Shakespeare’s insights on the human condition have been proven to withstand the test of time. It can often feel as though our favorite Shakespeare characters have merely time traveled and shape-shifted to fit the media we know and love to consume today. A lot of times this is intentional, with our favorite modern characters being molded in the likeness of the old bard’s creations. Other times it seems that these character types arise subconsciously as a symptom of our cultural psyche or as a reflection of our own human nature. Scandal’s Mellie Grant is one such character, whose story offers a dynamic look at Lady Macbeth and her motivations, as well as insight into the role of women in society.
Examining the Original Text
In order to get a better understanding of both Lady Macbeth and Mellie Grant, we must first take a look at one of Lady Macbeth’s famous soliloquies:
The raven himself is hoarse-William Shakespeare, Macbeth (1606)
That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan
Under my battlements. Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full
Of direst cruelty. Make thick my blood.
Stop up th’ access and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
Th’ effect and it. Come to my woman’s breasts
And take my milk for gall, you murd’ring ministers,
Wherever in your sightless substances
You wait on nature’s mischief. Come, thick night,
And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell,
That my keen knife see not the wound it makes,
Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark
To cry “Hold, hold!”
This soliloquy occurs after Lady Macbeth received the letter from Macbeth detailing the prophecy by the witches and his new status as the Thane of Cawdor. Lady Macbeth resolves to devote herself to her husband’s success, and is willing to go any length to make him king. Or so she thinks. Let’s take a closer look at Shakespeare’s use of language here.
When Lady Macbeth says, “unsex me here,” it insinuates a tie between the qualities of being violent or selfish with that of a man, and are not within Lady Macbeth’s usual behavior. This is further implied when she says, “Come to my woman’s breasts / And take my milk for gall.” Her current role as a woman and a mother seems to defy her desire to aid her husband’s power, and entirely contradict her murderous actions.
Upon inspecting this dialogue, it seems that Lady Macbeth is not inherently cruel, but it is here where she attempts to make a deliberate transformation in her identity. She acknowledges her capability of feeling remorse and her concern that her conscience will prevent her from doing what needs to be done.
She asks to be filled with “direst cruelty,” and asks that the spirits “Stop up the access and passage to remorse,” which suggests that she is not, at that moment, having evil intentions that would fuel her purpose. Rather, she is acknowledging her capacity for guilt and exercising morality, but hopes that she may overcome it in order to do what needs to be done — almost as if she is borrowing that “all’s well that ends well” mentality.
Lady Macbeth: Psychopathic or Overly Ambitious?
Many depictions of Lady Macbeth border on psychopathy, but I would argue that her psychosis by the end of the play contradicts this interpretation. Following the events of the murders, both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth become very mentally disturbed before their deaths. Lady Macbeth, as reported by one of the maids, develops a habit of nightmarish sleepwalking. “Who would’ve thought the old man had so much blood in him?” she says, before declaring:
The Thane of Fife had a wife. Where is-William Shakespeare, Macbeth (1606)
she now? What, will these hands ne’er be clean? No
more o’ that, my lord, no more o’ that. You mar all
with this starting.
If you’re having trouble picturing the immense guilt portrayed by Lady Macbeth in this scene, try watching Judi Dench’s interpretation of the character. The Lady Macbeth that I feel best reflects the script is one who fell too deeply for possibility, and hoped that the ends, as they say, would justify the means. When she asks, “will these hands ne’er be clean?” it is clear that her actions are far worse than she could morally justify to herself, and she now feels as though she will be plagued by that guilt forever. Of course, forever doesn’t actually last much longer for her, but had she survived the vengeance for her actions, she would likely not have survived her own guilt.
Although Lady Macbeth’s representation throughout the play does not show great evidence of her more virtuous side, it is clear that she was not built to commit those acts. It seems more likely that she was blinded by the power being dangled before her face, and her ambition overcame her as a result.
SPOILERS FOR SCANDAL BELOW
Introducing Mellie Grant
In season one of Scandal, we first meet Melody Margaret Grant, portrayed by actress Bellamy Young. It is obvious that she is a woman willing to do anything for her husband’s success. In the next season or so that follows, we see Mellie as power hungry and maybe even a monster, with measly redeeming qualities in proportion.
Her behavior is vindictive towards her husband, United States President Fitzgerald Grant, and his mistress, his former campaign manager and later renowned DC Crisis Manager, Olivia Pope. You could argue in that case she has good reason. Despite knowing that Fitz had long fallen out of love with her, she continues to try to make him look her way and continues to try asserting her power in whatever way she can over the White House and political ongoings.
Early in season three, however, aspects of Mellie’s past are revealed which bring context and perhaps some missing humanity to her character. After we see her experience of sexual assault at the hands of her father-in-law and her subsequent commitment to her husband’s political career, it begins to shed more light on her internal world.
This world is one in which she convinces herself that she can and will go to any length for her husband’s career, as his success would bring meaning to her many sacrifices and hardships, which felt otherwise needlessly tragic. This is where I began to speculate that her selfish actions are not necessarily within her character but came as a reaction of self-preservation and attempts to make sense of her hidden trauma.
How Mellie “Unsexes” Herself
In the press, Mellie is perceived as the ideal American wife and American woman. She is perfectly polite, well behaved, agreeable, and smart. While her intelligence carries through to her private life, that side of her can sometimes be more aggressive, even venomous. During many scenes in Scandal, actress Bellamy Young takes on a much deeper voice for Mellie, one that sounds more throaty and is often accompanied by some form of threat or attempt at intimidation. This is one of the many ways that Mellie alter’s herself in order to assert her strength and dominance.
Like Lady Macbeth, Mellie is notorious for taking things into her own hands when it comes to Fitz and his presidency, and sometimes for what seems to be good reason. Just as Lady Macbeth feared that Macbeth would not have it in him to carry out Duncan’s murder, the women in Fitz’s life often distrust his ability to act mature and righteously, or to wield his power as necessary. In their defense, Fitz spends the better part of the show moping around the oval office about Olivia rather than attending to his duties as president.
In PR crises and diplomatic relations, Mellie’s role as first lady often proves to be instrumental to his success. Mellie’s dominance, which in the beginning of the show came off more as acts of selfishness, are revealed to be acts of self preservation in the face of her tumultuous life of gritting her teeth and swallowing her pain for the cameras.
How Are the Narratives of Lady Macbeth and Mellie Grant Related?
Lady Macbeth and Mellie Grant are characters who are both deeply misunderstood. Lady Macbeth, while perhaps not a morally upstanding citizen, is not a cold blooded killer either. If we contextualize Lady Macbeth with her time, her only sense of power or agency would be related to her husband.
As a woman in 11th-century Scotland, Lady Macbeth would not have the rights to her own property or likely even the ability to control her legal representation and would be virtually unable to experience any social mobility without a husband. As such, the pressure to aid his rise to power would be high for Macbeth and his wife. Lady Macbeth shows awareness of this perception herself in the soliloquy above, believing that while her womanhood may give her more empathetic or nurturing qualities, it is ultimately of a more manly nature to be able to take control.
Though Scandal is set in a more contemporary America, Mellie also experiences the pressure of patriarchal attitudes regarding her life and success. Fitz’s father, Jerry Grant, is known for being a womanizer and overall a bad man, yet his attitude towards women seems to be enough self-justification for him to harass them, as he did to Mellie.
Additionally, throughout the series, Mellie’s Harvard law education and academic merit are noted over again, yet she spends most of it in her husband’s (and later, ex-husband’s) shadow. Mellie is intelligent, strong-willed, and compassionate, all of which are essential leadership qualities. Yet she is constantly undermined, underestimated, and painted as needlessly vengeful by Fitz, Olivia, and others throughout the series. At one point, Fitz even calls her strictly “ornamental,” despite all that she was forced to endure to get him into the oval office.
How does an understanding of one of these characters inform an understanding of the other?
While the sheer length of the series against the five-act play allows a lot more understanding of Mellie Grant’s motivations than that of Lady Macbeth, the similarities offer a new perspective to each of their characters. When examining Lady Macbeth’s character in the play, we see that her ambition rather than heartlessness likely guides her immoral actions.
When considering the social context of the setting and how women fit into that, it makes sense that Lady Macbeth would feel such fervent pressure to advance her husband’s ranking in the world. This detail, along with the intense display of her guilt, humanizes her character in a way that seems unlikely at first glance. It seems that Lady Macbeth felt that attaining power would quell the guilt that came with it, but it caused her to act out of character in a way that broke her mental state irreparably.
As for Mellie, while her actions towards Fitz originally seem attempts to control him or ride his coattail to power, her back story suggests an ulterior motive. She endured a lot of suffering while married to Fitz and along his campaign trails, and like Lady Macbeth, wanted to see his success through in order to meet an end that would justify all the suffering she had endured.
However, as the show progresses, this only causes more pain and loss for the two of them. Mellie feels trapped by her circumstances and continues acting out in ways contrary to her inward character, including leading to the death of innocent people until she can separate and grow her influence and power away from Fitz.
The stories of Lady Macbeth and Mellie Grant are reminiscent, too, of this idea of women being labeled by men as “psycho.” Sure, both Mellie and Lady Macbeth act quite questionably and sometimes in downright immoral ways, with Mellie being particularly vengeful, but doesn’t it seem less of an outrageous response when considering the factors surrounding their circumstances?
Wouldn’t you go crazy if you lived a life outside of your control, where the men in your life didn’t care how you felt or what you had to say, where they constantly underestimated you despite your power, and where your stability was contingent on their success?
It is clear to see that while the time period of Lady Macbeth has long passed, the problems faced by women then are not entirely different than those they face now. Not only that, but the theme of ambition is one that prevails gender, and while leading to the downfall of one of these ladies and prolonged suffering before the eventual success of the other, is proven to be a vice experienced through all ages and times.
For another article comparing canonical literature with popular contemporary media, click here!