How did Lady Macbeth contribute to Macbeth's downfall in William Shakespeare's Macbeth?

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Lori Steinbach eNotes educator| Certified Educator

It is clear that Macbeth is responsible for the things he does in the course of Macbeth, by William Shakespeare; however, it is also clear that Lady Macbeth has just as much ambition as her husband and she does contribute to his downfall as well as her own.

Macbeth is ambitious. He wants to be king; he must have wanted to be king even before the witches' predictions or their naming him king would not have had such an immediate effect. While he doubts the witches at first, it does not take long for him to believe they were speaking the truth because it suited his own wishes so well. 

Everything happens pretty quickly, but one of the first things he does is write to his wife to tell her that she will one day be queen and that Duncan is coming to their house for a visit. Her immediate response is to remark that Duncan will die under her roof; her next lines are chilling in their intensity:

...Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
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, nor keep peace between
The effect and it! Come to my woman's breasts,
And take my milk for gall, you murdering ministers,
Wherever in your sightless substances
You wait on nature's mischief! 

When Macbeth appears, she immediately wants to plan Duncan's murder, but now it is Macbeth who demurs and is uncertain that this is a wise thing to do.

We will proceed no further in this business:
He hath honour'd me of late; and I have bought
Golden opinions from all sorts of people,

His wife taunts and scorns him, saying:

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:
They have made themselves, and that their fitness now
Does unmake you.

Finally the plan is hatched--Lady Macbeth's plan--and she is the one who commits to killing Duncan; however, she cannot do it because he reminds her of her father. This is the moment when Macbeth has to take responsibility for his own actions without blaming anyone else, and he goes and does the deed. Everything that happens to Macbeth from this point on, including his death, is his own fault.

While Lady Macbeth goaded and shamed her husband into the plan, he is the one who voluntarily carried it out. They may have been partners in this crime, but they were not equal partners. 

gmuss25 eNotes educator| Certified Educator
Throughout the play, Lady Macbeth is depicted as a heartless, ambitious woman, who encourages her reluctant husband to follow through with their plan to murder King Duncan. She also contributes to the assassination by planning the crime, duping Duncan's chamberlains, and placing the bloody daggers back into Duncan's chamber. Following Duncan's assassination, Macbeth gradually develops into a ruthless tyrant, who is plagued by his guilty conscience and bloodlust.
In act 1, scene 7, Macbeth tells his wife that he is no longer interested in murdering the king. Lady Macbeth responds by challenging her husband's manhood and calls him a coward. She says,
From this time Such I account thy love. Art thou afeard 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 dare not” wait upon “I would," Like the poor cat i' th' adage? (Shakespeare, 1.7.38-45).
Lady Macbeth essentially shames her husband into going through with the murder before she explains her foolproof plan to him. Following the assassination, Lady Macbeth attempts to settle her husband's nerves before chastising him for his troubled conscience. Macbeth then refuses to return to Duncan's chamber, and Lady Macbeth once again takes charge by returning the daggers. When Macbeth mentions that all the waters in the oceans could not wash the blood from his hands, Lady Macbeth responds by saying,
"My hands are of your color, but I shame To wear a heart so white" (Shakespeare, 2.2.64-65).
Without Lady Macbeth's encouragement and contribution, Macbeth would probably have not followed through with King Duncan's assassination. After Macbeth kills King Duncan, his mental state begins to decline, and he becomes increasingly bloodthirsty. Macbeth gradually turns into a tyrant, which results in his downfall.