Lady Macbeth: Power, Femininity, and Masculinity

Categories: William Shakespeare

In William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the norms of the characterization of women are tested through the character of Lady Macbeth. In the early modern period, women were often portrayed as fragile, weak, and vulnerable. While the late sixteenth-century was a time where women had no say, and were often disregarded, Lady Macbeth is portrayed as the complete opposite, strong and powerful. Through Lady Macbeth, William Shakespeare defies the norms of a submissive wife. By boldly displaying her power, courage, and voice, Lady Macbeth not only challenges Macbeth’s masculinity and capitalizes on her own, but also aids Macbeth in reaching the full potential of his masculinity.

The readers are introduced to Lady Macbeth In act I scene V of the play when she has just learned that the three witches have told Macbeth of the prophecy where he is to become Thane of Cawdor, and he is hesitant to believe the witches. Macbeth doesn’t think that he is worthy of such an honor, but as soon as he grasps the thought of becoming a king, he sends word to his wife.

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Lady Macbeth soon learns of the prophecy that has been told of her husband, and she believes without a doubt that this is her husband’s destiny. When she learns of her husband’s fate, we begin to see a shift in Lady Macbeth’s behavior. Lady Macbeth will push limits throughout this play and will be partly responsible for the transition of Macbeth from a noble gentleman into a ruthless, angry, power-hungry man, which will ultimately lead to his downfall.

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In act I scene V of the play, after Lady Macbeth has heard of Macbeth’s prophecy, she knows that her husband is too kind to do what needs to be done in order for him to become king, which is to murder Duncan. While Lady Macbeth knows that Duncan needs to die in order for Macbeth to become king, Lady Macbeth knows that Macbeth is too kind and tender-hearted to do what is needed, she says: “ Yet I do fear thy nature; It is too full o’th’ milk of human kindness To catch the nearest way. Thou wouldst be great, Art not without ambition, but without the illness should attend it”(I.V. 14-17). It is odd that Lady Macbeth is referring to her husband as being too kind, when being kind is often characterized as a feminine characteristic. Joann Klein states in Lady Macbeth Infirm of Purpose The Woman’s Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare, “It is Lady Macbeth, not Macbeth who feels the bonds of kind, Lady Macbeth who has, as women were supposed to have, something of the milk of human kindness in her” (Klein 246). Lady Macbeth is saying that Macbeth possesses a feminine quality that leaves him incapable of committing murder. Lady Macbeth knows that she can’t commit the murder because she is a lady, which means that she possesses the same quality as Macbeth, kindness.

Lady Macbeth begins to become overwhelmingly engrossed with the thought of her husband having power, with the thought of him being Thane of Cawdor, so much so that her behavior starts to become ruthless when she realizes that she has to be the one to take matters into her own hands. Lady Macbeth says, “Oh, never Shall sun that morrow see! Your face, my thane, is as a book where men May read strange matters. To beguile the time, Look like the time; bear welcome in your eye, Your hand, your tongue. Look like th’innocent flower, But be the serpent under’t. He that’s coming Must be provided for. And you shall put This night’s great business into my dispatch, Which shall to all our nights and days to come Give solely sovereign sway and masterdom”(I.V. 58-68). Lady Macbeth is taking away from Macbeth’s masculinity by stating that he is not capable of doing what needs to be done, and asserting her own form of masculinity by telling her husband to leave all of the plotting up to her, “Only look up clear. To alter favor ever is to fear. Leave all the rest to me” (I.V. 69-71).

