In act 1, why does Lady Macbeth ask the spirits to "unsex" her?

Lady Macbeth asks the spirits to "unsex" her because she does not want to act or think like a stereotypical woman of Shakespeare's time. Instead, she wants to be tough and strong, aggressive and unyielding: qualities associated with men rather than women. She wants to be able to kill the king, to keep her resolution to do it, and she fears that her nature, as a woman, could prevent her from doing so.

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In act 1, scene 5 of William Shakespeare's Macbeth, Lady Macbeth receives a letter from Macbeth, in which he tells her the story of the three witches and the prophecy—"Hail, King that shalt be!" This arouses Lady Macbeth's ambitions for Macbeth and for herself, and she starts thinking about what she can do to convince Macbeth to usurp the Scottish throne.

A messenger appears to tell Lady Macbeth—"The King comes here tonight"—and Lady Macbeth immediately decides to take advantage of the opportunity to murder King Duncan while he's under Macbeth's protection in Macbeth's castle.

Lady Macbeth calls on the "spirits / That tend on mortal thoughts" and the "murdering ministers" to put her in the proper murderous frame of mind to achieve her goal. To modern audiences, Lady Macbeth's conjuring of evil spirits is simply the raving of a madwoman and the opportunity for the actor playing Lady Macbeth to overact. To Shakespeare's audience, however, Lady Macbeth was committing witchcraft, and she was putting her life, and Macbeth's life, in serious jeopardy.

Witchcraft laws were first enacted in England in 1542, during the reign of King Henry VIII. These laws were expanded in 1563, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, in response to an alleged plot to kill Elizabeth and restore Catholicism to England by means of sorcery.

The Witchcraft Act of 1604, enacted early in the reign of King James I—an ardent anti-witch advocate who wrote a book on witchcraft and demonology, officiated at witch trials, and even attended executions of witches—further broadened earlier laws.

If any person or persons ... shall use, practise, or exercise any invocation or conjuration of any evil and wicked spirit: ... or shall use, practise, or exercise, any Witchcraft, Incantment, Charme or Sorcery, whereby any person shall be Killed ... that then every such Offender, or Offenders, their Ayders, Abettors, and Counsellors, being of the said offences duly and lawfully Convicted and Attainted, shall suffer paines of death as a Felon or Felons, and shall lose the priviledge and benefit of Clergy and Sanctuary. (An Act against Conjuration, Witchcraft and dealing with evil and wicked spirits, 1 Ja. I c. 12, 1604)

A person convicted of a minor offence of witchcraft was usually sentenced to a year in prison. A person who committed a second act of witchcraft, or who was convicted of witchcraft which caused or was intended to cause death or harm to another person, was hanged. However, anyone whose witchcraft involved bodily harm or death and treason—like Lady Macbeth's conjuring of spirits to help her murder King Duncan—was burned at the stake.

Even though Macbeth is set in Scotland, not England, and in a period long before Shakespeare's time, these are the laws that were in effect in England at the time Macbeth was first performed in about 1606. This is the context in which the play was performed, and many people in Shakespeare's audience knew the risk that Lady Macbeth was...

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taking in conjuring evil spirits. They might also have decided that Lady Macbeth herself was a witch, which is one common interpretation of her character.

Lady Macbeth's appeal to the "spirits / That tend on mortal thoughts" goes far beyond the conventional interpretation, based on stereotypical male and female attributes, that Lady Macbeth is asking the spirits to make her less of a woman and more like a man. Lady Macbeth isn't asking the spirits to make her more like a man. She's asking them to make her wholly inhuman, neither male or female.

Lady Macbeth asks the spirits to remove any semblance of humanity from her being, to fill her with the "direst cruelty," and to remove from her any sense of remorse or pangs of conscience so that her "keen knife see not the wound it makes," and she can kill Duncan without any feelings of guilt or regret.

However, when the time comes to kill Duncan, Lady Macbeth finds that she hasn't lost all human sensibility, like she hoped she would, and her humanity momentarily interferes with her ambitions.

LADY MACBETH. Had he not resembledMy father as he slept, I had done't.(act 2, scene 2, lines 15–16)

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In act 1, scene 5, Lady Macbeth prays to be "unsex[ed]" by the spirits because she does not want the fact that she is a female—the sex associated with being sweet, nurturing, and ultimately weak—to impair her ability to commit the murder of Duncan. She has already stated that she believes her husband to be "too full o' th' milk of human kindness" to do it himself. She wants to be able to act like a man, or at least like a stereotypical man during Shakespeare's time, and men were associated with aggression, the potential for violence, a lack of remorse, and ambition.

Lady Macbeth specifically references her "fell purpose"—the murder of the king, who is already on his way to her house— and asks the spirits to replace her "milk" with "gall." Gall is another name for bile, a bitter and acidic fluid produced by the liver and stored in the gallbladder until we need it to help us digest our food. In asking that her milk be replaced with such a substance, Lady Macbeth shows that she does not want to be in possession of any of the qualities associated with motherhood. She doesn't want to be caring, compassionate, or soft. In requesting gall as the replacement for her milk, she shows that she longs to be harsh and unyielding instead.

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In the play 'Macbeth' by William Shakespeare, the author shows us how Lady Macbeth wishes to be 'unsexed' in the sense that she wishes her femininity would not impede her resolve to have the king murdered. If she were a man, her blood would be 'thicker' (the Shakespeareans believed that certain 'humors' or emotions could be prevented from reaching the heart/brain by thicker blood.) Emotions which would have prevented Lady Macbeth from aiding, abetting or even committing the murders would have been pity, empathy, forgiveness and selflessness. An 'unsexed' woman would be stripped of all the gentler personality traits, she thinks, and better able to do evil deeds such as murdering a king through a lust for power.

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Lady Macbeth asks them to do this (or wishes they could) because she wants to help her husband kill Duncan and do the other things that he needs to do in order to become king.  Her request is based on the idea that women, by their nature, are unsuited for doing brutal things like that.

Lady Macbeth is worried that her husband lacks the guts and the drive to do what is necessary to take power.  She thinks she has them, but she would need to stop being a woman in order to act on her impulses.

As a woman, she is too likely to feel guilt and remorse, she says.  So she wants to be filled with cruelty like a man.

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,(45) That no compunctious visitings of nature Shake my fell purpose nor keep peace between The effect and it!

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