Wednesday, 22 May 2013

A2 English Literature: Women in Macbeth

In this post, as with pretty much all posts about Macbeth, I will of course be relating certain things back to typical Gothic conventions. However, whenever you talk about Macbeth you have to make sure that you tell the examiner that you are aware that Macbeth is a pre-Gothic text. This post primarily focusses on Lady Macbeth and also briefly considers Lady Macduff's role in the play.

Lady Macbeth

In typical Shakespearean tragedies, female main characters aren't always treated brilliantly. In Hamlet, Ophelia goes down the "I shall obey, my lord" route. In Othello, Desdemona goes down the "To you I am bound" route. Yet in Macbeth, this isn't quite the case. The most important female figure is Lady Macbeth, a cunning and manipulative woman who is associated with the supernatural. Instantly it can be argued that Lady Macbeth fits in with the later idea of certain Gothic women being 'sinister predators', or 'femme fatales'.

Dame Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth
Lady Macbeth has been the subject of much debate for hundreds of years. Her role in the play is incredibly important and she is the subject of various interpretations.

Her first appearance in the play is in act one, scene five. She opens by reading Macbeth's letter; instantly this seems to present her as a typical Shakespearean woman (when I say typical, I mean typical in terms of main female characters in tragedies being passive), since her first words are that of her husband's, as though she is bound to him. Then she stops reading the letter, and we start to realise that she isn't at all typical.

She instantly states that Macbeth will be "what thou art promised", which shows a determination and strength of will that we may not have been expecting. She goes on to criticise her husband's nature, since he is "too full o'th'milk of human kindness". A wife criticising her husband's nature, whether she is alone or not, wouldn't be hugely popular in Shakespeare's time, let alone in medieval Scotland where the play is set.

The phrase "I may pour my spirits in thine ear" seems very witch-like, and there are many critics who argue that Lady Macbeth is something of a 'fourth witch'. This interpretation is enforced by what is possibly her most well-known speech, whereby she pleads "you spirits / That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here". This links Lady Macbeth to the witches, who, as Banquo notes, "should be women, / And yet your beards forbid me to interpret / That you are so." I cover the role of the witches in more detail here.

The witches seem to blur the boundary between male and female, just as Lady Macbeth is blurring boundaries by asking spirits to remove her gender so that she can persuade Macbeth to kill Duncan and seek greatness. As soon as she does this, typical female imagery is violated: "Come to my woman's breasts, / And take my milk for gall..." - this also juxtaposes the "milk of human kindness" that is used to describe Macbeth.

Lady Macbeth's association with the supernatural violates her expected role as a domesticated and passive woman; she is immediately going against all socially expected norms, adhering to the later Gothic convention of transgression. But the fact that Lady Macbeth seems to have to call upon spirits to remove her gender suggests that the role of women at the time is restrictive - no 'ordinary' woman could do what Lady Macbeth tends to do, so she must call upon supernatural forces for help.

Her language in this speech is interesting, and characterises her as strong-willed and determined, contrasting Macbeth's "rapt" nature and his various asides in the preceding scenes. Shakespeare includes various imperatives in Lady Macbeth's language, such as "come", "stop" and "take", suggesting that she has control over her situation. Some of her language is typically gory and Gothic in nature: "make thick my blood", "pall thee in the dunnest smoke of Hell".

Then, Macbeth enters, and Lady Macbeth echoes the words of the witches; this gives weight to the interpretation that she is a 'fourth witch'. In 1,3, the witches say:

"All hail, Macbeth! Hail to thee, Thane of Glamis! /
All hail, Macbeth! Hail to thee, Than of Cawdor! /
All hail, Macbeth! That shalt be King hereafter!"

In 1,5, Lady Macbeth says:

"Great Glamis! Worthy Cawdor! / Greater than both, by the all-hail hereafter!"

Furthermore, these words are the first words that Macbeth hears from the witches and his wife in the play. They speak immediately to his desires - there's really no holding back.
Kate Fleetwood as Lady Macbeth

When Macbeth starts talking to his wife, Shakespeare's use of indents when Lady Macbeth speaks suggests that she is interjecting him - something that would be frowned upon at the time. It is as though she has power over not just their conversations, but their relationship. This presents her as even more powerful, considering Macbeth is the "brave" and "noble" warrior who can do all sorts of nasty stuff on the battlefield. 

