Argument and Persuasion: A Comparison of ‘Macbeth’ and ‘A Doll’s House’

Published: 2019/12/06 Number of words: 3088

The purpose of this essay is to explain how and why two characters from ‘ Macbeth’ and ‘ A Doll’s House’ succeeded in persuading their spouses to see their points of view. Further, t he dynamics of how two particular scenes could be staged to achieve maximum effect will be considered. The two scenes in question (Act I, Scene 7 of ‘Macbeth’ and the latter half of Act 3 in ‘A Doll’s House’) are critical for an understanding of the issues dealt with by the plays.

A major theme in ‘ Macbeth’ is Macbeth’s equivocation and indecisiveness. This is seen in his opening soliloquy in Act I, Scene 7 where he is debating whether or not to kill King Duncan. The reasons he gives for not killing Duncan seem, at first, to far outweigh the reasons for killing the king. The fact that he is Duncan’s ‘host’ (line 14), his ‘subject’ (line 13 ) and that he should be protecting him weighs heavily upon Macbeth’s conscience . In Macbeth’s opinion, Duncan is a man of virtue. According to Kermode , Macbeth describes Duncan’s virtues by using the imagery of ‘the…figures of the naked baby and the mounted cherubim ’ (Kermode, 2001: 209). At the end of the speech, however, Shakespeare uses the image-ridden phrase: ‘vaulting ambition’ (line 27) to illustrate Macbeth’s desire to seize power above all else .

Soliloquies are used to express the thoughts and feelings of the characters. During Shakespeare’s time, part of the stage jutted out into the audience and this was where soliloquies were often performed to make them more dramatic. Whether a modern stage is used or a Shakespearean type stage, this particular speech would more effective if the actor moved around to show Macbeth’s indecisive state of mind. Placing Macbeth centre stage would also make the scene more effective. The use of a spotlight would intensify the dramatic power of Macbeth’s soliloquy.

It is a trait later exploited by Lady Macbeth. Lady Macbeth’s entrance is introduced by Macbeth himself when he says, ‘How now? What news?’ (line 29). As intimated by the shared line, Lady Macbeth’s entrance is somewhat dramatic and interrupts Macbeth mid-speech as though he is still deciding whether or not to kill Duncan. However, as Kermode (2001:208) says, it is ‘the entrance of his wife that makes him change it’. Shakespeare used entrances to great effect. H e used players who were onstage to introduce those who were coming on and so ‘ give ground for the entrance of others’ (Smith: 409). In this case, Macbeth is ‘giving ground’ to his wife who exploits his weakness and craves the dominion promised to him.

In ‘ A Doll’s House’ , Helmer already has power over his domain which included Nora, who he often referred to as his ‘frightened little singing bird’ (p.64) or other similar phrases. By using such words he had been able to subject Nora to his will. It could be argued that his willingness to ‘shelter’ Nora under his ‘broad wings’ (p.64) is an indication of his past ability to control her. However, Nora seems to change the dynamics between herself and Helmer by asking him to ‘sit down’ (p.65) and stating that they had lots to talk about. By doing this, Nora is able to seize the initiative. Earlier in the scene, t here is an indication that this is going to happen when

Helmer makes a move on her and she rejects it by ‘moving to the other side of the table’ (SD: p.57). It could be argued that she had been given the motivation to do this by dancing the tarantella amongst friends and strangers. The tarantella is an old Sicilian dance which has many origins. One of these origins:

. . .l eans on a legend of wome n who, depressed and frustrated from the subordinate lifestyle, would fall into a trance that could only be cured by music and dance. This normally lasted three days and during that time the tarantata (the dancers) would be the centre of attention, which in turn would cure them of their frustrations and depressions. (Pazzaglia, 2008)

It seems that the tarantella (which is danced between Act 2 and Act 3) is the turning point of the play as Nora’s character changes from that of a subordinated little doll to that of a liberated woman who leaves through the door at the end of Act 3. Whatever she does subconsciously in the tarantella, she is able to act out in real life at the end of the play.

Helmer is unable to stop this transition as he is, at first, unaware of Nora’s feelings. This may be because their marriage, according to Nora, consisted of not talking about ‘any serious subject’ (‘A Doll’s House’, p.66). Nora goes on to say she had only ‘existed to perform tricks’ (p.66) for Helmer and that she wanted to emancipate herself by standing on her own two feet (‘A Doll’s House’, p.67).

Ibsen’s themes of female emancipation and its connections with feminism contained within this play have long been contested by various critics. Ibsen himself has been quoted as saying that:

True enough, it is desirable to solve the woman question along with all the others; but that has not been the whole purpose. My task has been the description of humanity (Ibsen Letters as cited in Templeton: 28).

In contrast to Shakespeare’s use of soliloquy to intensify tension, Ibsen employed realism and dialogue in his stagecraft to illustrate specific points. A common theme for Ibsen was ‘the description of humanity’ and he uses the character of Nora to illustrate his social ideals. By using stage directions that are specific and symbolic, Ibsen is able to increase the dramatic tension between Nora and Helmer.

