“Downfall's Magda Goebbels: a hidden Lady Macbeth?


by Mariela Zapata


Instituto Superior Santa Trinidad

Shakespeare’s Macbeth (1606) has generally been regarded as a very complex tragedy in which a wicked and strong-willed wife, together with forces of evil, incite a brave and noble Scottish lord to commit the most horrendous act that medieval ideology could conceive of: the crime of regicide. In the twenty-first century, film director Oliver Hirchbiegel revived the final days of the Hitler’s Third Reich in his film Downfall (2005). Although not central to the basic storyline, a female character makes the film come to one of its highest peaks of tension: Magda Goebbels, wife to Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda, decides to kill all her five children and to later commit suicide with her husband, in the conviction that no future world order other than the Third Reich is really worth living in. This paper aims to examine similarities between these two female characters, in order to determine whether Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth and Hirchbiegel’s Magda Goebbels can indeed stand well-founded comparison, and to ascertain whether the Shakespearian character could have served as a model for Hirchbiegel’s portrayal. The conclusions point to the fact that Lady Macbeth and Magda Goebbels indeed exhibit a surprising number of similarities as regards singleness of purpose, cold -bloodedness, ambition, warped femininity and loyalty. However, it would be impossible to state that the construction of character of Magda Goebbels was actually based on Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth, although the universality of Shakespeare’s models would make it impossible to affirm the contrary.

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Table of Contents

Abstract .........................................................................................................................2 1. Introduction............................................................................................................4 2. Shakespeare’s Macbeth.........................................................................................5 3. Oliver Hirchbiegel’s Downfall ..............................................................................8 4. Lady Macbeth and Magda Goebbels: comparison and contrast ....................10 4.1. Singleness of purpose...........................................................................................10 4.2. Wickedness and Cold-bloodedness ....................................................................12 4.3. Ambition...............................................................................................................13 4.4. Masculinity and dominance ................................................................................14 4.5. Loyalty ..................................................................................................................16 5. Conclusions ...........................................................................................................17 6. References.............................................................................................................18

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“Downfall's Magda Goebbels: a hidden Lady Macbeth?"
by Mariela Zapata

1. Introduction

William Shakespeare’s Macbeth (1606) has generally been regarded as a very c omplex tragedy in which forces of evil and their prophetic word incite a brave and noble Scottish lord to commit the most horrendous act that medieval ideology could conceive of: the crime of regicide. In this play, the audience can see this lord who indeed possesses the ambition to become king of Scotland, but lacks the courage to commit the crime. It is his wife, Lady Macbeth, who makes use of all her persuasive powers to force her husband to do it. Lady Macbeth has traditionally been seen by literary critics as one of the strongest and most determined female characters, before she is struck by her final insanity, followed by suicide.

Far from the seventeenth century, film director Oliver Hirchbiegel revived the final days of the Third Reich in his acclaimed work Downfall (Der Untergang, 2005). The film is a striking account of final moments of Adolph Hitler in his Berlin bunker in 1945, shortly before his suicide and the arrival of the Red Army in the German capital. Although not central to the basic storyline, a female character makes the film come to one of its highest peaks of tension: Magda Goebbels, wife to Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels. This strong and determined woman begs the Führer to escape from Berlin and continue leading his crusade for the Third Reich. Seeing that the already physically weak German leader is aware of the inexorable end, and is determined to commit suicide, Frau Goebbels decides that no future world order other than the Third Reich is really worth living in. Not only does she think her life will be valueless now; but she also makes the drastic and horrifying decision to “put all her six children to sleep”.
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It is the aim of this paper to examine the two female characters mentioned, with a view to addressing the following research questions:

(a) To what extent can Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth and Hirchbiegel’s Magda Goebbels stand well-founded comparison?

(b) To what extent could Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth have served as a model for Hirchbiegel’s portrayal of Magda Goebbels?

It should be observed that no reference will be made to the true history of Scotland in this paper’s exploration of Lady Macbeth. Similarly, no connections will be made to any true historical sources about the person of Magda Goebbels: only her fic tional persona, as a film character, is to be examined.

2. Shakespeare’s Macbeth

The tragedy of Macbeth stands among the greatest plays ever written. In it, William Shakespeare presents his audience with a character of real complexity. Macbeth, Thane of Glamis at the begin ning of the play is met by three evil creatures of the darkness: the creatures that Shakespeare calls the Weird Sisters. They inform the noble lord, who has just won an important battle for Duncan, his king and overlord, that he is also the Thane of Cawdor, and will eventually become the king of Scotland.

