In Shakespeare's Macbeth, what is the mental description of Lady Macbeth?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Shakespeare's tragedy of Macbeth, there is a complex shifing of things seen or imagined brought about by the voracious ambition for power by the doppelgangers, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth.  For, in their minds, there is much that is seemingly fair while it is foul. Thus, the play is truly a tragedy of the imagination.  Like her husband, Lady Macbeth suffers from the knowledge of her evil deeds, but this knowledge is delayed, whereas in Macbeth it is immediate. In addition, the reader is privy to more of the workings of Macbeth's mind, but because Lady Macbeth dies earlier in the play, the reader learns less of her motivation and nature.

Nevertheless, there are several aspects of her psyche that the reader can perceive:

  • At first, her lust for power seems more forceful than her husband's as she summons the spirits to unsex her, seeking masculine brutality that will not waiver from its aim. Her unnatural absence of any feminine qualities is frightening as she calls upon the spirits,

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,(1.5.42-45)

  • She is more treacherous than Macbeth.  For, when Macbeth has misgivings about killing Duncan, who has honored him, she berates her husband,

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’ the adage? (1.43-49)

  • Her bravado is, nevertheless, rather superficial as it is motivated, ironically, by her love for Macbeth and her desire for his rise to power.
  • She is humanized by her mental decline as her conscience tortures her.  In fact, there is much pathos in Scene 1 of Act V in which the insane Lady Macbeth yet tries to protect her husband,

Wash your hands, put on your nightgown;
look not so pale. I tell you yet again, Banquo's buried; he
cannot come out on's grave. (5.1.56-58)

  • Further, Lady Macbeth is reduced to insanity and her spirit of determined cruelty and treachery disintegrates under her guilt and she descends into what critics have termed "a distinctly feminine Hell" as without support from her husband, there is no one to whom she can unburden herself:

Here's the smell of the blood still.  All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand.  Oh, oh, oh! (5.1.45-46)

Clearly, then, Lady Macbeth's imagination takes her down dangerous and complicated avenues that end in isolation, guilt, and insanity.