Last Updated on October 5, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 875
Extended Character Analysis
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Lady Macbeth is Macbeth’s wife and “dearest partner of greatness.” At the start of the play, she is the more dominant figure in the marriage, viewing her husband as weak and lacking the necessary willpower to achieve their mutual ambitions. Upon receiving Macbeth’s letter about the witches’ prophecies, Lady Macbeth is thrilled by the prospect of becoming queen. She calls out to the “spirits” to “unsex” her and turn her “womanly” attributes into more masculine ones so that she might become “cruel” enough to murder King Duncan herself. However, after Duncan’s death, both Lady Macbeth’s sanity and power in her marriage begin to decline. By the start of act V, she is sleepwalking and hallucinating about having blood on her hands, with the court doctor's proclaiming that she would be better off with a priest than a physician. She ultimately takes her own life, and Macbeth laments that she died at a time when he is unable to mourn her properly.
Lady Macbeth is at odds with her gender. She frequently emasculates her husband as a means of manipulating him and seems to despise all things feminine, perceiving femininity as a weakness. In act I, scene V, Lady Macbeth rejects everything to do with femininity and motherhood, calling on the spirits to “unsex” her, replace her breast milk with poison, and thicken her blood so that she can no longer menstruate. In act I, scene VII, she describes a brutal infanticide, saying that she would gladly dash “the brains out” of her own child if it meant keeping an oath.
In the context of gender roles in Jacobean England, Lady Macbeth would have been considered an unconventional, even unnatural, woman for rejecting maternal compassion in favor of masculine violence and ambition. Her power over her husband and her role in his regicide align her with the witches, who are also described as unnatural and androgynous. Combined with her summoning of “spirits” to help her accomplish her goals, Lady Macbeth is sometimes considered a fourth witch.
By reading Lady Macbeth as a fourth witch, her villainy is cemented and she becomes a corrupting influence. Just as the three “weird sisters” spur Macbeth towards his downfall, Lady Macbeth bullies her husband into the murder, alternatingly stoking his ambition and goading him by insulting his masculinity. In this interpretation, Lady Macbeth is the true villain of the play, spurring her otherwise good husband to commit terrible evils. Even without the more supernatural elements, Lady Macbeth is often cast as a corrupting force whose ambition—unnatural and unfeminine by Jacobean standards—leads to her husband’s downfall.
However, by a different reading, Lady Macbeth is a woman whose dissatisfaction with her expected gender role has resulted in a loathing of all things feminine. Lady Macbeth is as ambitious, cunning, and cutthroat as her husband, if not more so, but she has no outlet for her feelings and energies. She cannot don armor and ride into battle, currying favor with the king. Instead, she must stay at home and live vicariously through Macbeth. The witches’ prophecy represents an opportunity for her to satisfy her own needs and participate in the action. Her enthusiasm at the prospect of killing Duncan by her own hand suggests a desire for power and control over men that she has previously only been able to exercise within her marriage.
Lady Macbeth’s madness—and the question of where it stems from—is also open to interpretation. During her sleepwalking episode in act V, scene I, Lady Macbeth makes several statements that suggest possible causes. The first of these is guilt over her involvement in Duncan’s murder. She hallucinates that her hand is covered with blood; that she is unable to wash away the stain no matter how hard she scrubs. By this reading, Lady Macbeth is driven mad by remorse for her actions and possibly remorse for her husband’s subsequent actions.
However, by a different reading, it is not until Macbeth orders the deaths of Lady Macduff and her children that Lady Macbeth truly goes mad. Though still brought on by guilt, her madness is now based in her lack of control over events. During Duncan’s murder, Lady Macbeth was in control of the plan and had to support her husband. However, after the murders are completed, Macbeth begins acting on his own, first by ordering the deaths of Banquo and Fleance and then by massacring Macduff’s family.
On a more thematic level, Lady Macbeth’s madness can be read as a restoration of the natural order. Just as Macbeth must die so that Malcolm can ascend to the throne, Lady Macbeth must also die, but not before she is forced back into a more traditionally feminine role. Using this interpretation, Lady Macbeth’s madness is a punishment for her transgressive ambition. Forced to relive the night of the murder instead of sleeping, she grows enfeebled, referring to her hand as “little” and needing to be taken care of. As opposed to her dominant, masculine presence in the first three acts, her madness renders her weak and hysterical, characteristics that Lady Macbeth initially derided her “unmanly” husband for exhibiting.