Complex Nature of Lady Macbeth’s Character

December 9, 2020 by Essay Writer

Literary critic Frances E. Dolan states, “No critic has suggested that the play [Macbeth] might more properly be called, The Macbeths, thereby asserting that Lady Macbeth’s role in Macbeth is not given adequate recognition1. Professor A.C. Bradley even points out that “Lady Macbeth is the only one of Shakespeare’s great tragic characters who on a last appearance is denied the dignity of verse”2. Lady Macbeth is often narrowly presented as the embodiment of feminine sexuality gone awry, a clear indicator of the misogynistic lens with which she is frequently viewed. However, a more in-depth analysis of this integral character gives insight into her truly multi-faceted personality, one that cannot be typecast so readily as Macbeth’s object of sexual desire or his impotent corruptor. A thorough examination of Lady Macbeth leads one to gain further perspective into the cultural context during which this play is set. Ultimately, we gain insight into the violent world at this time where Lady Macbeth is actually only adhering to her prescribed role, and not transcending gender norms.

Since Macbeth is a play to be performed, the depiction of Lady Macbeth is largely dependent on the way that Lady Macbeth is enacted. Sinead Cusack, an actress who plays Lady Macbeth in a stage production of Macbeth, describes in-depth how Lady Macbeth is largely depicted as a sexual being in her own performance as Lady Macbeth. This approach is largely taken because the director and performers of this particular production feel that Lady Macbeth possesses a lot of power over Macbeth due to her sexual appeal to him. We can clearly observe the force of her appeal while she is encouraging him to kill Duncan. She declares, “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” (I.VII.49-50). Lady Macbeth knows that implying her husband is less than a man degrades him and will compel him to take the necessary actions to redeem himself. Furthermore, she goes so far to exclaim: “Come, you spirits/ That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here” (I.V.39-40). In these lines, Lady Macbeth assumes that her husband may be “too full o’th’ milk of human kindness” to kill Duncan, and therefore require her to be willing to transcend her constructed feminine role and commit the deed herself (I.V.16). By threatening to make herself a man, she is in a sense threatening to deny Macbeth of her female companionship. Actress Sinead Cusack explains:

In rehearsal, one of the areas we explored was their sexual obsession. Sexually he was totally dependent on her. He needed that sex in order to reassure himself of his own values, his own strength. And she knows, she knows she can play on that. She knows she can get him to do things because of that. And she uses it3.

Hence, we can observe that Lady Macbeth is fully aware of the power of her sexuality over Macbeth and is prepared to take it away from him as a bargaining method to achieve their goals. Ironically, it can be observed that after she encourages her husband to commit murder, she does in fact become “unsexed” to him. That is, he does not need her sexually anymore and she is no longer his object of desire. Therefore, she has been replaced by violence in his life and no longer has influence over him. Cusack describes an interesting way of staging Lady Macbeth’s diminishing hold over Macbeth. She explains:

We who had needed to touch each other all the time grew distant. When he had killed, neither of us wanted to touch each other. Because she is frightened by seeing the blood, she can’t bring her usual power to bear. I wanted to touch him, but he drew away. We couldn’t do what we were used to doing. For the first time in our lives. We weren’t touching. And she’s panicking” 4.

Hence, in this particular production of Macbeth it is apparent that once Lady Macbeth becomes aware of her lessening sexual influence over Macbeth, she begins to lose influence over her own life in general. It becomes clearer that any authority she once possessed is directly linked to her sexuality. She expresses how isolated she feels from Macbeth after the banquet by asking, “How now my Lord? Why do you keep alone?” (III.ii.8). It is at this point that Lady Macbeth realizes that her husband’s goals are no longer theirs, that he wants to pursue his path without her. Macbeth will kill the children, and now, unlike before, she is unable to use her sexuality to persuade him otherwise because she truly is “unsexed” now and dispensable to him. Again, Cusack gives a telling account of how Lady Macbeth’s feelings of isolation at this point can be enacted. She describes:

[Macbeth] came very close to me ‘Come, seeling night,/Scarf up the tender eye of pitiful day’ and he passed his hand across my face, and we were about to kiss, and she thought, ‘It’s going to be all right! Thank God! He wants to kiss me!” And we’re getting closer…and then the maniac reared his head…He put his hand in my mouth and yanked down my jaw, mocking a kiss. It was a travesty of the embrace, of how it used to be. He was throwing their sexuality back in her face, saying, ‘That no longer has power in my life,’ scoffing at her with that bark of a laugh. His mania was staggeringly dangerous and she was terrified, terrified. And deeply hurt. Lost” 5.

