Sure, Lady Macbeth orchestrates multiple deaths throughout the play and frequently emasculates her husband by accusing him of weakness, but her manipulative murder plots and her rejection of her gender cast her as what some might see as an amusingly devious and entertaining co-star in Macbeth. In his 1606 play, William Shakespeare brings a whirlwind character to the stage, pushing against the strict definitions of gender and power that continue to exist today while evoking a complicated sense of sympathy through her emotional fall to madness.
Asserting her influence over Macbeth despite her status as a woman in medieval Scotland, Lady Macbeth motivates her husband to pursue their mutual goal: power. Towards the beginning of the play, Lady Macbeth seems like the dominant partner within the duo, as she masterminds murder plots, and even attempts to remove her femininity in the hopes that she will consequently gain the strength, that her husband does not initially possess, to follow through with murder. In her famous speech, Lady Macbeth begs the spirits:
…Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full
Of direct cruelty! Make thick my blood,
Stop up th’access and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose nor keep peace between
Th’effect and it. Come to my woman’s breasts,
And take my milk for gall, you murdering ministers,
Wherever in your sightless substances
You wait on nature’s mischief! (1.5.38-48)
Her requests to “unsex [her]” and “take [her] milk for gall” indicate that she intends to remove the feminine aspects of her body and mind to free herself of guilt, demonstrating that her gender impedes her plan to murder King Duncan, see Macbeth succeed to his throne, and solidify her and her husband’s power. In defiance of her gender, however, Lady Macbeth persists in her guiltlessness—if only for a short time.
While her fiercely-held ambitions deem her a uniquely empowered woman for her time, Lady Macbeth continues to evoke emotion from readers who are incensed by her resolve to kill and from viewers who sympathize with her spiraling descent to crippling guilt and madness. Through various enthralling interpretations, Lady Macbeth appears in film as the mourning mother of a dead child as well as the classical guilty coconspirator to a self-serving murder plot.
Justin Kurzel’s 2015 film opens with a shot of an infant child’s corpse. Soon after, Lady Macbeth approaches the child’s body, Macbeth dutifully by her side, before the altar is engulfed in flames. The Macbeths lean their heads against one another, showing the support each filches from the other. Later, Lady Macbeth descends into madness, mumbling to herself and manically rubbing her hands clean of blood stains that aren’t there. In Kurzel’s version, Lady Macbeth looks, with tears in her eyes, just to the side of the camera. A tear falls down her cheek as she begs, “Come, come, come, come, give me your hand. What’s done cannot be undone. To bed, to bed, to bed” (5.1.59-61), reaching for something off-screen. The end of the scene shocks the audience as the camera cuts to the spot on which Lady Macbeth’s eyes are fixed and reveals for what she reaches: a child. By interpreting Lady Macbeth as a mourning mother, Kurzel draws attention to her gender, the psychological effects of losing a child, and her counterintuitive resolve to murder. The idea that the Macbeths have a dead child is fascinating, cementing the significance of Lady Macbeth’s femininity and depicting her grief as she reaches for the deceased child, unable to hold him.
In Phillip Casson’s 1979 version of the same scene, Judi Dench’s harrowing twenty-five-second-long “Oh” unsettles and inspires empathy for the woman in pain. By drawing out the word “Oh” and turning it into a screeching wail for this excruciatingly long time, this interpretation intensely displays Lady Macbeth’s desperation and guilt. The audience feels her pain, despite the fact that her suffering results from her insatiable hunger for power.
As she drives herself to madness, Lady Macbeth continues to evoke emotion, captivating readers in English classes, audience members at the Globe in seventeenth-century England, and viewers of all modern film adaptations alike.
Shakespeare, William. Macbeth. The Norton Shakespeare: Tragedies, Edited by Stephen Greenblatt, Walter Cohen, Suzanne Gossett, Jean E. Howard, Katharine Eisaman Maus, Gordon McMullan, 3rd ed., W. W. Norton & Company, 2016, pp. 917-69.
Macbeth. Dir. Justin Kurzel. Perf. Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard. The Weinstein Company, 2015. Film.
A Performance of Macbeth. Dir. Philip Casson. Perf. Ian McKellen and Judi Dench. Royal Shakespeare Company, 1979. Film.