Lady Macbeth tells her husband to "look like th'innocent flower, / But be the serpent under't." This immediately brings in the theme of appearance versus reality, and highlights Lady Macbeth's duplicitous nature. Furthermore, this quotation has contextual significance; after the quashing of Guy Fawkes's Gunpowder Plot, King James I was awarded with a medal that presents a serpent hiding beneath a flower. By comparing Lady Macbeth to such a contemporary atrocity, Shakespeare is sure to present her as villainous. 

Furthermore, the word 'serpent' has Biblical connotations, and relates to the serpent in Genesis - the serpent that tempts Eve to eat the forbidden fruit, and as a result leads to the downfall of mankind. Is Lady Macbeth the serpent? If so, is Macbeth Eve? A subtle reversal of gender roles could be argued for here, a violation of both fixed boundaries and social norms.

But why? Why does Lady Macbeth seem so interested in persuading Macbeth to kill Duncan? Is it for her own benefit or for his? This whole aspect of her character is great for AO3:
  • Perhaps Lady Macbeth is a selfish, power-driven villain who manipulates Macbeth so that she can attain greatness and become the queen
  • Perhaps she wants the best for her husband, and manipulates him into murdering Duncan so that he can become the king, which he deserves
  • Perhaps she notices that Macbeth secretly desires to be king, and persuades him to seek out his desires and fulfil his ambition? (this is the interpretation that I usually go for)
Victoria Hill as Lady Macbeth
In 1,7, Macbeth expresses doubts about murdering Duncan (fair play, divine rights of kings and all), and Lady Macbeth comes along and pretty much tells him how ridiculous he's being. She opens with a rhetorical question that is condescending in nature: "Was the hope drunk / Wherein you dressed yourself?" This demeaning attitude is really not what was expected of women at the time - and if that's not bad enough, she openly challenges his manhood:

"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."

Then, she mentions that "I have given suck", letting the audience know that Lady Macbeth has at one point been a mother. Shakespeare's use of violent and shocking imagery distances us even further from Lady Macbeth:

"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."

By presenting Lady Macbeth as a maternal figure, and then violating this role so horrifically, Shakespeare is warping the expected roles of women. This also suggests that her "unsex me here" speech has been successful; what true mother could say such a thing about her child? Surely the spirits must have succeeded in removing her gender?

Aislín McGuckin as Lady Macbeth
2,2 is an interesting scene in developing Lady Macbeth's character. She continues to be the leading force in her relationship with Macbeth; Macbeth's first four lines in the scene are questions - it is his wife who gives the answers. She continues to demean him, saying "A foolish thought, to say 'a sorry sight'" in response to Macbeth, and she condescends him by saying "I shame / To wear a heart so white.

As the play goes on, Lady Macbeth seems less and less in control of the situation herself and her husband are in. In 3,2 there is an absence of her rhetorical language and evocative imagery. She seems to be consoling her husband, telling him "what's done, is done" and speaks to him as though she is more of a typical wife of the time than a cruel villainess: "Gentle my lord, sleek o'er your rugged looks, / Be bright and jovial among your guests tonight.

It could also be interpreted that this is the moment in the play where Macbeth actually takes over the power in his relationship. He is now the one dismissing his wife condescendingly, calling her "dearest chuck" and telling her to "be innocent of the knowledge". This presents the two as more of a typical couple of the time. Lady Macbeth also speaks less in this scene, which contrasts the amount of speech assigned to both characters in previous scenes.

In 3,4, Lady Macbeth appears to be demeaning her husband again, challenging his manhood by asking, "Are you a man?" However this time, Macbeth's answer is more assertive: "Ay, and a bold one, that dare look on that / Which might appal the Devil." This scene is pivotal because we are made aware of the extent of Macbeth's guilt and inner conflict through the presentation of Banquo's ghost. Is this the point of no return for Macbeth? Perhaps his wife's influence on him is now redundant. 

Francesca Annis as Lady Macbeth
The first scene of act five feature a Doctor and an Attendant. The two characters are discussing the fact that Lady Macbeth has been sleepwalking, something the Doctor puts down to "a great perturbation in nature" - this links to Macbeth violating the divine rights of the king. In literature, sleep is often associated with innocence, which is unlike what we've seen of Lady Macbeth so far. The Attendant tells the Doctor that she will not tell him what Lady Macbeth says when she sleepwalks, which suggests that she may be confessing her guilt regarding her role in Macbeth's usurpation. Sleepwalking is inherently very Gothic: it has connotations of madness, surpasses the boundary of sleep and is liminal in nature - not quite awake, not quite asleep.

