Lady Macbeth

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Lady Macbeth
Macbeth character
Lady Macbeth observes King Duncan (Lady Macbeth by George Cattermole, 19th century)
Created byWilliam Shakespeare
Based onGruoch
Portrayed bySarah Siddons
Charlotte Melmoth
Charlotte Cushman
Helen Faucit
Ellen Terry
Jeanette Nolan
Vivien Leigh
Isuzu Yamada
Judith Anderson
Simone Signoret
Vivien Merchant
Francesca Annis
Judi Dench
Maggie Smith
Glenda Jackson
Angela Bassett
Alex Kingston
Kate Fleetwood
Marion Cotillard
Hannah Taylor-Gordon
Frances McDormand
Saoirse Ronan
Valene Kane
Sally McKenzie
In-universe information

Lady Macbeth is a leading character in William Shakespeare's tragedy Macbeth (c. 1603–1607). As the wife of the play's tragic hero, Macbeth (a Scottish nobleman), Lady Macbeth goads her husband into committing regicide, after which she becomes queen of Scotland. Some regard her as becoming more powerful than Macbeth when she does this, because she is able to manipulate him into doing what she wants. After Macbeth becomes a murderous tyrant, she is driven to madness by guilt over their crimes and kills herself offstage.

Lady Macbeth is a powerful presence in the play, most notably in the first two acts. Following the murder of King Duncan, however, her role in the plot diminishes. She becomes an uninvolved spectator to Macbeth's plotting and a nervous hostess at a banquet dominated by her husband's hallucinations. Her sleepwalking scene in the fifth act is a turning point in the play, and her line "Out, damned spot!" has become a phrase familiar to many speakers of the English language. The report of her death late in the fifth act provides the inspiration for Macbeth's "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow" speech.

The role has attracted countless notable actresses over the centuries, including Sarah Siddons, Charlotte Melmoth, Helen Faucit, Ellen Terry, Jeanette Nolan, Vivien Leigh, Isuzu Yamada, Simone Signoret, Vivien Merchant, Glenda Jackson, Francesca Annis, Judith Anderson, Judi Dench, Renee O'Connor, Helen McCrory, Keeley Hawes, Alex Kingston, Marion Cotillard, Hannah Taylor-Gordon, Frances McDormand, Tabu, Ruth Negga, Saoirse Ronan and Valene Kane.

Analyses of the role[edit]

Lady Macbeth as anti-mother[edit]

Stephanie Chamberlain in her article "Fantasizing Infanticide: Lady Macbeth and the Murdering Mother in Early Modern England" argues that though Lady Macbeth wants power, her power is "conditioned on maternity", which was a "conflicted status in early modern England". Chamberlain argues that the negative images of Lady Macbeth as a mother figure, such as when she discusses her ability to "dash the brains" of the babe that sucks her breast, reflect controversies concerning the image of motherhood in early modern England. In early modern England, mothers were often accused of hurting the people that were placed in their hands. Lady Macbeth then personifies all mothers of early modern England who were condemned for Lady Macbeth's fantasy of infanticide. Lady Macbeth's fantasy, Chamberlain argues, is not struggling to be a man, but rather struggling with the condemnation of being a bad mother that was common during that time.[1]

A print of Lady Macbeth from Mrs. Anna Jameson's 1832 analysis of Shakespeare's heroines, Characteristics of Women

Jenijoy La Belle takes a slightly different view in her article, "A Strange Infirmity: Lady Macbeth’s Amenorrhea". La Belle states that Lady Macbeth does not wish for just a move away from femininity; she is asking the spirits to eliminate the basic biological characteristics of womanhood. The main biological characteristic that La Belle focuses on is menstruation. La Belle argues that by asking to be "unsex[ed]" and crying out to spirits to "make thick [her] blood / Stop up th' access and passage to remorse", Lady Macbeth asks for her menstrual cycle to stop. By having her menstrual cycle stop, Lady Macbeth hopes to stop any feelings of sensitivity and caring that is associated with females. She hopes to become like a man to stop any sense of remorse for the regicide. La Belle furthers her argument by connecting the stopping of the menstrual cycle with the persistent infanticide motifs in the play. La Belle gives examples of "the strangled babe" whose finger is thrown into the witches' cauldron (4.1.30); Macduff's babes who are "savagely slaughter’d" (4.3.235); and the suckling babe with boneless gums whose brains Lady Macbeth would dash out (1.7.57–58) to argue that Lady Macbeth represents the ultimate anti-mother: not only would she smash in a baby's brains but she would go even further to stop her means of procreation altogether.[2]

Lady Macbeth as a witch[edit]