Thus, there is both textual and theatrical support for the notion that Lady Macbeth’s power largely lies in her sexuality, and that she uses this influence to encourage Macbeth to kill Duncan. Ironically, she is unable to use this same power to persuade him to not kill Macduff’s children since they do not share the same physical and psychological intimacy they did before Duncan’s murder.

Of course, analyzing solely the sexual power that Lady Macbeth possesses over her husband can make the scope of her character unnecessarily narrow since there are other readings of Lady Macbeth that are equally valid. One reading that finds little support is the notion that Lady Macbeth’s violent nature is driven by her infertility. In this sense, her lack of sexuality and infertility give her the power to encourage Macbeth to undertake such a violent action of killing Duncan, thereby contradicting the belief that her power lies solely in her sexual appeal to Macbeth. Instead, the courage she gets to tell her husband to kill Duncan stems from her impotence. Author Juliet Dusinberre aptly suggests, “Lady Macbeth is deaf to promptings which give her pause. Impotence makes women dangerous” 6. However, Lady Macbeth has been a mother at least at some point because she states:

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”. (I.VII.54-59)

In these lines, we can observe the perversion of what was once Lady Macbeth’s natural maternal instinct. Although we cannot speculate about whether or not she is actually a mother at this point in the play, her innate ability to give birth and nurture is now replaced by a desire to destroy and take life. As suggestions of infanticide are opposing to femininity, Lady Macbeth is viewed as an unnatural, unsexed woman who violates the normal order of her society by not adhering to her assigned gender role. Moreover, such a violation of the natural order can be seen as a result of her barren nature, which is therefore a potent force behind her violent suggestions. In fact, Macbeth urges his wife to “[bring] forth men children only” because he views the brutality she encourages as inherently masculine (I.VII.72). Literary critic Cristina Leon Alfar even claims, “Lady Macbeth has become the epitome, in critical history, of evil motherhood” 7. Although Lady Macbeth is often read as Macbeth’s bitter barren bride, there is not any textual support in the play to suggest that she really is impotent or has any history of engaging in infanticide, even though she does threaten to. Thus, it becomes problematic to correlate Lady Macbeth’s infertility with her violent suggestions if the very issue of her impotence is ambiguous. We can only observe from the text that Lady Macbeth does wish to be “unsexed,” and therefore, she is wishing for the power to be more like a man, which she links to being more violent. In this sense, a barren woman is only dangerous, if at all, because she is becoming more like a man. However, we cannot readily suggest that Lady Macbeth is any sort of embodiment of feminine evil simply due to her presumed impotence.

Most importantly, one cannot classify either Lady Macbeth or Macbeth as entirely cruel without first considering the cultural context in which they operate. Appropriately, the play commences with the witches’ saying, “Fair is foul, and foul is fair”, thereby already making the distinction between good and evil less concrete (I.I.11). Thus, rather than depicting Lady Macbeth as the sexually desirable or barren instigator of Macbeth’s bloody actions, one should examine the prevalent violent order already intact in her world. Ultimately, it is through violence that one can secure power in this patrilineal society. For example, Macbeth’s status in the societal hierarchy is enhanced after he engages in bloodshed on behalf of the King. In this context, not even Duncan can be seen as any sort of purely benevolent source, but also a player in this world of masculine violence. For instance, even after the battle is over and Duncan seemingly secures his throne, he nonetheless orders the execution of the Thane of Cawdor to further ensure the security of his throne. Thus, violence and bloodshed are denoted as necessary agents in attaining security. Even Macduff must kill Macbeth in order to secure his own rule. Furthermore, not only is violence seen as necessary, but also a man who can engage in it is seen as honourable8. For instance, after hearing of Macbeth’s brutality, Duncan exclaims, “O valiant cousin, worthy gentlemen!” thereby establishing violence as gentlemanly conduct (I.II.24). When taken into account that Lady Macbeth lives in a world where violence breeds further violence, and “blood will have blood,” it becomes more understandable that Lady Macbeth considers violence as a means to achieve her husband’s end, for not only has bloodshed enhanced their status before, but it forms the basis for the already brutal world they live in (III.IV.124). In this sense, Lady Macbeth becomes what author of Fantasies of Female Evil, Cristina Leon Alfar classifies as, “a parodic inversion of the ideal wife” 9. That is, Lady Macbeth does not embody evil within the play, but rather, her character points out the necessity for violence in attaining glory in this society. James Calderwood observes:

Lady Macbeth may complain that Macbeth is too full of the milk of human kindness, but that is not the Macbeth we see on the heath enraptured by thoughts of murder 10.

