Gender, Power, and Downfall: The Tragic Arc of Lady Macbeth

Categories: Macbeth

Lady Macbeth is presented in some measure as a powerful character throughout the play. She has more ambition than Macbeth as well as being merciless and manipulative. For the duration of the play, she proves that she can be stronger and more evil than Macbeth but the civilization she lives in constrains her from doing so.

At the beginning of the play Shakespeare presents Lady Macbeth as a very ambitious woman as she seems to have no second thoughts about persuading Macbeth to kill King Duncan.

She also seems to be worried that Macbeth's character is too nice and weak to commit regicide. In her soliloquy, Lady Macbeth calls on the supernatural to rid her of her feminine attributes by stating, "unsex me here, And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full Of direst cruelty!" To become powerful or evil she wants the spirits to " unsex her", implying that as a woman she isn't strong enough to do (what she needs to do)- she needs to become male.

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Here we are reminded that she lives in a patriarchal society. In her mind, the only way to gain power is to become a man. She also uses the noun "crown" to describe her body; she is already fixated on becoming queen and is perhaps pursuing the power the witches have assured for Macbeth. The use of the superlative "direst" also entails that she wants to have no feminine feeling such as kindness and sympathy; she wants to be unconditionally vicious.

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Her worry for Macbeth is shown in the quote " yet do I fear thy nature: It is too full of the milk of human kindness". The metaphor instigates that Macbeth is the one that carries the nurturing motherly milk which connotes (kindness and sympathy) instead of Lady Macbeth. The noun "milk" also symbolizes innocence and purity.

She is very manipulative in the way that she abuses his status and flatters him to persuade him to commit regicide,as well as, the fact that shes very ambitious and intent on becoming queen. This is shown in the quote "Your face, my thane, is as a book where men May read strange matters ". She first says "Your face" which sounds like slander however she continues with "my thane"-essentially flattering him so he can feel more superior, and effortlessly manipulate him. The use of the word "men" implies that Macbeth holds more power making him feel more imperative. Macbeth instigates that he doesn't want to go through with the plan anymore in the quote "We will proceed no further in this business:" In the Jacobean era women had little to no rights at all and were considered subordinate to men. They were expected to obey their husbands as well as help them in earning money for the survival of the family and to take care of the house. Furthermore, they were to raise children and were thought to be very motherly and nurturing. Nonetheless, Lady Macbeth defies all those stereotypes as in this scene she implies that for the throne she would "Have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums And dash'd the brains out". For a Jacobean and contemporary audience alike, this disturbing imagery would be unspeakable. Lady Macbeth then reassures Macbeth when he asks "If we should fail?" to which Lady Macbeth replies "We fail!" At this point, Lady Macbeth has the masculine attributes whereas Macbeth has taken on a more feminine persona; this, therefore, implies to the audience that these characters have reversed roles. This would be very unanticipated for a Jacobean audience as this would be extremely unnatural behavior in a relationship, at the time.

Furthermore, Lady Macbeth continues to show her power through the exploitation of Macbeth. When it's time to commit regicide she does not do it as“he resembled [her] father as he slept”. This has could have alternative interpretations. Her feminine attributes could possibly restrict her from committing regicide as she is again controlled by men; this scene would further reinforce the idea of the patriarchal society. Here, she could realize that she will never be as powerful as Macbeth because he is a man. However, this could have been her plan all along;she convinces Macbeth that she would commit regicide herself by saying he should, “leave it all to [her]” but is unable to when it is time. She might have done this so that, if they get caught, the blame would be on him. Nonetheless, after the killing of Duncan, Macbeth does not put the daggers in the slaves’ rooms and abandons their plan- he is more feminine and weaker- while, Lady Macbeth takes the daggers and does it herself. She is more masculine and clearly has more power than Macbeth. This strengthens the idea that they have switched gender roles, which would have been very unforeseen for the Jacobean audience.

Lady Macbeth continues to challenge traditional marital roles for women at the time as in Act 1 Scene 5 Lady Macbeth advises Macbeth to "look like the innocent flower But be the serpent under't". The simile "Look like the innocent flower" insinuates that he should look welcoming and kindhearted to conceal his true purpose- to be a fatal serpent committing murder. The use of the word "flower" connotes innocence, beauty, and security whereas the word serpent implies danger, evil, and ruthlessness.. In the Jacobean era, people were also very religious and would have made the connection to the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Wherein Eve is persuaded by a serpent to eat fruit off the Tree of Knowledge even though God told her not to. She then influences Adam and gets him to eat it too, they then realize that the serpent was distrustful. This could possibly be a parallel of Macbeth being induced by Lady Macbeth and Adam being induced by Eve. The symbolic imagery shows that serpents don't have positive connotations, but of evil like a witch’s familiar. In addition, it connotes to the supernatural and the witches which were taboo at the time.

Guilt takes over Lady Macbeth in Act 5 Scene 1 when she is sleepwalking. At the time, people falsely related sleepwalking with hysteria, psychological issues, and in this case, a guilty conscience because she knows what she did was wrong. Lady Macbeth states "Out, damned spot! out, I say!" the use of the word “damned” shows us that she already thinks she’s going to hell and she is aware. The repetition of the word "out" also symbolizes her guilt. This could be her culpability controlling her, but it could be that from the point where she had to take the daggers she realized that her relationship is beginning to have complications and that she might never get the power she wanted so badly. At this point in the play Macbeth seems to have fallen out of love with Lady Macbeth, she seems to be alone dealing with this as Macbeth isn't protecting her anymore. She becomes accustomed to "washing her hands". Here Shakespeare uses a biblical metaphor as the washing of the hands reminds us of the story of Pontius Pilate, wherein before he sacrificed Jesus, he began to wash his hands with water saying "I am innocent of this man's blood; see you to it." The religious audience would again make a link between the two stories and understand that Lady Macbeth is trying to justify her sins. This may have been included to convey that Lady Macbeth is commencing to think about her soul- if she’s going to hell or heaven. Dramatic irony is also of use in this scene as in Act 2 Scene 2, Lady Macbeth states "A little water clears us of the deed".We can infer from this that the water will clear away their sins and exonerate their conscience; however, she begins to do this excessively in Act 5 Scene 1. She states that "All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand".She suddenly begins to focus on her feminine traits such as her "small hands" which has connotations of innocence and naivety; while, also focusing on strong "perfumes" that won’t cleanse her of her sins. We can infer from this that she doesn't want to be masculine anymore. She has now become very fragile and troubled- anxious that someone will find out about their sins, deceit, and regicide.

In addition, Lady Macbeth appears to be powerless and is constructed as a helpless character in her final scene. She commits suicide and is described as "a cry of women within". In the play, she doesn't appear on stage and her death is very ambiguous whereas Macbeth's death is shown on stage. This was perhaps included to emphasize the fact that women were seen as less important than men at the time. This can be interpreted in two ways; the audience could perhaps think that if women and men were equal, this tragedy would have never happened. However, the audience could also interpret this message that women should accept they will always be at a lower status compared to men.

To conclude, this calamity occurs as Lady Macbeth is constantly trying to achieve success through Macbeth as she cannot do it herself because she’s a woman living in a society controlled by men without equal rights. Shakespeare distinctly shows us that this oppression leads Lady Macbeth to plan her gradual downfall. She begins as a powerful character but as the play progresses she becomes weaker until her eventual, self-inflicted death.


Updated: Dec 12, 2023
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Gender, Power, and Downfall: The Tragic Arc of Lady Macbeth. (2020, Sep 11). Retrieved from

Gender, Power, and Downfall: The Tragic Arc of Lady Macbeth essay
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