When Nora changes from her ‘fancy dress’ (‘A Doll’s House’, p.64) into her ‘everyday dress’ (SD: p.65), the audience would be understand something that Helmer would no t:: Nora wants to break out of the make-believe world of her ‘doll’s house’ and enter a world of her own making. In this instance, the realism in this particular part of the scene demonstrates dramatic irony as well as the dramatic tension within the walls of the‘d oll’s h ouse’.

In the Shakespearean theatre, the players interacted with the audience; the stage in Ibsen’s time was more like contemporary theatres . The proscenium arch acts as ‘a fourth wall separating the actor from the audience’ (Gassner: 131). This was important for realistic drama because the audience would be able to look into a scene which ‘could be looked at as a picture and finally a photograph’ (Gassner: 131) adding to the reality of what it was seeing and hearing. It could be said to be ironic that the audience is watching ‘ A Doll’s House’ through the ‘fourth wall’ (Gassner: 131).

In realistic drama such as ‘The Doll’s House’, t he dialogue needs to be real yet representational. Instead of long soliloquies offering insights into the character’s mind, prose dialogue is utilised as a means of understanding the characters and the dynamics of their relationships. (Gassner: 131).

In ‘A Doll’s House’, prose dialogue is used to reinforce Ibsen’s stance on social issues. By using Nora to communicate to Helmer his weakness, Ibsen applies this weakness to society as a whole. Nora accuses her husband of not accepting his responsibility or blame of any kind by saying ‘I am the guilty one’ (p.70). By using realistic dialogue, Ibsen is able to make a social comment on a theme that was contemporary to him and to today’s society.

Similarly, it could be argued that ‘Macbeth’ also explores issues that have timeless relevance. One of the themes developed in ‘the Scottish play’ is the danger of ambition. Both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth have ambitious aspirations for the ‘ornament of life’ (line 42) but it is her ‘spur’ (line 25) which eventually overcomes his lack of decision.

Lady Macbeth’s first question after her husband’s speech is, ‘Why have you left the chamber?’ (line 28). S he asks this because she does not want to arouse suspicion. In a previous scene, she had advised Macbeth to ‘look like th’innocent flower/But be the serpent under it’ (Act 1, Scene 5: lines 64-65). Macbeth concludes Act 1, Scene 7 with the idea that ‘false face must hide what the false heart doth know’ (line 82) thus showing that the control in the relationship has shifted. However, when Lady Macbeth arrives on the scene after his initial speech at the beginning of Act 1, Scene 7, she is concerned that their scheme to kill Duncan would be found out or that Macbeth has changed his mind.

Her suspicions that Macbeth is having second thoughts are confirmed when he says, ‘We will proceed no further ‘ (line 31) with Duncan’s murder. Consequently, she takes steps to insult his masculinity and his ability to carry things out. Lady Macbeth reinforces her doubts about her husband by questioning his ambition. She illustrates this at the beginning of her speech when she asks, ‘Was the hope drunk wherein you dressed yourself? Hath it slept since? And wakes it now so green and pale?’ (lines 35-37).

According to Kermode (2001 :210 ), this phrase illustrates ‘Macbeth’s dread of acting in accordance with his desire’ . The ‘hope’ (line 35) is personified as ‘drunk’ (line 35) and now has a hangover (Kermode, 2001: 210). It could also be argued that this phrase shows Lady Macbeth’s frustration at her husband’s perceived lack of ambition but it also shows her ability to persuade through metaphor and personification. She also attempts to change his perception of manliness by calling him ‘a coward in thine own esteem’ (line 43). She then proceeds to use violent language to show her willingness to carry out the act. This shakes Macbeth from his indecision and changes his perception of what makes a man. She conveniently forgets her feminine qualities in order to pursue her objective and to persuade Macbeth to carry out the deed by stating:

I have given suck and know/How tender ‘tis to love the babe that milks me: /I would, while it was smiling in my face,/Have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums/And dashed the brains out, had I so sworn/ As you have done to this. (Act 1, Scene 7: lines 54-59)

Lady Macbeth here shows her desire to push her husband to do the deed by saying that, even though her maternal love for her metaphorical child is strong, her readiness to go through with the deed would be stronger.

The use of the word ‘sworn’ (line 58) is crucial in this passage because, according to Foakes (2003:151), ‘nowhere in the text does Macbeth bind himself by an oath’ to kill Duncan’. However, it could be argued that Lady Macbeth has used the implication of this and persuasive language to make Macbeth believe that he had broken an oath.

Eventually, through the use of encouragement (‘screw your courage to the sticking place’: line 60) and proposals as to how they should kill Duncan (lines 61-70), Lady Macbeth succeeds in persuading Macbeth that killing the king is the right thing to do.