This suggests that Macbeth already possesses violent tendencies, and it is not Lady Macbeth who invokes thoughts of murder in him. Instead, Lady Macbeth is not unsexed and is actually performing her duty as the ideal wife to Macbeth by making herself a part of his ambitions. Alfar explains:

Set within a structure of power dependent on violence for stability, Lady Macbeth’s behaviour adheres to rather than transgresses her gender role 11.

Hence, casting Lady Macbeth as symbolic of feminine cruelty is not conducive to an accurate analysis of her character, Macbeth’s character or the cultural context under which they are operating. Instead, it is important to analyze the pre-existing violent and patriarchal ideals of a society that keeps Lady Macbeth in a position of limited power.

Of course, many critics can readily argue that although Macbeth did engage in violent behaviour, he did it within the confines of the battlefield, where undoubtedly, murder is largely seen as a honourable endeavour. It is Lady Macbeth who encourages him to commit murder in the “real” world, where bloodshed is not necessarily a noble deed, and certainly not taking the blood of the King. Thus, she disrupts the natural order of this patriarchal society by encouraging Macbeth to murder the head of this family. Furthermore, she also attempts to disrupt the order of this world by asking unholy spirits to unsex her, thereby not only appealing to the androgynous forces presumably from the underworld, but also going against the natural gender norms of her own world. Essentially, Lady Macbeth can easily be depicted as the cruel, female instigator of Macbeth’s murder of Duncan, a deed that “sets the stage” for numerous future killings and an impending chaos.

Conversely, although Lady Macbeth is often attributed as being the motivating force behind Macbeth’s evil doings, it is strange to assume that she has so much power over a grown man, a brave soldier needless to say. In fact, Lady Macbeth, like most women in this world, yields very little power even in the domestic arena. As suggested earlier, she is merely performing a role as a dutiful wife to Macbeth by making him see the image of himself that he wants to see. That is, Lady Macbeth can only act through words since actual action is not in her domain. This notion becomes painfully clear with the example of Lady Macduff in this play. Alfar succinctly explains:

Lady Macduff is subject to the same societal restrictions as Lady Macbeth. Both women are deserted by husbands driven by masculinist honor to act out the play’s violence. Whether through passivity or through active encouragement, then, both women must be read as parties to a structure of power dependent on violence for stability12.

We can especially observe the powerlessness Lady Macduff faces when she states:

Whither should I fly?

I have done no harm. But I remember now

I am in this earthly world where to do harm

Is often laudable, to do good sometime

Accounted dangerous folly. Why then, alas,

Do I put up that womanly defense,

To say I have done no harm? (IV.II.73-79)