His ‘vaulting ambition’ (I.vii.8) starts him on a series of both logical and horrifying thoughts. He wonders if he can be the king without his action, or if something needs to be done. Whatever needs to be done is a thought that he finds horrendous and unnatural: the idea of murder is already present. However, the audience still does not perceive Macbeth as capable of committing the crime of regicide and treason. Macbeth has just fought for his king and is highly regarded as a noble lord of Scotland.
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It is upon Macbeth arrival in his castle that a vaguely devised crime begins to materialize: the lord’s wife, Lady Macbeth, has been looking forward to her husband’s arrival and seems to ha ve already engineered the evil plan. King Duncan’s visit the following day provides the suitable opportunity for the macabre deed. When the noble but over-ambitious Macbeth decides to ‘proceed no further in the business’(I.vii.14), drawing on his last reserves of ethical thinking, Lady Macbeth unleashes all her anger and passion forcing a weaker mind to accept her terms and complete the plan action. Shakespeare displays, through Lady Macbeth’s words, one of his finest pieces of persuasive discourse:

LADY MACBETH What beast was't, then, That made you break this enterprise to me? When you durst do it, then you were a man; And, to be more than what you were, you would Be so much more the man. Nor time nor place Did then adhere, and yet you would make both: They have made themselves, and that their fitness now Does unmake you. 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 pluck'd my nipple from his boneless gums, And dash'd the brains out, had I so sworn as you Have done to this. MACBETH If we should fail? LADY MACBETH

We fail! But screw your courage to the sticking-place, And we'll not fail. […]

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On the night of the assassination both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth reddened their hands with the old king’s blood, although it was Macbeth who really committed the murder. However, both characters have different conceptions of guilt: Macbeth is horrified about the crime he has perpetrated, while his wife believes that guilt is something that can be washed off or painted on. She is sure that the powers of darkness that she has summoned can easily kill any feeling of remorse. Macbeth is able to achieve his purpose as the legitimate heirs to the Scottish crown run away from Macbeth’s castle for fear they should be blamed, and it is after the coronation that the fates of the two Macbeths will diverge from one another. When Macbeth decides to have Banquo murdered (his friend was with him in his prophetic meeting with the witches, and was promised the fatherhood to a line of kings), this decision is made in absolute solitude. Lady Macbeth does not seem to be any longer ‘necessary’ as a persuasive force or a loyal accomplice. Moreover, the play comes to a climax with the appearance of the Banquo’s ghost at the king’s first royal banquet, and the audience sees the last of a determined and energetic Lady Macbeth. From this point onward Macbeth’s temperament will harden, while Lady Macbeth succumbs to madness.

The remaining part of the plot shows the slow but inexorable fall of the assassin, now turned into a tyrant: Duncan’s son, Malcolm, is able to gather an army in England to march into Scotland and reconquer the territory that should have been his. Shortly before the ending, the audience perceives a very hard but sadly and poetically pessimistic Macbeth, Shakespeare reveals Macbeth’s last touch of humanity when he learns that his wife, after a long period of sleep walking, madness and frightening revelations, has committed suicide. Shakespeare humanizes his character by making Macbeth recite one of his most touching soliloquies:

SEYTON The queen, my lord, is dead. MACBETH

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She should have died hereafter; There would have been a time for such a word. To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow, Creeps in this petty pace from day to day To the last syllable of recorded time, And all our yesterdays have lighted fools The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle! Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player That struts and frets his hour upon the stage And then is heard no more: it is a tale Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing.

(V.v i.10-22)

Despite the mysterious but equivocal prophecies made by the witches in their second encounter with Macbeth, the usurper, is overthrown by Malcolm’s forces and killed by Macduff, a lord whose family had been brutally murdered by Macbeth’s men. The tragedy comes to an end with the restoration of order in Scotland : Malcolm as the new king, and the tyrant’s head on exhibition as a symbol of the end of evil.

3. Oliver Hirchbiegel’s Downfall

In the film Downfall (Der Untergang-2005) director Oliver Hirchbiegel presents a moving recreation of the final days of Adolf Hitler, shortly before the Russian Army arrives in Berlin, bringing the Third Reich, as well as the Second World War in Europe, to an end. In this recreation, the German Führer is already an ailing old man, whose human characteristics are highlighted, and showed to the audience with even slightly more emphasis than are his b rutal acts of government. In this way the narrator of the story, Hitler’s young secretary Traudl Junge, meets an ageing man with father- like manners, who treats the young girl with a certain degree of tenderness. Based on real accounts provided by Hitler’s secretary, the film also shows Traudl Junge in the present day, astonished by all
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the horrifying truths that she learnt about Hitler after the war, truths of which she had no knowledge before. It was really impossible for her to believe that her kind employer could be such a monster.