It could be argued that in ‘A Doll’s House’, Nora uses persuasive language to try and explain to Helmer the reasons she needs to leave and of her ‘duties’ (p.66) to herself. Ibsen uses the imagery of the doll and her domicile to explain Nora’s issues with her life. She explains to Helmer that her father:

. . .c alled me his doll child, and he played with me just as I used to play with my dolls. (‘ A Doll’s House: 66)

She then goes on to explain that she had merely moved from being dominated by one patriarch to being mollycoddled by another without finding out who she was (p.66). The imagery of the doll’s house is obliterated when Nora observes that she had ‘heard that when a wife deserts her husband…..he is legally freed from all obligations toward her’ (p.71). Through naturalistic dialogue, Ibsen is showing that Nora is ready to break out of the doll’s house which had held her bound for so long. A s Finney (1994:98) says, ‘. . . in order to reach genuine maturity she must leave this life behind ’ .

Before this and despite Helmer’s protestations to the contrary, Nora finally persuades him to admit that there is ‘an abyss’ (p.70) between them. H e is still not convinced that it may be too late until she gives him his ring (p.71) and forcefully asks him to ‘…g ive me mine’ (p.71). It could be argued that the realisation of what his actions mean does not dawn on him until Nora dramatically slams the door, when h e says, ‘The most wonderful thing of all’ (p.72). This final statement is preceded by Ibsen’s stage direction which states that ‘a hope flashes across his mind’ (SD: 72) leaving what happens next open to interpretation and allows the audience to think about the moral message behind the play.

The moral message is further reinforced by the slamming of the door as Nora makes her controversial exit from the house. It is on this moment that the meaning of the play rests. Ibsen uses this as the climax of the play as, in his view, ‘it would be immoral of her to continue living together with Helmer’ (Hemmer: 83-84).

So that his play could be produced in Germany, Ibsen had to come up with an ‘alternative German ending’ to this play; Nora is persuaded by Helmer to stay and think about the children . Ibsen was furious that he had to attempt this because it altered the emphasis that the play was supposed to have. Many people, including critics, have misunderstood the meaning of the play’s original ending which was intended to be, in Hemmer’s (1994) words:

A means, a preliminary to her own self-development whereby she is to become a person in her own right and also in the sight of others. (Hemmer: 83)

It could be argued that the alternative ending of the play would not have the social impact that Ibsen wanted it to have but it could also be stated that the original ending would not necessarily be as final as critics have made it out to be. The mention of ‘hope’ (p.72) in the penultimate stage direction means that the meaning of the play is both open to interpretation as well as being optimistic. It could be said that the slamming door had such a lasting effect on 19th-c entury audiences that Helmer’s last remarks may not have been noted as significant as Nora’s last action.

In ‘Macbeth’ and ‘A Doll’s House’ it can be seen that both Macbeth and Helmer are eventually persuaded by their spouse s’ arguments to relinquish their previously held views. It can also be seen that both Nora and Lady Macbeth have used the art of persuasion in different ways to achieve particular ends. It is plausible to say that while Nora was driven by a need to break out from under Helmer’s ‘broad wings’ (‘A Doll’s House’: 64), Lady Macbeth was driven by ambition to manipulate her husband to achieve their ‘great quell’ (line 72). In both cases, they achieved what they had set out to do at the start of their respective scenes.

In differing ways and styles, both Shakespeare and Ibsen used theatrical styles appropriate to their eras to add dramatic tension to the way in which the characters communicated with each other and the audience. Through theatrical devices such as soliloquy , imagery and naturalistic dialogue, Shakespeare and Ibsen also managed to create characters with weaknesses that c ould be exploited and characters willing to exploit them for different ends. Whether the ending of a scene is the rhyming couplet in Macbeth or Helmer’s facial expression in response to the slammed door as emoted by Nora, the effect on the audience is the same.

Reference List
Primary Texts

Ibsen, H, (1879), A Doll’s House , New York, Dover Thrift/Bartholomew House

Shakespeare, W. (1606), Macbeth , Cambridge: Cambridge School Shakespeare, Cambridge University Press

Secondary Texts

Finney, G. (1994), Ibsen and Feminism’, i n: MacFarlane J.(ed.), The Cambridge Companion To Ibsen, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press

Foakes, R.A., (2003), Shakespeare and Violence , Cambridge, Cambridge University Press

Gassner, J. (1955), Forms of Modern Drama. Changing Perspectives In Modern Literature: A
Symposium, Spring 1955, Pages 129-143, JSTOR (online) Available at (Accessed 21 May 2008)

Hemmer, B. (1994), Ibsen and the realistic problem drama , In: MacFarlane J (ed.), The Cambridge Companion t o Ibsen, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Kermode, F. (2001), Shakespeare’s Language , London, Penguin

Pazzaglia, L, (2008), The Tarantella Dance! , Available at (Accessed 14th April 2008)

Smith, W.D. (1953), The Elizabethan Stage: Shakespeare’s Entrance Announcements , Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol 4 No 4, 405-410. JSTOR (online) Available at (Accessed 21 May 2008)

Templeton, J. (1989), The Doll House Backlash: Criticism, Feminism and Ibsen , PMLA, Vol 104 No 1, 28-40. JSTOR (online) Available at (Accessed 20th May 2008)

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