Macbeth Questions and Answers
by William Shakespeare

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How do Lady Macbeth and Lady Macduff compare/contrast in William Shakespeare's Macbeth?

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David Morrison eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Lady Macbeth and Lady Macduff are both strong, formidable characters. While their husbands show weakness at vital moments in the play, they stand firm and resolute, doing what they believe is right.

Of course, Lady Macbeth's understanding of what's right is radically different from Lady Macduff's. Lady Macbeth believes that murdering Duncan is right—initially, at least—whereas Lady Macduff has a much more traditional understanding of what is right and wrong. She regards it as unconscionable that her husband has abandoned his family to go off and join the anti-Macbeth rebels in England while leaving her and her children to face the wrath of an increasingly blood-thirsty tyrant.

Despite their strength of purpose and resolve, however, both Lady Macbeth and Lady Macduff are unable to hold back the tide of events. Although Lady Macbeth's plan to murder Duncan unfolds as expected, her subsequent sidelining by her husband arguably precipitates a full-scale mental collapse that leads to her suicide. And Lady Macduff's firm resolve to protect her family ultimately yields nothing, and she and her children are murdered on Macbeth's orders.

Despite the strength and intelligence of Lady Macbeth and Lady Macduff, both women are very much at the mercy of events.

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Ester Baumgartner, Ph.D. eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Lady Macduff is a character we see very little of in Shakespeare's Macbeth. In fact, she only appears once, in the scene in Act IV in which she is killed. Lady Macbeth is a much more important figure to the plot of the play and to its themes.

Lady Macbeth is a powerful woman who has influence over her husband, a noble thane and military leader, Macbeth. When he hears the prophecy that he will become king, he writes to his wife immediately. He seeks her counsel and trusts her opinion. The two plot together to kill King Duncan when he comes to stay at Macbeth's castle so that Macbeth can ascend to the throne as soon as possible. Though Macbeth has some doubts along the way, he ends up going through with the murder. His wife is the stronger character at this point in the play: she is the one who convinces him to commit the crime when he tries to back out, and she is the one who goes back to plant the daggers on the guards to frame them, since Macbeth is too nervous and horrified to return to the scene. It is Lady Macbeth who has to cover for her husband when he thinks he sees Banquo's ghost at the table during a feast at this castle to celebrate his coronation. Soon enough, though, Macbeth takes total control, becomes increasingly ruthless and paranoid, and begins to leave his wife out of his plans. She ends up going insane, sleepwalking, and trying to wash her hands of a blood spot that symbolizes her guilt. She commits suicide near the end of the play, and her death makes Macbeth soliloquize about how brief and meaningless life is.

Lady Macduff, on the other hand, is more a victim than an active player in Macbeth. She is seen conversing with her son and with another nobleman about the sudden departure of her husband Macduff, who has gone to fight with Malcolm to overthrow Macbeth. She tries to explain to her son that she thinks Macduff is a traitor for going against his king, though Ross attempts to assure her that he has his reasons. Lady Macduff tells her son that his father is dead (he is not) and dramatically asks what they will do without him. She seems to be emotional and distraught, unlike the very much in-command Lady Macbeth, at least early in the play.

As the earlier reviewer said, one similarity between the two women is that they do critique certain actions or qualities of their husbands. Lady Macduff is upset because Macduff has left the family and the castle unguarded; this turns out to be a legitimate fear when everyone in the castle is murdered by Macbeth's henchmen. Lady Macbeth worries that her husband does not have the viciousness required to kill The King and take his position. She is partially correct, as well, since at the time of the murder, Macbeth is overwhelmed and weaker than she is. Eventually though, Macbeth proves her wrong.

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Gretchen Mussey eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Lady Macbeth and Lady Macduff are similar in that they both disapprove of their husband's behavior and believe that they lack certain instincts. While Lady Macbeth thinks that her husband lacks the naturally aggressive instincts needed to murder King Duncan, Lady Macduff believes her husband lacks the natural instincts to stay and protect his family. They also feel that their husbands have flaws which will bring ruin to their families. Lady Macbeth believes that Macbeth's lack of courage to kill and deal with the consquences of his actions will be disastrous while Lady Macduff thinks her husband's choice to flee will harm her family. Despite their similarities, both characters are drastically different. Lady Macbeth is portrayed as an evil woman who is the mastermind behind King Duncan's murder. She persuades Macbeth to commit murder then helps him disguise his evil deed. In contrast, Lady Macduff is not depicted as an evil woman. She fears for the well-being of her children and simply wishes for her husband to protect her. 

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