By asserting that she is the one that has to tend to plotting Duncan’s death, she is defying the norms of how the women were to follow the orders of their husband, not the other way around. Not only is Lady Macbeth defying the norm of following her husband’s orders, but she is also defying the norms of how the women were to be seen and not heard during these times, yet Lady Macbeth has a substantial amount of talking at this part of the play. After Lady Macbeth has plotted what she is going to have Macbeth do to Duncan, she lets Macbeth know. Rahman and Tajuddin take a look at how Lady Macbeth anticipates that Macbeth will talk himself out of executing the murder plot that she has come up with in Unnatural Deeds do Breed Unnatural Troubles: A Study of Lady Macbeth’s Cruelty. Rahman and Tajuddin state, “Addressing her absent husband, she invites him to come to her quickly so that she can prepare him adequately by pouring her cruelty on him, and by chastising him with the valor of her tongue” (pg. 130). Before Macbeth can back out of the plan, Lady Macbeth says, ” Hie thee hither, That I may pour my spirits in thine ear And chastise with the valor of my tongue All that impedes thee from the golden round, Which fate and metaphysical aid doth seem To have thee crowned withal”(I.V.23-28).

According to Wiktionary, the term valor means, “strength of mind in regard to danger; that quality which enables a person to encounter danger with firmness; bravery, and courage” (Wiktionary). Shakespeare’s word choice “valor” shows us that Lady Macbeth has the ability and the will to face the danger that is to come. Being that Lady Macbeth knows that she can’t commit the murder she shows us that she is envious that Macbeth does get to carry out the murder of Duncan when she says, “Come, you spirits That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here, Of direst cruelty! Make thick my blood, Stop up th’access and passage to remorse” (I.V.38-42). Lady Macbeth thinks that Macbeth is not the one that needs to murder Duncan and quite frankly she is jealous that he is the one that gets to murder him, so she is asking the three witches to “unsex” her. By asking the witches to “unsex” her, Lady Macbeth is implying that she cannot reach her full potential as a powerful being because she is a woman, and she would only be able to carry that out as a man. In this portion of the play, Lady Macbeth is showing us an example of her wanting to embrace masculinity and the power that comes with it. Lady Macbeth finishes up her request for the witches by saying, “Come to woman’s breasts, And take my milk for gall, your murd’ring ministers, Wherever in your sightless substances You wait on nature’s mischief” (I.V.45-47). Lady Macbeth is asking the witches to turn the milk in her womanly breasts into gall, which is referring to the kindness that is associated with her being a woman. According to Wiktionary, “gall” means “bile; the greenish, profoundly bitter-tasting fluid found in bile ducts and gall bladders” (Wiktionary). By asking the witches to turn the milk in her breasts into gall, she is asking them to turn her “milk of human kindness” into something vile, so that a child would not be able to drink from it. Lady Macbeth thinks that by having her “milk of human kindness” turned into gall, she will no longer carry the feminine characteristic with her that makes her unworthy of murdering Duncan.

By taking the kindness out of her breasts, she is wanting to assume a masculine role. Lady Macbeth is very ambitious in her quest to get rid of all of those that stand in the way of her husband being named Thane of Cawdor, more so than Macbeth is at the beginning of the play. As Lady Macbeth begins to explain the plan of killing Duncan to Macbeth, she tells him, “To beguile the time, Look like the time; bear welcome in your eye, Your hand, your tongue; look like the innocent flower, But be the serpent under’t” (I.V. 61-64). She is telling Macbeth that he needs to keep an honorable, faultless appearance, but be a monster underneath. While Lady Macbeth is explaining this to Macbeth, she is really describing her own role in this plot, because she is considered innocent when really, she is the mastermind behind the entire plot. While Macbeth seems to be very timid in his quest to gain power, he begins trying to back out of the plan to murder Duncan. When Lady Macbeth learns of Macbeth trying to back out of the plan, she turns into a master manipulator and is ready to do whatever it takes to get Macbeth to execute the plan. Lady Macbeth insinuates that it is cowardly of Macbeth to back out of the plan, and ultimately undermines him and questions his masculinity, “Was the hope drunk Wherein you dressed yourself? Hath it slept since? And wakes now to look so green and pale At what it did so freely? From this time Such I account thy love. Art thou afeared To be the same in thine own act and valor As thou art in desire? Wouldst thou have that Which thou esteem’st the ornament of life, And live a coward in thine own esteem, Letting “I dar not” wait upon “I would,” Like the poor cat I’th adage?” (I.VII. 35-44).