A very important element is the description of the Nazi officers closest to the Fuhrer. While many gave themselves over to the soothing effects of alcohol as a mechanism against an inexorably tragic end , most of them pledged a macabre form of allegiance to their leader by promising to commit suicide before the end They also agreed to burn the bodies of Hitler and his wife Eva Braun soon after their ritualistic suicide, in order not to have a single trace for the enemy to expose in public.

Among the men that stayed with Nazi leader to the very end was his notorious Minister of Propaganda Dr. Joseph Goebbels, who can be seen by the audience as a man of iron determination and disposition to stand by his Führer through thick and thin. However, little is perceived about the minister’s personal plans for his own future after the fall. At least, this is so until his wife Magda appears on the scene with the couple’s five children. They arrived at the Berlin bunker to pay daily tribute to Hitler, and are treated by the Führer as an ageing man would treat his nieces and nephews. There is, behind an apparently nice sense of camaraderie, a macabre plan already in progress: in spite of the advice she was given by many to leave Berlin immedia tely and save her children, Frau Goebbels decided to stay there and die in case the Nazi regime comes to an end. Yet, her decision will not only affect herself and her husband, but it will involve the killing of all their five children. As the story unfolds, the reality of Hitler’s regime begins to disintegrate and this cold -blooded lady carries out her plan, as if it was part of the normal duty of a Nazi woman. The scene of the killing is perhaps one of the most shocking in the film, and it occurs shortly before the final downfall.

The ending is faithful to the real events that took place in Berlin: Hitler’s suicide is followed by the arrival of the Red Army, the Nazi officers either take their lives or

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surrender, and Hitler’s secretary slowly departs into an apparently harmless future life, represented in the movie by her image cycling in a sunbathed country road into the horizon.

4. Lady Macbeth and Magda Goebbels: comparison and contrast

Although the two characters under comparison belong to completely different periods of history, they seem to share some similarities maybe worth looking into. To best explore similarities and differences five parameters of comparison are suggested:

4.1. Singleness of purpose

In the first place the two characters under comparison show a very clear vision of their aims. In the case of Lady Macbeth, it is very clear for the audience to see the slow manufacture of a plan. That plan will under no circumstance be altered: she will not permit it. Unlike Lady Macbeth, her hus band has the ambition but perhaps not the courage to commit the horrid assassination. There comes a moment when he seems to go back on his original word and tells his wife that they will “proceed no further in this business” (I.vi.33). At this moment, Lady Macbeth does not hesitate to appeal to a whole arsenal of rhetoric to convince Macbeth that her plan was to be the only course of action to follow. As was illustrated in the introduction she appeals to every possible resource —Macbeth’s love for her, even his virility— to win Macbeth over to her plan. Her route does not admit any possible deviation.

Similarly, Magda Goebbels is very clear about the meaning of life after the end of the Third Reich. In several conversations that she has with some of the Fuhrer’s men, she refuses to accept the ir advice to l ave Berlin immediately to save her family and herself from the e inexorable downfall. She clearly states the she only to see her children grow in the social setting that her Fuhrer dreamt of. In a dialogue with her friend Albert, she bluntly expresses her reasons behind her plan:

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MAGDA GOEBBELS Albert, I can't stand it anymore.

ALBERT Why don't you leave with the children, Magda?

MAGDA GOEBBELS Leave? And go where?

ALBERT I can arrange for you to be taken to Schwanenwerder by barge. You can hide until everything's over. It won't be long now anyway.

MAGDA GOEBBELS I thought about it. My children cannot grow up in a world without National Socialism.

ALBERT Think about it. The children have a right to a future.

MAGDA GOEBBELS If National Socialism dies, there will be no future.

ALBERT I can't believe you really want that.


It is precisely at this moment that the audience perceives that her plan was made. Although, there are no dialogues in the film showing her husband’s possible retraction, the director makes a very a very subtle use of gesture and facial expression to suggest that Joseph Goebbels does not seem entirely ready to accept that all his five children are to be put to death before their suicide. Frau Goebbels’ singleness of purpose is crystal-clear.

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Unlike Lady Macbeth, she does not take pleasure in the future results of her plan, nor does she perceive without any sense of guilt. Indeed, both Magda and her husband commit suicide, and putting her children to sleep is simply part of her wholeheartedly Nazi commitment. There will not be anyone or anything that will dare oppose her plan.