Lady Macbeth enters, in her sleepwalking state, "holding a taper" (a taper being a long, thin candle). Perhaps this is symbolic of Lady Macbeth bringing light to the situation. By bringing light into darkness (two Gothic extremes), is Shakespeare suggesting that Lady Macbeth is expressing guilt? The Attendant notes that "she has light by her continually"; perhaps there is an element of innocence behind the apparently villainous character. 

Then we hear Lady Macbeth uttering the infamous line, "Out, damned spot; out, I say!" as she tries to scrub invisible blood off her hands. To highlight the fact that she has now descended into madness, Shakespeare puts Lady Macbeth's speech in prose - which is often associated with lower class or mad characters. Everything she does here juxtaposes her earlier presentation; she is not in control. 

She openly seems to express guilt for the death of innocent people: "The Thane of Fife had a wife: where is she now? / What, will these hands ne'er be clean?" The blood of Macbeth's victims is on her hands. Even if some argue that Lady Macbeth 'bullies' her husband into murdering Duncan, is it fair for her to carry the guilt for his other murders? 

Her attitude here directly links to line said by Macbeth in 2,2. Macbeth says:

"Will all great Neptune's ocean wash this blood / Clean from my hand?"

Judi Dench as Lady Macbeth
Both characters experience their guilt at different times. Macbeth, however, carries on, assuming that a reign of tyranny will rid him of his guilt and help establish his power. Yet for Lady Macbeth, the guilt consumes her; it makes her ill, mad and, if one reads her ambiguous death in a certain way, suicidal.

When Macbeth learns of his wife's death, he says "Out, out brief candle!" This contrasts Lady Macbeth's desire to have light by her side in the scene before her death. Perhaps this is what separates the two: Lady Macbeth ended up trying to bring light (clarity, rationality) to the world, whereas Macbeth is merely interested in extinguishing light (obscurity, irrationality, taking people's lives). 

In Malcom's final speech, Lady Macbeth is referred to as a "fiend-like Queen". A couple of exams back, the Macbeth question focussed on this phrase. Is Lady Macbeth truly a fiend-like Queen?

  • Yes - her selfish desire for power inadvertently causes the deaths of many
  • No - she merely persuaded Macbeth to seize his desires, and was unfairly caught up in the repercussions of his actions
  • Somewhat - she initially desired power, but later openly regretted her actions and motives (something that arguably cannot be said for her husband)
Lady Macduff

The other main female character in the story is Lady Macduff, who appears to be the Gothic archetype of a 'trembling victim'; a passive woman who seems to be the opposite of Lady Macbeth. Seen only in one scene, Lady Macduff refers to herself as "the poor wren / (The most diminutive of birds)". This bird imagery roots Lady Macduff in the natural world and also presents her as a weak, passive character. She also calls her son "Poor bird!" The mother/son relationship here is obvious, visual and loving. Yet Lady Macduff's role as a mother comes in one grotesque line, where she tells Macbeth she would dash her newborn son's brains out for his love.
Peggy Webber as Lady Macduff

Lady Macduff is killed as soon as her scene is over, albeit off-stage. Is the Macduff family relationship only included by Shakespeare to contrast with the dysfunctional Macbeths? (Dysfunctional is putting it lightly.)

As I mentioned above, the witches also come into the 'women' category in the play (just), and my post on them can be found here.


  1. On the section where you talk about Lady Macduff do you mean to say Lady Macbeth in the line: ''Yet Lady Macduff's role as a mother comes in one grotesque line, where she tells Macbeth she would dash her newborn son's brains out for his love''?

    I love all your resources though they've saved my A2 English and Philosophy!! Thankyou so so much for all of these :)

  2. Good day!

    This is Smile Siervo of GMA 7. It is one pf the biggest television network in the Philippines. In line with this, we are doing a documentary about the Macbeth effect which has been derived by Lady Macbeth's character. In this light, may we ask for your permission on granting us one of Lady Macbeth photos here in you blog specifically the phito of Francesca Annis playing the role of lady Macbeth. Rest assured that we will use the photo in due courtesy of your blog. Thanks and godbless you for your positive response! :)