Ultimately, it can be observed that both Lady Macbeth and Lady Macduff are merely performing the socially constructed role of woman and are not given the authority to act, whether it means Lady Macbeth cannot pursue killing Duncan herself or Lady Macduff not being able to defend herself from being killed. Essentially, both women are dependent on their husbands if they wish action to take place. Therefore, when Lady Macbeth asks to be unsexed, she is not so much equating masculinity with viciousness as she is asking for the empowerment to take part in the violence that prevails around her, and especially to accept the violent deed that she already knows her husband will have to partake in if he wants to secure the future prophesized by the witches. The very fact that she requires assistance in order to pervert her own emotions indicates that she is not innately wicked and did not conceive the full extent of the chaos and turmoil that abolishing Duncan would onset 13. Essentially, Lady Macbeth is resigned to a place of inaction, where her major crime is simply her use of vicious words. Macbeth, as influenced as he may be by his wife, has the right to answer her emasculating insults with, “I must feel it as a man,” thereby making it clear to her that he does not need to kill in order to be more masculine (IV.III.223). Macbeth does not need to adhere to his wife’s suggestions, nor do we get any clear indication that he is ever completely under her influence. He expresses his autonomy from her explicitly when he makes it clear that he is adamant in killing the children, a decision that Lady Macbeth cannot condone. Furthermore, Macbeth does not arrest his murdering tirade after Lady Macbeth leaves his life. Although Macbeth makes the epiphany that life “is a tale Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” and this discovery could be given as a reason for the continuation of his murder spree, it still is apparent that Lady Macbeth is not the instigator of his crimes, indubitably not at this point (V.V.27-28). Moreover, when Lady Macbeth does ask to be unsexed, it brings up the notion that her whole world consists of performances, with gender being an aspect most largely put on for show. For instance, when she suggests that she could kill her own offspring in order to promote her husband, she is not so much having desires for infanticide as she is preparing for her new role as the wife of a man who must kill the King for his promotion. In essence, “gender, or the lack of it becomes merely a performance. Lady Macbeth is performing her role as the dutiful wife by putting aside what she believes to be feminine qualities for the time being” 14. This sort of charade of gender could seem inappropriate in the contemporary world, but in Lady Macbeth’s world, she is surely familiar with gender being for show as even her character is performed by young boys originally. Ziegler asserts, “One thing is widely agreed: Renaissance audiences understood that gender was a performance, that femininity was a part one might play (and put aside)” 15. Thus, as full of ammunition and taunting as Lady Macbeth’s words may be, one must remember that her role affords her only words. That is, she is unable to take any action, prevent action and certainly not promote her husband to take any action, which is contrary to the role of wicked instigator so readily assigned to her.

It is important to note that an in-depth analysis of Lady Macbeth is not an attempt to bring a bold modern feminist viewpoint into Shakespearean criticism, or even an attempt to determine whether Shakespeare was a proto-feminist or misogynist. Rather, it is crucial to recognize Lady Macbeth’s truly multi-faceted nature and complexity if we are to appreciate both her and the entire play better. When we gain further insight into Lady Macbeth, we will be less likely to make simplistic assertions like Dr. Simon, who writes, “Macbeth thorowe the persuasion of his wife did that night Murder the kinge in his own Castell”16. Such an uncomplicated reading of Lady Macbeth is misleading and unjustifiably narrows the scope of her character, much like merely seeing her as a sexual fiend or bitter barren woman who corrupts her husband. Moreover, a simple typecasting of Lady Macbeth prevents one from investigating and analyzing the cultural forces that drove both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth to act or not act. Ultimately, although it is difficult to offer any concrete conclusions on the highly intriguing Lady Macbeth, one conclusion can be offered, which is, frailty thy name is not Lady Macbeth, thy name is humanity.

Works Cited

1 Georgianna Ziegler. Shakespeare’s Unruly Women. (Washington: University of Washington Press, 1997) 96.

2 AC Bradley. Shakespearean Tragedy. (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1964) 352.

3 Carol Rutter. Clamorous Voices: Shakespeare’s Women Today. (London: The Woman’s Press, 1988) 60.

4 Ibid, 65.

5 Ibid, 67.

6 Juliet Dusinberre. Shakespeare and the Nature of Women. (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003) 283.

7 Cristina Leon Alfar. Fantasies of Female Evil. (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1963) 16.

8 Ibid, 121.

9 Ibid, 111.

10 Ibid, 122.

11 Ibid, 113.

12 Ibid, 118.

13 Ibid, 124.

14 Ibid.

15 Georgianna Ziegler. Shakespeare’s Unruly Women.(Washington: University of Washington Press, 1997) 99.

16 Judith Cook. Women in Shakespeare. (London: Harrop Publishing, 1980) 121.


Alfar, Cristina Leon. Fantasies of Female Evil. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1963.

Bradley, AC. Shakespearean Tragedy. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1964.

Cook, Judith. Women in Shakespeare. London: Harrop Publishing, 1980.

Dusinberre, Juliet. Shakespeare and the Nature of Women. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.

Rutter, Carol. Clamorous Voices: Shakespeare’s Women Today. London: The Woman’s Press, 1988.

Shakespeare, William. Macbeth. London: Barron’s Educational Series, 1985.

Ziegler, Georgianna. Shakespeare’s Unruly Women. Washington: University of Washington Press, 1997.

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