For those of you that don’t know, Lady Macbeth is the leading lady of William Shakespeare’s play, Macbeth. The story follows an ambitious Scottish lord (and his equally ambitious wife) who is prophesied to become king, and who sets about murdering everybody in order to make this happen. The play is widely considered to be one of Shakespeare’s most frightening works, dealing with betrayal, murder and the supernatural, and despite its 400-year lifespan it continues to be a feature of modern storytelling. As for Lady Macbeth, she is considered to be one of Shakespeare’s most complex female characters, has been played by a range of fantastic actresses (including Dame Judi Dench) and is the subject of countless GCSE English essays every year. What better way to kick off Villain Month?
But does she measure up to the hype? Let’s find out – but watch out for spoilers!
NOTE: Just so we’re clear, I’ll be basing my analysis off the original Shakespearean play, rather than any of the modern adaptations. I simply don’t have time to look at them all, but as they’re all working from the same source material, I’m sure it’ll be all right.
- Does the character shape her own destiny? Does she actively try to change her situation and if not, why not?
Lady Macbeth is very much in control of her own destiny, although it isn’t always by her own hands. When she first hears that Macbeth has been foretold to become king of Scotland, instead of simply waiting for this to happen she persuades her husband to murder the current king and take his place. She doesn’t actually kill the king herself, but she still causes his death nonetheless. She makes herself queen without really having to lift a finger, and does her best to keep her position stable by smoothing over Macbeth’s visions with his lords.
What’s really interesting about her character is that ultimately, she also ends up orchestrating her own downfall. Despite goading Macbeth into killing his king at the start of the play – and helping him to cover it up afterwards – she becomes racked with guilt over her part in his death. Eventually this becomes too much for her, and she kills herself near the end of the play. She is the architect of her own madness right up until the curtain falls.
SCORE SO FAR: 1
- Does she have her own goals, beliefs and hobbies? Did she come up with them on her own?
We don’t hear anything about Lady Macbeth’s hobbies; she’s far too busy plotting a massacre to have time for something like knitting.
However, her goals are very clearly defined: she wants to be Queen of Scotland as soon as possible, and will go to any lengths in order to make this happen. Her beliefs are a little harder to pin down, but it’s made very clear that she believes that in order to be strong, she must reject the feminine parts of her personality. Lady Macbeth constantly values the masculine above the feminine, as exemplified in her famous speech in Act One, Scene Five, where she begs all the powers of darkness to strip her of her femininity in order to make her strong enough to go through with the murder she’s planned. I’ll go into this in more detail in Question Nine, but for now she passes this round.
SCORE SO FAR: 2
- Is her character consistent? Do her personality or skills change as the plot demands?
Lady Macbeth starts the play as a ruthless, ambitious, manipulative woman who’s determined to see her husband succeed. However, by the end of the play she’s racked with guilt and has been gradually pushed to the edges of her husband’s power. This isn’t something that has happened suddenly. We see Macbeth pushing her out of the decision-making process when he orders the murder of Banquo and Macduff. Her crushing guilt is also foreshadowed right from her earliest appearance, when she tells the audience that she would have killed the king herself if he had not resembled her father as he slept. This all adds up to a much slower, more gradual decline into madness, with certain elements of her former personality remaining constant – which means that in terms of consistency, she’s certainly passed my test.
SCORE SO FAR: 3
- Can you describe her in one short sentence without mentioning her love life, her physical appearance, or the words ‘strong female character’?
A ruthlessly ambitious Scottish lady is determined to become Queen of Scotland by any means necessary – but is not prepared for the toll it will take on her psyche.
SCORE SO FAR: 4
- Does she make decisions that aren’t influenced by her love life?
Most of Lady Macbeth’s decisions are motivated by her ambition to become queen. While she is really only in the play because she’s Macbeth’s wife, we actually see very little of her decisions influenced by her love life. Some adaptations suggest that she actually uses her sexual hold over her husband in order to persuade him to go along with her plans, but ultimately she pushes her husband to murder his way to the top for her benefit rather than his own. She gets her power through Macbeth, but her concerns are more for his power than for him.
SCORE SO FAR: 5
- Does she develop over the course of the story?
Over the course of the play, Lady Macbeth goes mad. She also slowly loses influence with her husband, becomes racked with guilt and loses all interest in her previous goal of becoming – and remaining – royalty. It’s this descent into madness which makes her one of Shakespeare’s most interesting characters, so I’m giving her the point.
SCORE SO FAR: 6
- Does she have a weakness?
