Lady MacBeth is a pivotal character in Shakespeare’s darkest play, a woman bereft of human feeling other than greed and a naked lust for power. Lady MacBeth is the ultimate “power behind the power,” playing on her husband’s own ambition and willingness to be tempted. Frustrated over her inherent weakness, she rages against the notion of a weaker sex that produces housewives or witches. As such, she is an exploiter who sharpens the blade of MacBeth’s desire, whetting his appetite for the crown. In a sense, gender becomes a neutral issue. Cleansed of feminine sensitivity, Lady MacBeth is a force seeking only power.
In most plays, the main plot carries the themes and motifs while the subplot, which is of lesser interest, serves to amplify the major themes. MacBeth has no subplot as such, instead focusing on the destructive effect of unrestrained greed and ambition. In order to pursue her ambition, Lady MacBeth must come to terms with her lust for power. To that end, she asks the powers of evil to “unsex me here,” and prepare her to bring about the cruel act that must follow (Shakespeare, Act I, Scene V). In Act I, Scene III, when the witches foretell MacBeth’s rise, Banquo asks them to look into “the seeds of time,” a reference to regeneration. Yet the imagery of growth also has a sinister side. The witches have planted a dark ambition within MacBeth, which Lady MacBeth cultivates and makes grow. For MacBeth and his wife, greed and manipulation yield a bitter harvest.
Lady MacBeth’s exposition throughout the play is direct and clear, her points are forceful. She wants power for herself and her husband and is willing to risk anything for it, including murder. When MacBeth informs her of Duncan’s plans to depart the following day, her response makes brutally clear not only her intention to bring about Duncan’s end, but also her resolve to make MacBeth the tool through which she will make it happen. It’s not unlike listening to murder conspirators discussing how they might avoid suspicion and disguise motive:
Shall sun that morrow see!
Thy face, my Thane, is as a book, where men
May read strange matters: To beguile the time, –
Look like the time; bear welcome in your eye,
Your hand, your tongue; look like the innocent flower,
But be the serpent under it” (Shakespeare, Act I, Scene V).
That MacBeth should have pangs of conscience over the idea of murdering the king is indicative of the exploitative relationship between he and Lady MacBeth. He admits that he covets the throne, but dwelling on what he must do to acquire it is another matter. His queen-to-be is ready for his waffling: she is not only willing but very able to clear away the last vestiges of MacBeth’s moral inhibitions. She won’t allow him to entertain the possibility that they might fail in their dark endeavor. “But screw your courage to the sticking-place” she exhorts, and all will be well (Shakespeare, Act I, Scene VII).
Lady MacBeth must play her emotional trump card and challenge her husband’s manhood. This is Shakespeare’s characterization of the “wife from hell,” the woman who regards her husband as more a means to an end than a mate. Shakespeare addresses the ambiguities of male-female relationship in many plays, but in MacBeth it is a cynical phenomenon. Lady MacBeth chides, “Art thou afeard to be the same in thin own act and valour as thou art in desire?” (Shakespeare, Act I, Scene VII). It is an antagonistic way of telling MacBeth he doesn’t carry the strength of his own conviction, and it works.
Once the deed is done there is no diminishing of her resolve, no regret, and she won’t suffer her husband to lose heart. When MacBeth looks at the blood on his hands and laments the “sorry sight,” Lady MacBeth scoffs and says, “A foolish thought, to say a sorry sight!” (Shakespeare, Act II, Scene II). She advises him not to agonize over what he’s done. Clearly, Lady MacBeth represents the dark side of the old maxim that says behind every successful man stands a strong woman. If anything, MacBeth is a victim of women who have preyed on his weaknesses, including the witches who prophesy his rise but whom he imperfectly understands, and his wife, for whom he is a vehicle for her ambition. In one of Shakespeare’s most powerful metaphorical images, Lady MacBeth is overcome by horrific visions of blood. Overwhelmed at the last by her conscience, she commits suicide. It may seem the final act of a desperately contrite soul, but isn’t enough to ameliorate the evil of which she is guilty, or to wash away the blood on both of their hands.
Between the two of them, the preponderance of conscience must be said to lie with MacBeth, who indulges in the literary equivalent of hand-wringing. The fact that his bouts of agonized self-reflection are never quite enough to deter him from his rash course is attributable to the influence of his wife. Shakespeare’s famously potent use of imagery serves to cast Lady MacBeth’s nefarious influence in stark counterpoint to her husband’s seeming reticence:
“Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood
Clean from my hand? No; this my hand will
rather the multitudinous seas incarnadine,
Making the green one red.
My hands are of your colour, but I
shame to wear a heart so white” (Shakespeare, Act II, Scene II).
In an interesting psychological twist, their roles have begun to reverse by Act V. In Scene V, MacBeth urges the physician to minister to his ailing wife, and “Raze out the written troubles of the brain” (Shakespeare, Act V, Scene V). With significant gravity, the physician laconically advises MacBeth that only his wife can cure that which ails her but it is too late for Lady MacBeth to gain salvation in spite of her anguish. The course she charted for both of them in Act I constrains them and becomes a prison of their own devising. Before the murder, MacBeth’s will was his own. It was still possible for him to turn back had it not been for Lady MacBeth’s unflinching commitment to the evil act. MacBeth may have had doubts but his wife never wavered.
From the time MacBeth consents to murder Duncan, his will is in the hands of Lady MacBeth. Evil has taken control of her and is insidiously guiding the course of events. Lady MacBeth has brought the destructive seed of ambition into full flower. The “fiend-like Queen” of Shakespeare’s nightmarish tale puts the dagger into MacBeth’s hand and, wielding a powerful psychological influence, leads her husband down the path to madness, murder and war. In light of this, Lady MacBeth must be considered at least partly responsible for the murder of Duncan, MacDuff’s children, Banquo and many others. Shakespeare’s MacBeth is every bit the tyrant, but it is Lady MacBeth who casts the darkest shadow.
Shakespeare, W. MacBeth. Henry Van Dyke, ed. New York, NY: American Book Company. 1904.