Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s most famous tragedies and was first performed in 1611, however it was written in 1603. This was in the Elizabethan period, which despite the country being ruled by a woman; women had to be obedient towards their masters. Women of the time had to be the housewives who did the cooking and looked after the children, and the men were the breadwinners. From the aspect of theatre, all women roles were played by young boys, this proved difficult especially in Macbeth, where a woman is acting as though she is a man.
This is both ironic and complex as she is subject to a hyper masculine world.
Lady Macbeth is a very intricate character in that she has both masculine and feminine qualities that intertwine throughout the play. While being very authoritative when talking to Macbeth in the early scenes of the play, she is also quite easily distressed. This is apparent when she faints at the sight of the dead bodies of the guards and exclaims ‘help me hence, ho!’ Fainting in Shakespearean times was seen to be a very womanly attribute.
Shakespeare has used Lady Macbeth to show what it is like for a woman as she was frustrated with the restrictions put upon her gender. She is somewhat unconventional in her mannerisms as she is portrayed as a very commanding character and is seen to not be very maternal. In fact she declares ‘come you spirits…unsex me here.’ This reiterates the unconventional side of her persona, giving us an insight into her thoughts and feelings at the time.
We see Lady Macbeth first in Act 1 Scene 5 where, in the stage directions, she is described as; ‘alone, reading a letter.’ This immediately shows that she is well educated. In addition the letter she is reading is Macbeth’s letter, so Lady Macbeth’s first words in the play were Macbeth’s originally, this demonstrates male dominance from the beginning.
The reading of the letter, in terms of the theatrical view is read as a soliloquy, moreover this letter is used as a dramatic device, it informs the audience of what has happened and gives background information, and also it brings the audience up to the present time in the play. The fact that the letter is read as a soliloquy has significance in that it reveals the loneliness of Lady Macbeth. We can sympathise with her because it is understandable to think that it would be tough to live in these times as a women, with great restriction and certain guidelines to follow.
Witchcraft is also a major element in this play; this is because the play is set in the time of James I, who had a certain fascination with anything remotely witch-like. In fact James I wrote a book called Demonology which was solely based on witchcraft. Being a witch had terrible consequences; death by hanging of being burned at the stake, this cruel persecution amplified the superstition and misogyny of the time.
Act one Scene five is littered with references to witchcraft and spirits. When talking about Macbeth’s new position in the society she uses the word ‘metaphysical’ which means super-natural much like a witch. Something which is super-natural is not natural and possesses witch like traits. Shakespeare also uses ‘the raven’ which symbolises disaster and death and is regarded as an evil omen. Later on in the scene it Shakespeare has made it seem like Lady Macbeth is talking to someone or something, this can be interpreted as Lady Macbeth talking to the spirits, while doing this she says ‘come you spirits that tend on mortal thoughts.’ She is inviting the spirits to have fatal and murderous thoughts, so that her husband Macbeth can be king. This is a principle of witchcraft and all its myths that is considered to be the most recognised.
Yet another convention of witchcraft is intelligence, and Lady Macbeth uses manipulation and deception to get her way with Macbeth. She refers to Macbeth as ‘living like a coward.’ This simile is both emotive and manipulative, in that it will provoke a sense of masculinity in Macbeth. This means that Lady Macbeth can get him to do anything for her, because Macbeth has a point to prove. Intelligence was seen as a masculine trait o any woman who was intelligent was deemed to be a witch.
Lady Macbeth makes plans for treason by wanting to kill Duncan which is a very unconventional thought. Moreover how she controls Macbeth in the use of language ‘art thou afeard’ shows that Lady Macbeth is questioning Macbeth’s masculinity. Additionally she is extremely unmaternal and quite independent especially towards the end of the play.
Lady Macbeth is an exceptionally complex character possessing both feminine and masculine traits, this is echoed by her willingness to be a devoted wife but also a controlling one too which is irregular for the time. She shows her devotedness when she is waiting for him to come home and give her the good news about his new position in the hierarchy she says ‘thou would have great glamis’ This shows that she would love him to be the thane of Cawdor. However she then goes on to say that he will need some help along the way, she wishes she was not a woman and instead in Macbeth’s position.
From the beginning she explains how Macbeth would be ‘too full o’ th’ milk of human kindness,’ in this extended metaphor it illustrates Lady Macbeth’s thinking of Macbeth, she believes that he is too kind and that he is too womanly to undertake a role such as a king. Milk is representative of females as it refers to the breast milk that a mother would lovingly provide for her child. It implies that she needs to help him to succeed as he is too gentle, a very unconventional thought. This is very eccentric and to a certain extent not very maternal. This is the first major antithesis of the play as there is a major contradiction between what her first thoughts are and her final thoughts are. At first she is a loving wife with great envy for her husband and then later on this envy turns into jealousy and bitterness.
The other chief paradox in the play is the theme of being maternal, Lady Macbeth expresses her feelings about the sweetness of babies, explaining that she knows ‘how tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me’ This shows Lady Macbeth’s conventional side, showing that she can be loving and caring, it also tells the audience and readers that Lady Macbeth have some kind of a child and that she has lost that child because there is no mention of it thereafter this section. The contrast to the conventional side is that she would ‘dash the brains out’ of the baby. This is very shocking and unconventional language that stirs up mixed emotions inside the readers and listeners of the play.
Shakespeare has complicated the role of Lady Macbeth by making her seem more masculine in both her language and her actions. Lady Macbeth rejects femininity yet again when saying ‘make thick my blood’. This shows her need for strength, it could also be interpreted as her saying that she wants menstruation to stop, as it is a reminder of being a female. Another metaphor for the menstruation is ‘that no compunctions visitings of nature’.
