‘The Handmaids Tale’ Episode 4, ‘Milk’: Lady Macbeth and the ‘milk of human kindness’.
Yet do I fear thy nature;
It is too full o’ th’ milk of human kindness
To catch the nearest way: thou wouldst be great,
In a strange way it is a nice change to be watching a post-apocalyptic landscape that is not infested with zombies. This is Chicago — or what remains of the city — in America during their struggle to remain free of the religious theocracy of Gilead, that is now, the main stage for ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’.
Yet all is not well here either. The Sanctuary which we thought — and hoped — June and Janine were heading too is not much different from some of those post-apocalyptic environments and habitats that have featured in The Walking Dead for eleven seasons and have always dissapointed and led to renewed threat. Seems for the moment that there is little respite from threat or sexual manipulation by men in power even in relatively ‘free’ Chicago.
We should have been prepared for this after the deaths of those handmaids at the crossing and the decision by June to head for Chicago. I assume she is attempting to kill two birds with a single stone: to warn the rebels of an impending surge by Gilead forces and find some allies in her own ‘Mayday’ insurgency.
They were fortunate then that a train was heading to Chicago. But a train carrying milk? I feel that the storyline was invoking a deep metaphor here or even metaphors. Two handmaid’s immersed in milk? Nearly drowning in this fluid? And not a single mention of its significance from June? We remember how they would be forced — if necessary — to give up their own baby to the wife of a Commander, but, could not subsequently breastfeed their own child.
So it must be then, that the signified, is well represented by the words of Lady Macbeth quoted above. In fact throughout The Handmaid’s Tale the tragedy of Macbeth echoes loudly. In particular, the theme of what it means to be a man whether inside Gilead or when outside, as Commander Waterford now finds himself. But what truly resonates in Season 4 — although it has been prepared in the preceeding chapters — is the character of Lady Macbeth transmuted into different female characters, but particulrly, into the rise of June as a formidable opponent to the Gilead regime.
The tragedy of Macbeth revolves around the question of what it means to be a man and it is encapsulated in most of the soliloquoy’s from Lady Macbeth and in her interaction with her milky husband. We have witnessed a few of these similar interactions with Serena and her milky husband Commander Waterford. A man who has great difficulty in commanding anything.
And now in June we have our very own Lady Macbeth who has had to become the very thing — to survive — that Lady Macbeth desires of her milky husband, Macbeth. Here is the rest of her speech which will throw more light upon her concerns that her milky husband does not have it in him to murder Duncan and seize the Scottish Crown:
Art not without ambition, but without
The illness should attend it. What thou wouldst highly,
That wouldst thou holily; wouldst not play false,
And yet wouldst wrongly win. Thou’ld’st have, great Glamis,
That which cries, “Thus thou must do,” if thou have it,
And that which rather thou dost fear to do,
To Lady Macbeth, the “milk of human kindness” is distasteful stuff — no self-respecting man has any use for it. As fluids go, Lady Macbeth is more inclined to murderous blood than nurturing milk. We have witnessed June now become Judge, Jury and Executioner by proxy with the slaughter of that Gilead pig. Yes that one. June it feels is now in full Lady Macbeth mode and the falling in to the container of milk in the following episode and the conversation with Janine — harsh but true — inside the empty container seems to confirm my suspicions.
Later in Shakespeare’s masterpiece, the original Lady Macbeth, goading the hesitant Macbeth, she insists that, if she had sworn to do it, she wouldn’t have hesitated to take her own baby?!
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.
The milk of human kindness exists nowhere for Lady Macbeth. Not even in her own maternal instinct for as she testifies she would sacrifice her own offspring for power and the opportunity to become Queen. We know that this is a line June would never cross as we have witnessed her save her own daughter from the barbarians of Gilead who were intending something no doubt very similar to the threats espoused by Lady Macbeth. Gilead is in fact without any of that milk and the only kindness is fake and pretence. Aunt Lydia is the most glaring example.
In the context of gender roles in Jacobean England, Lady Macbeth would have been considered an unconventional, even unnatural, woman for rejecting maternal compassion in favor of masculine violence and ambition. Lady Macbeth is sometimes considered a fourth witch. By reading Lady Macbeth as a fourth witch, her villainy is cemented and she becomes a corrupting influence. Lady Macbeth bullies her husband into the murder, alternatingly stoking his ambition and goading him by insulting his masculinity. We have witnessed this in the way Serena Joy has attempted to manipulate her milky husband and is still trying to do the same in Canada. Who really is the true villain?
However, by a different reading, Lady Macbeth is a woman whose dissatisfaction with her expected gender role has resulted in a loathing of all things feminine. Lady Macbeth is as ambitious, cunning, and cutthroat as her husband, if not more so, but she has no outlet for her feelings and energies as the wife of a Commander. And therein lies the seeds of the destruction of Gilead. From the inside and not the outside.
Yet Serena will not go mad as Lady Macbeth does because she has been saved by her pregnancy. It remains to be seen how Macbeth will react having been betrayed by his wife. In an act of human kindness their ex-Martha visits Fred to tell him the news — a dystopian version of The Annunciation. How Serena can still believe that it is a miracle is beyond me. But it is this act by Rita through which an attempt is made — I believe successfully — to explain the meaning of ‘milk of human kindness’.
Milk is an organic natural substance that flows without motive from the female mammalian body. It is in humans still an act of deep significance from mother to child. It is pure and protects. Its significance prior to our modern world cannot be overestimated as a source of nutrition and viral defence until modern formula milk became available.
Rita when we see her at home is shot in this glorious light that usually would be central to a Renaissance painting of the arrival or delivery of grace and mark the very presence of God and goodness. She is being signified through this light as being both pure and with God.
It is even more profound as she is now outside of Gilead where she could never attain such status. But here she has. Telling Fred is the right thing to do. Her only concern is for the unborn child now and for the future of that child. Rita is the very antithesis of Lady Macbeth and she is not in Gilead. Maybe that is why she can flow heavy with the ‘milk of human kindness’.
And what of our hero? June it feels will be able — on the evidence so far — to combine the conscience of Macbeth and the deterministic force of Lady Macbeth in her attempt to bring down Gilead from the inside and without having to let her own child be sacrificed for either naked ambition or a greater political cause. In this she echoes Macbeth who in a speech reviews the arguments against murdering Duncan:
pity, like a naked new-born babe,
Striding the blast, or heaven’s cherubim, horsed
Upon the sightless couriers of the air,
Shall blow the horrid deed in every eye,
That tears shall drown the wind.
For the image of vunerable infancy evokes the child in the glass cage used by Gilead to force June to betray her sisters. June unlike Macbeth will act upon the kindness in her heart and not allow the savagery of Gilead to completely enter her soul and begin a murderous descent into oblivion.