Explain how Lady Macbeth's behavior differs from a traditional woman of this time. Which quotes suggest this?   

5 Answers

dstuva's profile pic

Doug Stuva | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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In Shakespeare's Macbeth, we can infer that Lady Macbeth differs from what women are supposed to be like, based on her situation, what roles she is supposed to play, and Macbeth's reaction to her words.   

First, though, let me make sure you understand that cultural questions like yours, applied to a Shakespeare play, apply much more to Elizabethan times, than to 11th-century Scotland.  The play reflects Elizabethan times more than it does Scotland's. 

That said, notice that Lady Macbeth cannot possess legitimate power of her own.  She cannot hold office.  She must live vicariously through her husband.  Her only means of power is to influence her husband.  And that's not enough for her.  Presumably, that makes her different from at least the stereotypical woman in Shakespeare's day.

Lady Macbeth is expected to be a mother and a hostess, traditional female roles.  She is responsible for preparing for Duncan's arrival, and she is the one who greets and welcomes him.  And we know motherhood is valuable to the Elizabethans because when she wants to shock Macbeth into going ahead with the assassination, she says that she would tear a child from her breast and throw him against rocks if she had promised as Macbeth promised.  But motherhood is not important to Lady Macbeth--ambition motivates her, and power is her goal.

Finally, Lady Macbeth is revealed to be an exception when, after listening to her, Macbeth tells her that she should have only male children, no female children.  She is too aggressive and ruthless to raise little girls.

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shakespeareguru | Teacher | (Level 2) Educator

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The quote that probably most directly reflects how Lady Macbeth's behaviour differs from a traditional woman of Shakespeare's day (dstuva is correct, Shakespeare modelled his characters on behaviour of his time, not in an attempt to "fit" the period of the play he was writing),  is her famous speech in Act I, scene v.  Here she is asking for supernatural assistance to take away the natural inclinations of her female disposition, to "unsex" her

And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full

Of direst cruelty.  Make thick my blood.

Stop up the access and passage to remorse

That no compunctious visitings of nature

Shake my fell purpose.

It is interesting as well to note in this speech that she refers to herself as the master of her home and the initiator of  the murder that will unfold.  She mentions "the fatal entrance of Duncan/Under my battlements," and calls upon night and "the dunnest smoke of hell" to hide "my keen knife," so that it "sees not the wound it makes."  At this moment, she is suggesting that it will be her hand that commits the murder.  These assumptions, made without even bothering to consult her husband, would have been freakishly unheard of amongst her class of woman in Shakespeare's day.

Upon Macbeth's arrival just after this soliloquy, she all but orders him to commit the murder, and it is the speech that I refer to above that assures the audience that what Lady Macbeth wants, Lady Macbeth will get.

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kiwi | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator

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As previously noted, Lady Macbeth's personal power would be inert without her husband as her agent of evil. When we first meet Lady Macbeth, as she reads the letter from her husband regarding the meeting with the witches, he referes to her as

My dearest partner of greatness

Marriage was seldom, if ever, a partnership at this time. With the social position held by Macbeth, it is likely that his wife marriage was arranged with the key elements of land, title and family name considered rather than feelings or emotions.

Lady Macbeth certainly does have charge of her husband; however. it is she who devises the plan to kill Duncan, and who takes charge when Macbeth weakens after the crime:

Go get some water,
And wash this filthy witness from your hand

Also, in Act III scene 4, Lady Macbeth again takes charge as her husband loses control upon seeing the ghost of Banquo :

I pray you, speak not; he grows worse and
Question enrages him. At once, good night:
Stand  not upon the order of your going,
But go at once.

Her suicide reminds her that she is vulnerable, but also she is no longer his confidante in his affairs: their partnership ended at Banquo's murder and she canno longer execute control over him.







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Lori Steinbach | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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The Macbeth's relationship is somewhat confusing, actually.  He clearly adores her early on and wants to share with her his prophetic news.  As an Elizabethan wife, she would have been thrilled at the news; however, unlike most of other wives, she not only interjects her view but she literally intimidates her husband into following through with her devious plan.  That was clearly not something a typical Elizabethan woman would do.

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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If Shakespeare were Moliere, one would think that the playwright satirized Queen Elizabeth's maxi in the character of Lady Macbeth.  Like Elizabeth, Lady Macbeth uses her sex to create a myth that raises her above the ordinary.  By remaining single Elizabeth avoided the loss of authority to her husband; by unsexing herself, Lady Macbeth does the same.