Some literary critics and historians argue that not only does Lady Macbeth represent an anti-mother figure in general, she also embodies a specific type of anti-mother: the witch.[3] Modern day critic Joanna Levin defines a witch as a woman who succumbs to Satanic force, a lust for the devil, and who, either for this reason or the desire to obtain supernatural powers, invokes (evil) spirits. Levin refers to Marianne Hester's Lewd Women and Wicked Witches: A Study of Male Domination, in which Hester articulates a feminist interpretation of the witch as an empowered woman. Levin summarises the claim of feminist historians like Hester: the witch should be a figure celebrated for her nonconformity, defiance, and general sense of empowerment; witches challenged patriarchal authority and hierarchy, specifically "threatening hegemonic sex/gender systems". This view associates witchcraft – and by extension, Lady Macbeth – not with villainy and evil, but with heroism.[4]

Literary scholar Jenijoy La Belle assesses Lady Macbeth's femininity and sexuality as they relate to motherhood as well as witchhood. The fact that she conjures spirits likens her to a witch, and the act itself establishes a similarity in the way that both Lady Macbeth and the Weird Sisters from the play "use the metaphoric powers of language to call upon spiritual powers who in turn will influence physical events – in one case the workings of the state, in the other the workings of a woman's body." Like the witches, Lady Macbeth strives to make herself an instrument for bringing about the future.[2]

She proves herself a defiant, empowered nonconformist, and an explicit threat to a patriarchal system of governance in that, through challenging his masculinity, she manipulates Macbeth into murdering King Duncan.[5] Despite the fact that she calls him a coward, Macbeth remains reluctant, until she asks: "What beast was't, then, that made you break this enterprise to me? / When you durst do it, then you were a man; / And to be more than what you were, you would / Be so much more the man." Thus Lady Macbeth enforces a masculine conception of power, yet only after pleading to be unsexed, or defeminised.[6]

Performance history[edit]

In 2001, actress Maura Tierney portrayed a modernized version of Lady MacBeth in the satirical film Scotland, PA.

In 2009, Pegasus Books published The Tragedy of Macbeth Part II, a play by American author and playwright Noah Lukeman, which endeavoured to offer a sequel to Macbeth and to resolve its many loose ends, particularly Lady Macbeth's reference to her having had a child (which, historically, she did - from a previous marriage, having remarried Macbeth after being widowed.) Written in blank verse, the play was published to critical acclaim.

In 2010, Gloria Carreño's play "A Season Before The Tragedy of Macbeth" was produced by British Touring Shakespeare and received the plaudits of critics for "its amazing grasp of language". It was deemed "a feat" and a must-see for fans of Shakespeare. The dramatist Gloria Carreño describes events from the murder of "Lord Gillecomgain", Gruoch Macduff's first husband, to the fateful letter in the first act of Shakespeare's tragedy.

Alex Kingston starred as Lady Macbeth opposite Kenneth Branagh in his and Rob Ashford's adaption of Macbeth. The play was first performed at the Manchester Festival in 2013 and then transferred to New York for a limited engagement in 2014. [citation needed]

Marion Cotillard played the character in Justin Kurzel's 2015 film adaptation opposite Michael Fassbender as Macbeth. [citation needed]

Frances McDormand played the character in The Tragedy of Macbeth opposite Denzel Washington as Macbeth directed by her husband Joel Coen, the first film directed without his brother Ethan Coen. [citation needed]

In the 2022 Broadway revival of Macbeth, directed by Sam Gold, Ruth Negga played Lady Macbeth opposite Daniel Craig as Macbeth. [7]

In popular culture[edit]