This question gets a little tricky when talking about villains. Negative character traits are usually precisely what make villains so memorable, and are often the very things that propel them through their story. With that in mind, I’m going to be classifying ‘villain weaknesses’ as character traits that hold them back – which may well be seen as a more positive trait in less morally dubious characters – rather than just looking at negative characteristics.
Lady Macbeth’s fatal flaw from a villainous point of view is ultimately her inability to live up to her own ambition. She can’t kill the king herself because he reminds her of her father, nor can she reconcile her own ambition with the enormity of what her husband has done. Just like her husband, her ambition over-reaches itself; she can never truly achieve the goals she has set.
SCORE SO FAR: 7
- Does she influence the plot without getting captured or killed?
Throughout the play Lady Macbeth exhibits extra-ordinary amounts of ‘soft power’. Rather than forcing people to do what she wants, she persuades them, cajoles them, and manipulates them. In this respect she has a fantastic amount of influence over her husband, whose actions drive the plot. She has a lot of indirect control over the larger events of the play, so I’ll give her the point.
SCORE SO FAR: 8
- How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?
Lady Macbeth is a really interesting character in terms of how she relates to feminine and masculine gender roles. When she’s in control, she firmly rejects all the traditional trappings of femininity – such as kindness, compassion, obedience etc. – and does so in a particularly brutal manner. When she’s psyching herself up for murder in Act One, Scene Five she does so using images of infanticide, mother’s milk turning to poison, and literally asked to be ‘unsexed’. What’s more, she says all of this while calling on spirits and the ‘smoke of hell’, invoking all sorts of demonic nasties that would have shocked Jacobean audiences.
This implies two things. The first is that Lady Macbeth – and, by extension, much of Jacobean culture – associated strength, ruthlessness and ambition with men. Women were supposed to be kind, gentle, loving creatures because they were capable of bearing children. In order for Lady Macbeth to go through with her own plans, she must literally divorce herself from her biological gender. The second is that by giving this speech while invoking hellish spirits, Shakespeare is effectively associating this rejection of the feminine with the demonic. When Lady Macbeth is literally asking demons to make her incapable of having children, Shakespeare is effectively saying that this behaviour is unnatural. Lady Macbeth’s rejection of the feminine is also a rejection of God. In a highly Christian society such as Jacobean England, it’s likely that this would have legally counted as witchcraft – a crime punishable by death.
Given the time in which the play was written, it comes as no surprise that Lady Macbeth is eventually punished for her crimes. She’s driven mad by her own guilt, but the way in which this is handles strips her of all her power. In the sleepwalking scene, where the audience finally sees Lady Macbeth’s guilt laid out before them, she’s a very vulnerable character who is no longer a factor in her husband’s plans. In effect, she has become a much more traditionally feminine character – she’s reduced to a very passive player, her emotions eventually become her downfall, and her influence on the plot has been rapidly reduced in favour of her husband’s. Even her speech is affected – in AC Bradley’s famous analysis of the play, he notes that in this scene Lady Macbeth speaks in short, disjointed prose. In all her other appearances she speaks in very controlled verse, and unlike the other major characters in Shakespearean tragedies, she doesn’t get to speak in verse for her final appearance – a method of speaking that was traditionally used to demonstrate dignity and nobility.
The upshot of all this is that Lady Macbeth’s power comes from an outright rejection of her femininity. This behaviour would have been seen by audiences as deeply unnatural – hence the demonic imagery – and she is ultimately punished for it. In her final scene we see Lady Macbeth at her most vulnerable: she’s been stripped of both her power and her dignity and has been forced back into a more traditionally feminine stance because of this. She’s not just punished for her role in planning the king’s murder; she’s also punished for stepping outside the boundaries of traditional Jacobean gender norms. Long story short? She doesn’t pass.
SCORE SO FAR: 8
- How does she relate to other female characters?
Lady Macbeth just doesn’t relate to other female characters. She’s only onstage with another woman once in the entire play – a nameless gentlewoman – but this is during the sleepwalking scene, and Lady Macbeth has no idea that this woman is even there.
FINAL SCORE: 8/10
Lady Macbeth is a ruthlessly ambitious woman who remains in control of her own destiny, has some clear goals, changes over the course of the story and has weaknesses that actively hold her back. She may not relate to other female characters, and she may be extremely problematic in terms of gender stereotypes, but she’s still passed my test. It’s a real testament to the complexity of Shakespeare’s characters that they still stand up to analysis four hundred years after they were first imagined!
Next week, I’ll be going back to one of my favourite series of all time: Harry Potter. Dolores Umbridge, I’m coming for you.
And if you’re looking for all my posts on Strong Female Characters, you can find them here.