This also shows that she is rejecting femininity and wanting menstruation to stop. Also the extended metaphor of milk is used again in this section when she begs ‘take my milk for gall, you murd’ring ministers.’ Alliteration is used to make the sentence flow, in addition ‘gall’ was thought to promote rage or malice, not a conventional desire from a woman, this adds to the complexity of the character. Moreover this segment relates back to the invocation of the spirits, Lady Macbeth gives the impression of talking to spirits or in this case the ministers, refusing traits of womanliness in favour of masculinity.
Linking with the spirits, Lady Macbeth says she will ‘chastise with the valour of my tongue’. This is quite a complex phrase out of context, however it refers to Lady Macbeth stopping herself saying anything to Macbeth about the circumstance he is in. This adds to the dramatic effect of this piece because as the audience later finds out, she could not be controlled, this is dramatic irony. Using the word chastise indicates that she should be punished if she says anything out of turn. However it is with the valour or bravery, which is a masculine trait, and her tongue or speech, a feminine trait.
Adding to Lady Macbeth’s unconventional nature, she is very controlling over Macbeth, something that in the time of the play was punishable. In the later stages of Act One Scene Five she is explaining that both her and Macbeth should look welcoming to Duncan when he arrives, however there is a certain essence of deception when she deviously proclaims to Macbeth that he should ‘look like the innocent flower, / but be the serpent under’t’ This reveals her devious nature and manipulation and cleverness of speech as this is a well coordinated metaphor. The serpent is regarded as a symbol of evil adding to the deviousness of the quotation. As Macbeth tries to speak about the situation he has been put in he utters ‘we will speak further-‘ Shakespeare has used the hyphen to suggest that Lady Macbeth has interrupted him, now controlling how long he has to talk. Lady Macbeth has the last word by saying ‘Leave all the restto me’ which emphasises her controlling nature as she is in command of the occasion.
Throughout the play Lady Macbeth is extremely clever with her tongue, in that she provokes Macbeth to feel uneasy and this spurs him on to become king later on. Her cleverness of speech in magnified in Act one Scene seven when she is trying to persuade Macbeth to take the opportune moment. Using clever language hinting at bad judgement and using the colours ‘green and pale’ when referring to the way he is approaching becoming the king, as she describes the crown as the ‘ornament of life’ another metaphor indicating that the throne is all there is to live for. Lady Macbeth also relates to a bible passage wherein she talks about the ‘cat i’ th’ adage’ This proverb is about a cat that does not want to get its feet wet when searching for a fish, this shows both her education and ingenuity when it comes to her manipulation of words.
Lady Macbeth then ignores Macbeth’s attempt to calm her down with ‘prithee peace’ and carries on in the same manner she started. The alliteration was meant to calm Lady Macbeth however it did no such thing. Towards the latter phase of the scene she uses words such as ‘we, you, our’ and ‘I’ this gives the impression of togetherness of the couple as she is trying to avoid separation. Macbeth then uses a pun when saying to Lady Macbeth that she should ‘bring forth men children only, for thy undaunted mettle should compose/nothing but males’. The play on words is with the word mettle, it means both courage and strength as in armour, and this shows that he thinks she is a vey strong woman with a strong personality, which should not be played with.
Lady Macbeth shows a certain amount of deterioration when it comes to controlling what Macbeth decides, she is reserved to her bed where she is constantly trying to wash the blood of her hands. However the blood is not physically there and she is just imagining it a problem that increases until she chooses to commit suicide, just as Macbeth reaches the height of his power. I believe Shakespeare shows this decline as an act of misogyny, because it shows that a woman cannot cope with the pressures of a man.
The other women in the play such as Lady Macduff are more conventional, as she is the house wife, who looks after the children and cooks the meals, unlike Lady Macbeth as she is very independent and has no children. This paradox shows the key differences between them and highlights the effect on the husband in the situation. At the end Macduff wins the fight against a possessed Macbeth, possibly possessed by the death of Duncan which resulted in the suicide of his wife, a chronological downfall constructed by his wife.
An audience of the modern day would respond to Lady Macbeth in a different way to a Shakespearean audience. This is due to women having a higher role in society, in that they are no longer looked down upon. Therefore a woman partaking in manly activities is not frowned upon, many women nowadays are choosing occupations instead of settling down with a family, and they are certainly allowed to have a say in any relationship they are in. Consequently an audience of today would see Lady Macbeth as a normal woman in that she is intelligent and independent in her own right, however they would be disapproving of her plotting murder against the monarchy but the reaction would not necessarily be so intense.
Shakespeare has presented Lady Macbeth as a clever and controlling woman that is confused by the hyper masculine world she is subject to. However from the audience’s point of view it could be seen as misogynistic, as it is showing a woman to be like a man, it shows that it does not work, as Lady Macbeth eventually breaks down. Therefore it could reveal what Shakespeare thinks would happen if a female acted like a male.
Throughout this tragedy Shakespeare builds up the character of Lady Macbeth from the first word she says to the last few words before her suicide. Shakespeare has created a domineering and intellectual character which is ready to face the prejudices of the Elizabethan era. To a tee she overcomes these chauvinisms and cleverly reverses the convention that a woman should do as a man says the basis for the entire play.
👋 Hi! I’m your smart assistant Amy!
Don’t know where to start? Type your requirements and I’ll connect you to an academic expert within 3 minutes.get help with your assignment