Lady Macbeth As a Dominating Character Responsible For Her Husband’s Downfall

For four hundred years Lady Macbeth has inspired 'awe'. She is the evil fairy godmother lurking behind villainesses as diverse as Livia in 'I, Claudius', Cruella de Ville and Cersei Lannister. Shakespeare has taken the historical Lady Macbeth, eleventh century Gruoch, & made her a 'fiend like queen'. Is it fair to assign as much blame or more to her as to her husband? In this essay I will explore this question.

Macbeth was written for King James I of England in the 16th century.

King James was a massive believer in witches (as were most people at the time) and was intrigued by stories about them. He put thousands of people to death by burning because he suspected them of being a witch. These people confessed after severe torture and if they didn't confess, the torture and the tests for being a witch normally killed them. Whether Shakespeare himself believed in witches is debatable; however, as a working playwright he was happy to write a sensational play that appealed both to the monarch and to the masses.

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The eponymous tragic hero, Macbeth, is a celebrated general who meets witches who give him prophecies. Although he mistrusts these 'instruments of darkness', he succumbs to his ambitions and tries to fulfil them with regicide. In the early scenes of the play, when Macbeth has doubts about crimes, Lady Macbeth manipulates him into committing them.

Most people reading a letter in which they discover their husband has seen worshippers of the devil who told them to kill the King would immediately contact someone for help or tell him to stop; however, Lady Macbeth does the opposite and decides to encourage her husband's regicidal ambition.

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Indeed, she seems to be a satanist herself “too full of the milk of human kindness...take my milk for gall, you murdering ministers” Gall is a corrosive enzyme which is something an average person wouldn’t want inside of them. Perhaps her personality is already the poison inside her. “Come, you spirits…unsex me here” suggests that she believes that her femininity is a weakness and will hinder her actions. Her use of imperatives makes her seem like a dominating character, which would not be expected of women at that time. She doesn’t want to produce milk, which is only produced by women: gall is a bitter poison.This suggests that she rejects her expected nurturing, maternal role, in favour of being a force for destruction. She has some reason for not wanting to be female: at the time women were treated as second class citizens and the man was always in charge. People in the 15th century would have seen this as normal, so Lady Macbeth’s behaviour was even more unusual back then she also talks as if she is controlling the spirits, something only a witch could do; perhaps she sees herself as a witch.These Quotes also display the ideology of Lady Macbeth, hungry for power and willing to do anything to get it, even to mutate her physical body purely for her husband’s twisted gain, This suggests that perhaps she just wants the best for her husband, which does take away from her description of a selfish character doing whatever for self gain, However at the time she would have been unable to do much as society did not see her as an equal. So you could argue that she is controlling her husband, using him as a puppet so she can get what she wants.

She seems to have a desire to have traits similar to a sociopath/sadist by saying “Stop up th’access and passage to remorse.” A sociopath has no emotions and manipulates people for personal gain.. She doesn't want to be remorseful for any actions. The belief in bloodletting to let out sickness was common in the 15th century. She wants to retain evil within her. The phrase ‘Passage to remorse’ is yonic imagery which again suggests that she sees womanhood & motherhood as weakness.

When Macbeth arrives, Lady Macbeth tells him: ”‘look like the innocent flower/But be the serpent under’t”. The play was written for King James I, who was almost the victim of a terrorist attack performed by Guy Fawkes and his fellow conspirators, called the Gunpowder Plot.After King James I’s failed assassination, he had a medallion made with a snake hiding in flowers. The reference by Shakespeare is small, but as the king was the most important audience member at the time as Ultimately, Shakespeare was writing for the king, not the people. As at that time he was not funded a huge amount by ticket sales but by the king who would pay for his plays.

Lady Macbeth is often the persuading force when Macbeth is doubtful of Murdering Duncan. When he is anxious she says things such as “Was the hope drunk…? hath it slept since?... Art thou afeard?... Wouldst thou…” These rhetorical questions question his status as a man. It was believed in the seventeenth century that women should be subject to the patriarchy. Lady Macbeth's questioning and derogatory speech would be seen as in defiance of the natural order. This was very much topical, as the recent decline and death of Elizabeth Ii had led to an atmosphere of suspicion towards dominating women.

Lady Macbeth uses horrifying imagery to manipulate her husband when she says: “the babe that milks me. I would, while it was smiling in my face... dashed the brains out, had I so sworn as you have done to this.” This is the most horrific thing for a mother, which she said she was at one point, to say or even think this. Using the word “dashed” is a very violent verb which emphasises the brutality of this image. This suggests she is a suitable partner for someone as violent as Macbeth who was described in the early scenes as 'Bellona's bridegroom'. This implied association of Lady Macbeth with a goddess of war both suggests that she is the dominant partner, and emphasises that she is herself brutal and warlike, this is further emphasised by the plosive alliteration used in the quote.

Additionally, although Lady Macbeth tells us she has 'given suck', it is apparent later that they have 'no children'. This suggests that Lady Macbeth's children have died in infancy.The Macbeth's lack of fertility later demonstrates the futility of their evil deeds. During King James’ era, the law of primogeniture meant that having children was enormously important. The Macbeths' union is ultimately sterile, because evil cannot flourish. The audience at the time would find this satisfying & reassuring, but for a modern reader it arguably creates pathos - we may feel that Lady Macbeth destructive impulses stem from the frustration of being childless.