Gabriel von Max's depiction of Lady Macbeth.
  • During former United States President Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign for the American presidency, Daniel Wattenberg's August 1992 The American Spectator article "The Lady Macbeth of Little Rock",[8] and some twenty other articles in major publications drew comparisons between his wife and Lady Macbeth,[9] questioning Hillary Clinton's ideological and ethical record in comparison to Shakespeare's famous character and suggesting parallels.[8]
  • The Simpsons' twentieth episode of its twentieth season, "Four Great Women and a Manicure" is loosely based on Macbeth. In the third act of the episode, Marge embodies Lady Macbeth, an ambitious wife who is frustrated by everything around her. She not only has to clean the costumes worn by other actors, but is also frustrated over the fact that Homer doesn't have any interest in auditioning for lead roles and would rather play a tree. She convinces him to kill Sideshow Mel and he does to assume the lead role of Macbeth. When Marge learns that no one cares for Homer's lack of acting skills over Hibbert's and those with no lines, she forces him to kill off everyone else until he's the only actor left. The angry spirits visit her that night and she tries to pin the blame on Homer. They refuse to believe Marge and point out that they knew he was a victim himself in her devious ambitions. The angry spirits get their revenge on her by killing her in a fright induced heart attack. Even though Homer gives Marge's ghost a promising performance, he eventually frustrates her more by killing himself so he doesn't have to audition for more Shakespearean plays. This forces Marge to learn her lesson the hard way when she must spend eternity with a lazy and happy Homer.
  • In 2008, Three Rivers Press published Lady Macbeth by Susan Fraser King. The novel is original fiction, based on source material regarding the period and person of Lady Macbeth.[10]
  • Julia Gillard was compared to Lady Macbeth after she ousted Kevin Rudd as Prime Minister of Australia in June 2010.[11] The most often cited parallels between Gillard and Lady Macbeth were that Gillard was a red-haired and 'deliberately barren'[12] woman, while the event itself occurred late in the evening, much like King Duncan's murder. Additionally, the perpetrator succeeded the victim, Julia Gillard became the Prime Minister after "killing" Kevin Rudd's career while the Macbeths were proclaimed King and Queen after King Duncan's death. Additional parallels to the play Macbeth, more broadly, include the fact that Gillard was labelled a witch,[13] was the recipient of misogynistic attitudes, and Gillard's statement to Senator Kim Carr that the Labor Government was sleepwalking to defeat.[14]
  • Gisele Barreto Fetterman, the wife of Pennsylvania Senator John Fetterman, was compared to Lady Macbeth for her alleged manipulation of her husband by right wing pundits.[15][16]
  • Tabu (actress) portrayed the character in the Indian movie Maqbool by director Vishal Bharadwaj which was an adaptation of Macbeth. But the director added the twist of making the character be the wife of King Duncan (who is a mafia don called Abbaji in the movie) acted by Pankaj Kapur and who has an adulterous relationship with Macbeth (Maqbool) acted by Irrfan Khan.
  • In 2024, Penguin Random House published Lady Macbeth by Ava Reid. The novel is a reimagining of the Tragedy of Macbeth under the lens of fantasy, and borrows from the character of Lady Macbeth while still remaining original fiction.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Chamberlain, Stephanie (Summer 2005). "Fantasizing Infanticide: Lady Macbeth and the Murdering Mother in Early Modern England". College Literature. 32 (2). West Chester, Pennsylvania: West Chester University of Pennsylvania: 72–91. doi:10.1353/lit.2005.0038. ISSN 1542-4286. S2CID 29004181.
  2. ^ a b La Belle, Jenijoy (Autumn 1980). "A Strange Infirmity: Lady Macbeth's Amenorrhea". Shakespeare Quarterly. 31 (3). Washington, D.C.: Folger Shakespeare Library: 381–386. doi:10.2307/2869201. JSTOR 2869201.
  3. ^ Couche, Christine (2010). Chalk, Darryl; Johnson, Laurie (eds.). 'Rapt in Secret Studies': Emerging Shakespeares. Newcastle upon Tyne, England: Cambridge Scholars Publishing. p. 161. ISBN 9781443823524.
  4. ^ Levin, Joanna (March 2002). "Lady MacBeth and the Daemonologie of Hysteria". ELH. 69 (1). Baltimore, Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press: 21–55. doi:10.1353/elh.2002.0009. ISSN 0013-8304. S2CID 161311998.
  5. ^ Baruah, Pallabi (June 2016). "Revisiting Shakespeare: Subverting Heteronormativity – A Reading of William Shakespeare's Macbeth". International Journal on Studies in English Language and Literature. 4 (6). Andhra Pradesh: ARC Journals: 64.
  6. ^ Alfar, Cristina León (Spring 1998). "'Blood Will Have Blood': Power, Performance, and Lady Macbeth's Gender Trouble". Journal X. 2 (2). University, Mississippi: University of Mississippi: 180–181.
  7. ^ Putnam, Leah (28 April 2022). "Sam Gold-Directed Macbeth Starring Daniel Craig and Ruth Negga Opens on Broadway April 28". Playbill. Retrieved 16 May 2023.
  8. ^ a b Wattenberg, Daniel (August 1992). "The Lady Macbeth of Little Rock". The American Spectator.
  9. ^ Burns, Lisa M. (2008). First Ladies and the Fourth Estate: Press Framing of Presidential Wives. DeKalb, Illinois: Northern Illinois University Press. ISBN 978-0-87580-391-3. - p. 142
  10. ^ Fraser King, Susan (2008). Lady Macbeth. New York: Three Rivers Press. ISBN 978-0-307-34175-4.
  11. ^ Koziol, Michael (23 September 2014). "'Lady-in-waiting to Lady Macbeth': Julia Gillard opens up on mistakes". The Sydney Morning Herald.
  12. ^ "Heffernan's 'deliberately barren' the most sexist remark of 2007". 13 November 2007.
  13. ^ Massola, James (23 June 2015). "Julia Gillard on the moment that should have killed Tony Abbott's career". The Sydney Morning Herald.
  14. ^ Massola, James (13 June 2013). PM white-anted Rudd before leader's challenge.
  15. ^ Fossett, Katelyn (4 November 2022). "The return of the Lady Macbeth trope". POLITICO. Retrieved 23 March 2023.
  16. ^ Ecarma, Caleb (17 February 2023). "Fox News Pundits Seem Hell-Bent on Punishing John Fetterman for Having Depression". Vanity Fair. Retrieved 23 March 2023.

Further reading[edit]

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