4.2. Wickedness and Cold-bloodedness

As regards wickedness and cold -bloodedness it is possible to affirm that these characteristics are shared by both characters. Lady Macbeth begins to envision the killing of Duncan as soon as her husband arrives in the castle. This is all the more so when she is told that king Duncan is coming to stay as the Macbeths’ guest that evening. When told by her husband that the king is leaving the following day, she does not hesitate to use a very dark metaphor to suggest a plan already made:


O, never Shall sun that morrow see! Your face, my thane, is as a book where men May read strange matters. To beguile the time, Look like the time; bear welcome in your eye, Your hand, your tongue: look like the innocent flower, But be the serpent under't. He that's coming Must be provided for: and you shall put This night's great business into my dispatch; Which shall to all our nights and days to come Give solely sovereign sway and masterdom.


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It is interesting to note that this affirmation is already considering the reversal of natural values. Killing a king, by medieval ideological standards, is as unnatural as daytime without a sun. Therefore, Lady Macbeth does know the atrocity of regicide.

Magda Goebbels, on the other hand , also knows that the crime she will commit challenges all the laws governing the bourgeois ideology of her social setting. Her drastic choice of killing all her five children will be performed with a certain method: she will first put them to sleep by forcing them to take a strong sleeping syrup to later put, when they are all still asleep, the poison vials inside her children’s mouths. Like Lady Macbeth, Magda Goebbels’ wickedness lies in the fact that she knows exactly what she is doing. Additionally, she is as cold-blooded as Lady Macbeth. The latter not only has to convince her husband coldly and firmly, but also needs to go to the actual scene of the crime to return the daggers that Macbeth mistakenly brought to the courtyard. Frau Goebbels, in a similar way, seems to be the only orchestrator of the evil plan. The film does not provide much spoken text but the sequence of images showing a stunned Joseph Goebbels lets the audience clearly see whose plan it was.

4.3. Ambition

The question of ambition is particularly important when it comes to analysing these two strong characters, so apparently distant from one another. The theme of ambition in Lady Macbeth is very clear since, apart from its dramatic presence in the play, Macbeth has traditionally been regarded as a play about ambition (Ludowyk 1962).

Macbeth is an ambitious thane, who stars thinking of committing his crime practically as soon as supernatural forces of evil make their prophecy. However, this otherwise heroic soldier will badly need the strength and energy of his wife to carry out his plan. Lady Macbeth is indeed strong and energetic as stated in the previous paragraph, but her ambition is as powerful as her strength: the moment that she reads the letter that her husband has sent her, she already sees Macbeth as the future king of Scotland. However, it
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is interesting to note that her ambition is based on an achievement that will glorify her husband and not herself. The audience never hears Lady Macbeth express any feelings of happiness about her future status as a king’s wife: she will do it all for Macbeth, or out of some strange personality disorder to be discussed later.

Very similarly, Magda Goebbels’ ambition is not grounded on her own personal success: Magda’s ‘Macbeth’ is the Führer, not her real husband. She will be a fulfilled mother if she sees her children grow within the Third Reich. Yet, the complicator that brings about her downfall is the certainty that the Third Reich is soon coming to an end. Her ambition crushed; there is only one thing left to do: kill her children and commit suicide with her husband. Unlike Lady Macbeth, Magda Goebbels’ crime is not generated by a golden future ahead. Although ambition is present in both characters, it is manifested through the dream of a future crown in the Scottish tragedy, and by a completely l st illusion in the o case of Magda Goebbels.

4.4. Masculinity and dominance

In addition to the motivations that make these characters embark on a particular course of action, it should be important to observe that both start from a basic platform of femin inity. Yet, it may be observed that Lady Macbeth and Magda Goebbels tend to follow patterns that may be considered deviant from socially accepted gender standards.

Lady Macbeth definitely shows a marked masculine attitude towards her husband and the goals to be achieved. The audience can see, from the beginning of the play until after Banquo’s death, a strong and domineering personality. Lady Macbeth will not allow anything to stand between her and her plans. It is this masculine attitude that practically pushes Macbeth into a wife- like role, and makes him passively accept his wife’s dictates. In a husband- like manner she soothingly tells Macbeth:

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Only look up clear; To alter favour ever is to fear: Leave all the rest to me. (I.v.79-81)

Furthermore, she openly asks the forces of darkness to ‘unsex’ her (I.v.46), which is a clear manifestation of her need to gain virility in order to impose her dominance. This is duly acknowledged by Macbeth when he exclaims:


Bring forth men-children only; For thy undaunted mettle should compose Nothing but males.