Macbeth who is supposed to be the masculine, authoritative, and strong male figure in the play, is cowering down and being manipulated by his ruthless, remorseless, and power-hungry wife. Lady Macbeth continues to question Macbeth’s manliness and diminish her womanliness by saying, “What beast was’t then, That made you break this enterprise to me? 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. Nor time nor place Did then adhere, and yet you would make both” (I.VII. 47-52). Lady Macbeth is telling Macbeth that she considered him a man when he agreed to kill Duncan, but now he is nothing that resembles a man because he is trying to back out. Macbeth then agrees to do as his wife has asked of him. By cowering down and agreeing to follow the orders of his wife, it shows that Lady Macbeth is the decision maker, aggressor, and ultimately assumes what should be the male role at this point in time. Macbeth worships Lady Macbeth and some might even say that he is trying to obtain the manhood that she and the witches have taken from him, so he agrees to kill Duncan. In Dangerous Familiars: Representations of Domestic Crime in England, 1550-1700, Frances E. Dolan states, “Macbeth receives his first preferment through the dishonor and execution of another; he consistently sees other’s lives as obstacles to his goals—“I had else been perfect” (3.4.21). But ambition does not simply “slide” into murder for Macbeth; Lady Macbeth forges the connection. “Art thou afeard/ To be the same in thine own act and valor, / As thou art in desire? (1.7.40-42)” Macbeth uses female characters — the witches and Lady Macbeth – to instill ambition, translate the ambition into violent action, and thus cast doubt on ambition and agency as associated with violence” (Dolan, p.227).

As I stated previously, Macbeth was timid at first in his quest for power, but now the witches and Lady Macbeth have made him think that in order to be a man and have power, he has to be violent and a murderer. Lady Macbeth had complete control over Macbeth until after this point in the play. As soon as Macbeth murders Duncan, he becomes power hungry and no longer needs her. Lady Macbeth had control over Macbeth as long as she was disregarding her feminine characteristics. When Macbeth realizes that he no longer needs his wife to orchestrate his murders. she loses all dominance and control that she had over him, which means that he has taken her masculinity from her and she has succumbed to her true feminine nature.

When Lady Macbeth finally comes to the realization that her husband can no longer be controlled, she loses all of her purpose and is ultimately phased out. At the end of the play, we see Lady Macbeth succumb to the true nature of her actions and finally feel remorse. Lady Macbeth begins to tell of her atrocious acts, and to the doctor of physic she states, “Here’s the smell of blood still. All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand” (V.I. 44-45), “Wash your hands, put on your nightgown, look not so pale. I tell you yet again, Banquo’s buried: he cannot come out on’s grave”(V.I.55-57). She is confessing to the murder that she constructed, and the murders of her husband. After feeling the remorse of her heinous crime and turning her husband into a monster, the end of the play alludes to her committing suicide. Joann Klein states in Lady Macbeth Infirm of Purpose The Woman’s Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare, “As long as she lives, Lady Macbeth is never unsexed in the only way she wanted to be unsexed—able to act with the cruelty she ignorantly and perversely identified with male strength” (Klein 252-253). Lady Macbeth was not able to full embrace the traits that came with being a male figure, which ultimately led to her downfall.

William Shakespeare does a tremendous job at allowing Lady Macbeth to assume the role of a man during this time era. While Lady Macbeth ultimately lost all control in the end, she truly did her best to embody all of the characteristics of a man. Lady Macbeth was successful in being a dominant figure in the sense that she made her husband assume his role and come to the realization of who he really was. Without Lady Macbeth, Macbeth would have never gone to the lengths that he did to obtain power. However, Lady Macbeth was not successful based on the fact that she did succumb to the realities of what she had done, confessed, and killed herself. Shakespeare’s ending to Macbeth ultimately leads the audience to believe that a woman has no capability of holding true power.

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Lady Macbeth: Power, Femininity, and Masculinity. (2021, Mar 18). Retrieved from

Lady Macbeth: Power, Femininity, and Masculinity

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