How is Lady Macbeth a villain? Is she one at all?

Expert Answers
dule05 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Lady Macbeth is an aggressive, manipulative, and evil character at the beginning of the play. She urges her husband to follow his secret dream of eliminating king Duncan and taking the throne. She says her husband is "full o' the milk of human kindness," so she must be stronger and more aggressive than him to help him. As a result, she summons the evil spirits to fill her with cruelty and evil power, so she can help her husband in his quest to become the king. 

Therefore, can Lady Macbeth be viewed as a villain given her behavior at the beginning of the play? I believe that she can. She manipulates her husband into following his unchecked ambition and even makes fun of his lack of courage when he hesitates. 

However, it would be quite wrong to characterize Lady Macbeth and Macbeth as complete villains, devoid of emotions. They are both complex characters and we can see this in many examples. Lady Macbeth, for instance, shows us her fears and her guilty conscience in Act V when she cannot let go of the realization that she motivated her husband to commit atrocious deeds, like killing king Duncan:

Out, damned spot! out, I say!--One: two: why,
then, 'tis time to do't.--Hell is murky!--Fie, my
lord, fie! a soldier, and afeard? What need we
fear who knows it, when none can call our power to
account?--Yet who would have thought the old man
to have had so much blood in him...

Her realization that it was wrong to kill Duncan comes late, and we might even experience a small amount of sadness or sympathy when we realize that her imminent demise is approaching. She made a wrong decision, and, as a result, she has to pay for it. So, her situation is universal, and that is why readers feel drawn to both her and her husband. 

gracielouwhat | Student

Merriam-Webster's dictionary defines villain as "a character in a movie, story, etc. who does bad things".

Lady Macbeth shames her husband into killing King Duncan, and then she frames the sleeping guards with the murder by planting the bloody daggers on them. That alone is enough to label her as a villain, and so it would be easy to stop there. The wonderful thing about Shakespeare, however, is that you don't have to stop there. His characters are meant to be interpreted and performed by actors, not just read silently by students in a classroom. The actor doing the interpreting has to do more than base a character's actions on a dictionary definition.

As she exists on the page, Lady Macbeth is a conspirator in murder and a callous traitor who throws a country into turmoil by upending its monarchy. But Shakespeare wrote very few villains who had no concrete motivation for doing evil. One example of this kind of villain would be Don John in Much Ado About Nothing, who admits openly to being a "plain dealing villain" and who carries out his wickedness with no apparent reward expected for his pains except to make everyone else as miserable as he is. Lady Macbeth, however, is much more complicated.

Lady Macbeth's hunger for power only rears its ugly head after Macbeth writes a letter to her, describing the events of meeting the witches who made three predictions, two of which came true almost as soon as he heard them. In reading the letter out loud, Lady Macbeth makes it clear that she will have to lend a hand in helping her husband achieve the crown, as he is "too full o' the milk of human kindness," and recognizes that she, herself, is not likewise burdened with a similar affliction. Right off the bat, the audience is made to understand that she is a hardened woman capable of wickedness, yet she ends her speech by saying Macbeth's journey to the crown is supported by "fate and metaphysical aid". She truly believes that in goading her husband into killing the king, she is merely bringing to pass what Fate has already deemed will happen. Had she never heard of the witches' prediction, she and her husband might have lived in perfect satisfaction and never become murderers and traitors. Could it be possible, then, to label the witches as villains as well?

The important thing to note is that very few villains, both in literature and in the real world, count themselves as such. Think of some of the most evil people you can and ask yourself what they would think of themselves. A lot of the evil done in the world is perpetrated by people who mistakenly think they're doing a good thing. It would be possible, therefore, for an actor playing Lady Macbeth to consider that rather than simply playing an evil villain, she is actually just a good and supportive wife who believes she is merely lending fate a hand, albeit a bloody one. In the end, the actor must consider what would be more interesting for the audience.

Another reason it might be wrong to consider Lady Macbeth an outright villain is that she ends up showing remorse later in the play. Most villains never see the errors of their ways, and if they do, it's only when they're faced with some kind of punishment. Lady Macbeth, however, enacts punishment on herself. Her descent into madness and resulting suicide show that she is capable of remorse and regret, which are two characteristics that outright villains rarely express.

It's hard to label Shakespeare's characters as "good guys" or "bad guys," as most of his characters fall somewhere in the middle. Even many of his leading characters, for whom we are meant to cheer, have moments of behaving badly. Then, too, some of his "bad guys" have moments that force us to consider their point of view and even pity them. Lady Macbeth certainly is not kind or sweet, but she is capable of feeling shame and guilt.

Shakespeare was an expert at writing characters who are painfully human, and Lady Macbeth is one of his most fascinating creations. According to the dictionary's definition of "villain," yes, she most certainly is one. But the actor's job in playing Lady Macbeth is much more complex. The actor must consider why she acts the way she does, when she starts to feel guilty for her crimes, and at what point she realizes she's gone too far. These questions and their answers will give the audience a much more human performance than the actor who simply plays her as an outright villain.