Lady Macbeth refuses to be actively involved in the killing. She makes excuses like “Had he not resembled My father as he slept, I had done it’” regardless of the fact that earlier she said she would have murdered her child.

.It could, however, be argued that this is the first sign that she is not as resolute as she pretends (it should also be noticed that she has been drinking to steel her nerves). To the contemporary audience, her horror at the thought of patricide would mirror theirs at the thought of regicide. This perhaps emphasises her guilt; she fully understands the horror of the act she is forcing on her husband.The stichomythia of the Macbeths’ dialogue shows the start of the disintegration of their close relationship.

Their Words are much quicker and they are monosyllabic; people talk like this when they are uncomfortable, being uncomfortable after murdering the King is a pretty rational action for someone to take. The word descended has connotations to insanity and Hell. descended into madness is a term used for insanity and normally you would not use the word descended. You would just say coming or going down the stairs.

This is shown by her lack of empathy at Macbeth's horror immediately following the murder. “Consider it not so deeply…These deeds must not be thought/After these ways: so, it will make us mad” She tells Macbeth to stop being paranoid about their crimes . Even though she was not directly involved. She is dismissive of his mental agony; ironic as it is she who goes ‘mad’.

In the preparations for the assassination of Banquo, he doesn't tell her about it beforehand.'Be innocent of the knowledge, dearest chuck.' this contrasts with how he previously addresses her as 'dearest partner of greatness. Using partner instead of Wife or another endearing term shows Macbeth's stance on their relationship seems to be that they work together, you would call a colleague partner, not a private letter to your wife. This could be a result of an arranged marriage, which was common at the time

The banquet scene and the apparition of Banquo's ghost shows that Lady Macbeth is starting to lose control of her husband. “Sit, worthy friends: my lord is often thus,And hath been from his youth…Are you a man?” she is begging the guests to ignore him, but can no longer control him. Arguably, she relinquishes that control symbolically to the spectre of Banquo - this may be an early sign of the natural order re-asserting itself, with important matters being resolved between men. It also shows Macbeth's descent into madness. This scene symbolises her apparent lack of imagination. She holds the horror at bay for so long, towards the end of the play her defences break it and overwhelms her.

Whereas Lady Macbeth's crimes are calculated, she is not involved in her husband's subsequent senseless massacre of Macduff's 'pretty chickens', showing that she is pragmatic unlike her husband. It is possible that had he continued to take her into his confidence, she may have persuaded him out of this mindless slaughter. However much we hold her responsible for Macbeth's original crime, his subsequent murderous career is his alone.This perhaps suggests the further re-establishment of the patriarchal order.“Where is she [Lady Macduff] now?...Banquo’s buried’’ shows Lady Macbeth's aware of her husbands murders and the fact that she dwells on those in which she was not involved may suggest that for Lady Maccbeth at least, there is no question but that she is as responsible as he.

Whilst Macbeth's conscience attacks him immediately after the regicide, Lady Macbeth's reaction is delayed. The audience might see this as women being less moral? Or alternatively one could suggest that it was believed the 'powers of darkness' ultimately 'betray' all who serve them - Lady Macbeth's 'spirits' have now deserted her. She drove her husband into a temporary murderous insanity. Soon after she is sleepwalking due to her condition, whereas his sanity reasserts itself in the brutal clarity of the final scenes Lady Macduff perhaps represents an alternative view of womanhood. She is a less exalted character, speaking in down to earth prose rather than blank verse, with earthly concerns - she is very clear that her children & not her husband are her concern. Indeed she is furious at Macduff's abandonment, in contrast to LM's unflinching loyalty.

However, her resolute courage when confronting Macbeth's hired killers contrasts favourably with LM's dissolution into sleepwalking & implied suicide. We could argue that Shakespeare - who wrote uniquely strong female characters - was unable to destroy LM without giving us Lady Macduff as a subversive foil.

At this point in the play, Lady Macbeth has been driven into insanity. Anything positive has been lost; she is now insane, sleep walking, talking in her sleep, having hallucinations. “Here’s the smell of the blood still.” In this scene, Lady Macbeth is remembering the horrors of Duncans murder, her washing the blood off. The olfactory hallucination shows the power of her dream. Her haunted sleep has become her new reality. A different person to the control freak at the start of the play. She is standing next to people who she doesn't know they are there. She is unconsciously criminalising herself

In conclusion Shakespeare does present Lady Macbeth as a dominating character responsible for her husband’s downfall,somewhat unusual for a woman at the time.When Malcolm describes Macbeth as “The dead butcher and his fiend like queen” it is interesting that he mentions Lady Macbeth, who had acted in the background and wasn’t known as the murderer, The word ‘Fiend’ definitely fits someone plotting more than committing crimes. Someone who is a fiend is cunning and in the background, This definitely describes Lady Macbeth. Macbeth could be considered a butcher as he did much of the killing.

Updated: Feb 13, 2024
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Lady Macbeth As a Dominating Character Responsible For Her Husband’s Downfall. (2024, Feb 13). Retrieved from

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