community and her stage-audience responds in kind. The choral response, in the first person as is conventional, is a collective memory of the night on which Troy was sacked, and the chorus and Hecuba continue, throughout the play, to share memories of Troy, to memorialise their disappearing city. Within this testimony is their very explicit testimony that the Greeks, and Helen, in particular, are responsible.

What one starts to see here, then, is a community of feeling because the chorus joins with Hecuba empathetically. The effect of this empathic emotion, however, is political. The trauma theorist Dominick LaCapra calls this process, whereby empathy with a victim of trauma causes us to forge new political ties, ‘empathic unsettlement’, and as I will detail below, Euripides uses such a process to warn his audience of its potential political and legal dangers. I will return to Lady Macbeth in the light of this analysis.[7]

The ‘community of feeling’ which Hecuba creates among the women onstage extends to the audience in the theatre. In watching the Trojan Women, we empathise with Hecuba’s suffering and as with the chorus, this leads us to take her part. The speech in which she receives Astyanax’s mutilated body and rails against the cowardliness of the Greeks in fearing ‘this little boy’ is one of the most emotionally intense and moving in the play but we should not allow ourselves to be blinded by tears. Only a few hundred lines before, Hecuba exhorted Andromache to commit the rest of her life to bringing up this same ‘little boy’ so that his offspring might found Troy anew, the very thing which the Greeks were anxious to prevent. From her position of powerlessness over her grandson’s violent death, Hecuba manages to perform and so, harness an experience of trauma in order to orchestrate a collective response to her story, one which generates empathy for her and for Troy and blame for the Greeks.

This finds its apex in the agon scene, in which Hecuba attempts to persuade Menelaus, Helen’s husband, to execute his wife, for her role in instigating the war against Troy. Here, while the audience might be swept along by their empathy for Hecuba to applaud her vengeful victory, memory of the exchange afterwards, together with their memory of the myths surrounding the Trojan War may cause them to think differently. Helen’s self confidence in appearing in her rich clothing, rather than that befitting a prisoner and a slave, and her sophistic rhetoric, do her no favours with the audience.[8] However, a closer look at her arguments reveals their recognisable truths. The beauty contest, for example, is one of the mainstays of the traditional narrative.[9] Helen’s narrative also tells the ‘truth’ of anthropomorphised gods who control the lives of mortals, something which Hecuba’s denies when she speaks of Aphrodite as merely men’s excuse for folly. In this, the audience only need think back to the prologue of the play to see the ‘truth’ of Helen’s words: here Poseidon and Athene plot together to punish the Greeks for their sacrilegious attacks on the Trojan temples by raising a storm to wreck the Greek ships on their journey home.

In judging Hecuba too, knowledge of myth brings a different, much darker side to her character and to the audience’s empathy with her. Although Hecuba does not actually murder Helen in the agon, she does ‘team up’ with her Greek oppressors in order to achieve her goal of vengeance. To empathise with Hecuba and to cheer her victory is to follow her on a personal, vindictive quest for revenge, dressed up as justice. In this, the audience are required to question their complicity. Eurpides’ Hecuba (an earlier play representing a later point in her story) provides foreknowledge of Hecuba’s capability for vindictive cruelty and violence, culminating in her transformation into a vicious hellhound and it seems likely that this might affect the audience’s views of Hecuba here. Her insistent pursuit of Helen may be a step on the ladder to this final depravity.

Given the ways in which the agones of tragedy have often been seen to reflect the real life juridical situations of ancient Athens, we might see the chorus in the agon as a kind of imperfect jury and so they may serve as a warning to the audience. Like the audience going into this scene, the chorus is no unbiased group of bystanders. They not only empathise with Hecuba but have experienced some of the same suffering so are personally involved in the trial. They champion Hecuba, cheering for her to ‘defend your children and your fatherland’ and to ‘destroy [Helen’s] persuasive arguments’. They recognise Helen’s rhetoric as sophistic because of the speciousness of some of her arguments and are put off by it, but as shown, this leads them to ignore her truths. Conversely, Hecuba’s rhetoric, driven as it is by intense emotion—emotion with which they empathise—remains hidden or perhaps unimportant to them because she is on the side of ‘right.’ Her answer to Helen comes in the form of ‘common sense’ or probability, itself a highly effective form of rhetoric.[10] Her rhetorical questions such as ‘Why should the goddess Hera have so great a desire to be beautiful?’ are designed to highlight the ludicrousness of Helen’s argument. This is reinforced by her statement, ‘You will never persuade wise people [of this],’ which both flatters those who agree with her and warns that to think otherwise would be foolishness.

Therefore, in spite of their fears about ‘pernicious’ rhetoric, the chorus of the Trojan Women is shown to be ‘tragically’ naïve when it comes to the adjudication of this conflict in the agon. If the audience are, as I have suggested, swept along with the chorus by their empathy for Hecuba, then in the moment of watching the play, the same accusation could be levelled at them, as juridical citizens. Their empathy leads them to remember with Hecuba, seeing the conflict through her eyes and they forget the many memories which should make them question her narrative.

In this way, Euripides dramatises the dangers of empathy in the legal and political arenas, particularly in the context of dichotomised conflicts. Where voting followed immediately on hearing two contrasting speeches, with no time for empathy to wane, miscarriages of justice must have been commonplace. Therefore, by recasting Hecuba’s trauma and revenge in the context of the fifth-century courts, Euripides draws attention to the problems inherent in contemporary political and juridical systems and practices. Jon Hesk concludes that ‘such stagings surely helped the citizenry to be self-aware and cautious as they listened to litigants or the (anti-) rhetoric of advisers’.[11] I suggest, in addition, that such self-awareness applies, in particular, to empathy with victims of trauma and its unsettling effects on memory and interpretation.