The case of Magda Goebbels is much more subtle than that of Lady Macbeth. Unlike Lady Macbeth, Frau Goebbels is first seen by the audience as a virtuous mother of five children. Although she never shows a great deal of tenderness, it is very difficult at an early stage to foresee the plan that lies hidden in his mind. As the film unfolds, her personality becomes more clearly visible. Halfway through the film, it is easier to perceive that the sinister plan she has devised is her own work, and that little by little she will gain complete control of the situation. However, even at this stage, and knowing what she is about to do, she is congratulated by the Führer, and innocently (or perhaps most cynically) responds in the following way:

HITLER You're the bravest mother of the Reich. MAGDA GOEBBELS Führer, you made me the happiest woman in Germany.
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On the other hand, Joseph Goebbels passively stands behind her strong-willed wife, following her as a wife would follow a husband. Only, this passive figure is no less than Hitler’s most powerful minister, which clearly shows the degree of masculinization in Magda’s personality: it definitely seems that she herself has decided to put all her children ‘to sleep’, possibly with no regard for her husband’s views. After all it is Magda Goebbels who affirms that no life is possible after the end of the Third Reich, not Joseph.

4.5. Loyalty

It is indeed not simple to detect or trace Lady Macbeth’s loyalties, although it might seem clear that she is a faithful follower of her husband. This is apparently so, as she is looking forward to Macbeth’s arrival in the castle in order to discuss a plan already made by her (and evidently thought about by Macbeth as well). However, it should be noted that long before the murder of Duncan, Lady Macbeth appears to be a slave to her own proleptic imagination, an imagination that forces her to help materialise whatever she h already as envisioned. Interestingly, this psychological condition brings her away from Macbeth, and the audience is now uncertain as to where Lady Macbeth’s loyalties are placed. As time goes by, her unhealthy fixation becomes clearer as her loyalty to an ambitious nobleman is gradually obscured.

The case Magda Goebbels is no less simple than that of Lady Macbeth. Although she does have a husband she is primarily faithful to her Führer to the extent of making her entire life —and her family’s— depend on Hitler. The Führer and the Third Reich are the only elements that matter and she nervously watches these two elements disintegrate, knowing that this will entail her own disintegration. Magda Goebbels, unlike Lady Macbeth, has a blind faith in Hitler and worships him like a God. Once he r leader is gone, nothing in her life has any meaning.

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5. Conclusions

In conclusion, and in response to the primary focus, it may be possible to affirm that Lady Macbeth and Magda Goebbels indeed exhibit a surprising number of similarities. In the first place, both manifest a clear singleness of purpose in her sinister plan. Secondly, these women are cold -blooded and wicked in their actions, by the general moral standards of their socio -historical moment. Thirdly, it can easily be seen that neither of them seems to pursue an ambition of her own, based on foreseen personal success. Fourthly, both characters appear to deviate from the standards of femininity of their age, since they reveal a markedly masculine behaviour. Lastly, Lady Macbeth and Magda Goebbels seem to be truly loyal to the Thane of Glamis and to the German Führer respectively, although some indicators can be perceived that the complexities of Lady Macbeth’s personality probably need a much deeper psychoanalytic exploration, outside the scope of the present paper.

In regard to the secondary focus, it would be impossible to assert that the construction of character of Magda Goebbels was actually based on Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth, given that the similarities explored would not validate such an overambitious conclusion. On the other hand, there is no clear evidence of a complete absence of Shakespearian influences in Oliver Hirchbiegel’s film. Dr Samuel Johnson (cited in Nesbit 2005) is reported to have once stated:

[Shakespeare] has been imitated by all succeeding writers; and it may be doubted whether from all his successors more maxims of theoretical knowledge, or more rules of practical prudence can be collected than he alone has given to his country

Hence, the universality of Sha kespeare’s models would make it impossible to affirm that the strong intertextual presence of the English poet is not traceable in any literary work written after his day.

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6. References Hirchbiegel, O. (Director) (2005). Der Untergang. [DVD]. Germany: Transeuropa.

Lott, B. (Ed.). (1970). The Tragedy of Macbeth by William Shakespeare (New Swan Shakespeare). New York: Washington Square Press.

Ludowyk, E.F.C. (1962). Understanding Shakespeare. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Nesbit, E. (2005). Beautiful Stories from Shakespeare. [online] Available at: http:// www. worldwideschool. org/ library/ books/lit/ shakespeare/

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