In Macbeth Act I Scene 5, Lady Macbeth says the following:

Glamis thou art, and Cawdor; and shalt be
What thou art promised: yet do I fear thy nature;
It is too full o' the milk of human kindness
To catch the nearest way: thou wouldst be great;

What kind of language features can be found in the line:

too full o’ the milk of human kindness

Also, what does it mean about how she views Macbeth’s ability to grasp after power and status?

  1. The rhythm has a double iamb (it is too full), an anapest (o’ the milk), and a ‘feminine’ ending (kindness):

    x  x     /   /     x    x  /     x   /     x   /       x
    It is | too full | o' the milk | of hu- | man kind- | ness
  2. ‘Milk’ is a metaphor.

  3. The line as a whole is ironic: Macbeth has only just enough kindness to balk at outright murder, and Lady Macbeth knows it.

    We are somewhat surprised to hear from her that Macbeth is “too full o’ the milk of human kindness to catch the nearest way”, because in the whole drama we find no trace of this milk of human kindness. We have to assume that the lady still has an over-high opinion of her husband, which, however, she will shortly lose. We already know him as a ruthlessly determined “murderer in thought” and as a perfect hypocrite: this nature of his is not contradicted by the letter; it is only somewhat veiled in it. The lady knows immediately what he wants; she also knows and openly confesses that his “milk of human kindness” will not deter him from attempting the death of old King Duncan, but only from “catching the nearest way”, that is, doing the deed with his own hand.

    Friedrich Bodenstedt (1873). William Shakespeare’s dramatische Werke: Macbeth, p. vi. Leipzig: F. A. Brodhaus.

  • Oh hehe, you beat me to it. I didn't think to analyze the line's meter though. – North Læraðr Apr 24 '20 at 20:35

Regarding your first question, it contains a multitude of different literary devices, but the closest to the "milk of human kindness" is I think a reification. It's defined as a

"Complex idea for when you treat something immaterial — like happiness, fear, or evil — as a material thing." [Vocabulary.com]

In this case, the "human kindness" is being objectified into milk. So we're also dealing with a symbol here now. So we ask ourselves, what is milk? Milk represents food for an infant, something nourishing and gentle. This is further explored when several lines later in the "Come Ye Spirits" soliloquy Lady Macbeth asks to

Come to my woman’s breasts,
And take my milk for gall

here, invoking milk to relate to womanhood and motherhood to something hardened and undesirable like gall (which is another word for bile). The last literary device is probably a metaphor. It's comparing Macbeth's nature (or personality) to be filled with the milk of human kindness.

All in all, Lady Macbeth does not believe that her husband is strong enough to "do whatever it takes" to become king, and she believes she has to be the ruthless force that drives Macbeth.


Lady Macbeth fears that her husband has too much humanity in the sense of "compassion characteristic of humane persons" (Macbeth, edited by A. R. Braunmuller, 1997). Braunmuller points out that the First Folio had "humane" instead of "human" and that

'humane' (= gentle, compassionate) was not distinguished orthographically from 'human' before 1700 (...), 'kindness' principally means 'kinship', but also connotes 'category' ('kind' = classification, group) and 'naturalness' ('kind' = nautre).

Macbeth drank in this milk from his mother and it binds him "to the social order of Man" (Macbeth, edited by G. K. Hunter, 1967).

The association between milk and some type of weakness can also be found elsewhere in Shakespeare. In King Lear, Act I, scene 4, Gonerill says to her husband, the Duke of Albany:

No, no, my lord,
This milky gentleness and course of yours (...)

And in Timon of Athens, Act III, scene 1, where Flaminius asks,

Has friendship such a faint and milky heart
It turns in less than two nights?

Here, milky can be understood as "weak, timorous" (Timon of Athens, edited by G. R. Hibbard, 1970).

Lady Macbeth uses the word "milk" figuratively; she thinks her husband is too "humane" (in more than one sense) or possibly to weak (i.e. insufficiently courageous or determined) to take the shortest route ("nearest way") to what has been promised to him, i.e. kingship.

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