So, might one see such empathic unsettlement resulting from an audience’s experience of Lady Macbeth’s trauma? Above, I argued that Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking scene ‘humanises’ her and to this extent, it may be that Shakespeare opens the door for an empathetic response to her trauma. From the time of 2nd wave feminism in the 1970s, various writers have sought to recast Lady Macbeth in spin off novels as ‘sympathetic and motherly’.[12] Yet, we surely cannot forget that the murder of Duncan was driven by her and that without her intervention, Macbeth may well have stuck to his resolution to ‘proceed no further in this business’. It may, then, be argued that Lady Macbeth’s trauma serves as a political and religious warning to the audience. As the Doctor makes clear, Lady Macbeth’s trauma was seen as an ‘unnatural trouble’, a disorder in her mind, or possibly, her soul, and a result of her own ‘Unnatural deeds’. Her punishment is the wages of sin, making her more needful of ‘the divine than the physician’: she has sinned against God in her ambition as well as in her part in the murder of the king. She serves as a warning to all women, then, that they should not try to act against their weak, feminine natures, should not dominate their husbands or seek to influence affairs of state.

However, as Kiernan Ryan points out, Macbeth is far more than ‘a politically orthodox morality play’ and part of this lies in the empathic response that both Macbeth and his Lady evoke.[13] This response is not straight forward because it will always be clouded by the knowledge of their brutality, but in Lady Macbeth, it comes back down to her question, ‘Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?’ Ryan points out that she does not refer to him as the king here and she is not talking about the ‘royal blood’. He is an ‘old man’ who ‘resembled [her] father as he slept’. It is the realisation that she perpetrated such an act against Duncan, who was not just a king but a human being and who might as well have been her own father, that traumatises Lady Macbeth and replays nightly in her dreams. I certainly cannot help but feel compassion for her in this. Ryan uses this image to postulate that instead of the warning of the morality play, the play offers ‘a prophetic moral vision’ of a world which values what human beings have in common – their common blood – rather than the difference which ‘sets them at each other’s throats’.

The tragedy for Lady Macbeth could then be seen in the fact that she realises too late – through her trauma – the compassion that may have overridden her ambitious desire to see her husband crowned king. Hecuba’s tragedy is, in a way, more obvious: the play ends as she is taken off into slavery while the Greeks set fire to Troy. And yet she gains another kind of victory. Her actual political power may have been reduced to nothing but what Euripides achieves here, through his portrayal of Hecuba’s communicative trauma, is a lasting memorial to Troy in the moment of its destruction, one which vilifies the Greeks, whose supposed descendants sit and watch the play.

(The issue of whether this was done in response to the recent slaughter in Melos has been well rehearsed and this post is already long enough so I’m just going to gesture to it here!)


[1] Dominick LaCapra, History in Transit: Experience, Identity, Critical Theory (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2004), p. 125.

[2] Kirsten Campbell, “Testimonial Modes: Witnessing, Evidence and Testimony Before the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia,” in Jane Kilby and Antony Rowland, The Future of Testimony: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Witnessing (New York, London: Routledge, 2014) pp. 83-109.

[3] Aleida Assman, ‘History, Memory, and the Genre of Testimony,’ Poetics Today, 27 (2), 2006, pp. 261-273.

Also, John Durham Peters, ‘Witnessing,’ Media, Culture and Society, 23, no. 6 (2001), pp. 707-723.

[4] C.f. Helen in Eur. Or. 128-29 but also Electra in Soph. El. 51-52 and Aesch. Cho. 167.

[5] For collective and communicative trauma see Jeffrey C. Alexander, Ron Eyerman, Bernhard Giesen, Neil J. Smelser and Piotr Sztompka, Cultural Trauma and Collective Identity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004).

[6] Diane Purkiss, “Witches in Macbeth”, Discovering Literature: Shakespeare and Renaissance (The British Library, online resource, 15/03/2016). Accessed at https://www.bl.uk/shakespeare/articles/witches-in-macbeth on 08/10/2020.

[7] LaCapra (2004), p. 125.

[8] The analysis of rhetoric in this passage draws on Richard G. A. Buxton, Persuasion in Greek Tragedy: A Study of Peitho (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), Jon Hesk, Deception and Democracy in Classical Athens (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000) and Steven Johnstone, Disputes and Democracy: The Consequences of Litigation in Ancient Athens (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1999). My argument was also influenced by Elton T. E. Barker, Entering the Agon: Dissent and Authority in Homer, Historiography and Tragedy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), Chapter 3.

[9] E.g. Il. 24. 25-30.

[10] See e.g. Michael Lloyd, The Agon in Euripides (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992), p. 106.

[11] Hesk (2000), p. 288.

[12] Sandra M. Gilbert, “‘Unsex me here’: Lady Macbeth’s hell broth”, in Discovering Literature: Shakespeare and Renaissance (The British Library, online resource, 15/03/2016). Accessed at https://www.bl.uk/shakespeare/articles/unsex-me-here-lady-macbeths-hell-broth on 08/10/2020.

[13] Kiernan Ryan, “Manhood and the ‘milk of human kindness’ in Macbeth, Discovering Literature: Shakespeare and Renaissance (The British Library, online resource, 15/03/2016). Accessed at https://www.bl.uk/shakespeare/articles/manhood-and-the-milk-of-human-kindness-in-macbeth on 08/10/2020.

Published by sophieraudnitz

English teacher, Classics PhD, teenaged boys and dogs

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: