Monday, 5 March 2012

Is Lady Macbeth a Bitch?

Ellen Terry as
Lady Macbeth (1889)
I often think, if Lady Macbeth had a theme song, it would be Meredith Brooks’ Bitch. “I’m a bitch, I’m a lover, I’m a child, I’m a mother, I’m a sinner, I’m a saint, I do not feel ashamed.” Yes, I realise I’m showing my age. Is Lady M really a bitch, though?

I was prompted to write this by something that caught my eye on ‘Yahoo Answers’ at the weekend. Someone wrote: “Lady Macbeth is consumed with such bitterness and hatred for the world that she has an extreme idea of what a man should and shouldn’t be. Lady Macbeth’s self-entitlement makes her idea of what a man should be revolve around pleasing her, protecting her, and giving her everything she needs. Her blood thirsty nature makes her version of a real man do whatever it takes to get what he needs, even kill.”

Now, for starters, I think this shows a distinct lack of understanding about the play – where does Shakespeare mention bitterness and hatred for the world? However, if we leave that to one side for a moment and address the crux of the statement, which is: it was all Lady Macbeth’s fault - I think there would be a fair few people in agreement.

Why Do We Blame Lady Macbeth?

Let’s be honest, when it comes to dishing out blame, Macbeth has to take the lion’s share. After all, he was the one who actually killed Duncan. Yes, Lady Macbeth encouraged him to do it, but if she were “blood thirsty by nature,” she would have done the job herself. After all, it would have made life much simpler – she wouldn’t have come back with bloody daggers still in hand.

Also, when it comes to evil deeds, Macbeth does the worst of 'em all by himself. He refuses to even tell Lady M about the plot to murder Banquo and Fleance, convinced that she should be “innocent of the knowledge, dearest chuck.”(III.ii) If he were simply incapable of murdering, without her pushing him to do so, he wouldn’t have continued to butcher everyone he perceived to be a threat to his throne, because she certainly doesn’t suggest any further bloodshed.

Is Macbeth’s Downfall Lady Macbeth’s Fault?

Jeanette Nolan as Lady Macbeth in Orson Welles' 1948
Film Version (Welles implies that Lady M took a much
more 'active' role in Duncan's death)
I think there are a couple of reasons that people take a disliking to Lady Macbeth. Firstly, as far as some are concerned, she is responsible for Macbeth’s downfall.

Of course, this can’t be true, because Macbeth is a tragic hero. He, therefore, must be responsible for his own downfall. It is his hamartia that leads him to regicide and ever increasing acts of violence.

So, the notion that Lady Macbeth caused it all is shot right out of the water. More to the point, Macbeth is already thinking about murdering his way to the top – long before he’s sent word to his wife of the witches’ prophecy. “My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical…”(I.iii)

Is Lady Macbeth Ambitious?

I’ve heard and read many people state that it is Lady Macbeth who is the ambitious one in the relationship, which is why she keeps pushing for Macbeth to murder Duncan. This is something else that I completely disagree with, partly because ambition is Macbeth’s fatal flaw and, if you claim that he does not have that character trait, then you remove the thing that makes him a tragic hero.

Moreover, if you believe Lady Macbeth is ambitious, I would ask, ‘for what?’ She is a woman, in extremely patriarchal times; she can wield absolutely no power as queen, so it’s nothing more than a title. She is already the wife of a thane, she is well respected, reasonably wealthy, has a lovely castle in Inverness and servants. Being elevated to queen alters nothing, except she then has a lovely castle in Dunsinane.

To me, the only ambition she has is for her husband. She knows that he is a great man and that he could make a wonderful king – which he could, and the real Macbeth, arguably, did. As far as I’m concerned, there is no personal gain for her, with the possible exception of the fact that being married to a powerful man turns her on, which is a distinct possibility.

Lady Macbeth’s Lack of Femininity

Ellen Kean (nee Tree) and Charles Kean as
Lady Macbeth and Macbeth (1858)
When we really get right down to it, I think femininity is what it’s all about. The difference between ‘good’ women and ‘bad’ women is the amount of femininity they exude. This is something that goes right back to Medea and is still present in modern culture, with the likes of Cruella de Vil. It seems that, in order to be a strong woman, a gal must relinquish her femininity. If she relinquishes her femininity, she’s a bitch – but, in terms of art, that is often the only way a female character can take centre stage.

And Lady Macbeth does the most cardinal of all sins, by actually requesting that her femininity be removed, in order to steel herself for the plotting and act of Duncan’s murder. However, it’s worth noting that it doesn’t work – she has to have a little alcoholic beverage when it comes to carrying out the deed and she is incapable of killing Duncan herself, because he reminds her of her father. So the old, “unsex me here” business didn’t remove all trace of her feminine sensitivities.

Is Lady Macbeth Guilty of Infanticide? 

The final, and perhaps most oft quoted, reason to condemn Lady Macbeth is, “I have given suck, and know/How tender 'tis to love the babe that milks me…”(I.vii) I think the problem here is that many people misinterpret this passage and believe it to mean that Lady Macbeth either did kill her child or would want to. Well, this could not be further from the mark. What she’s saying is that she, “…would, while it was smiling in my face,/Have pluck'd my nipple from his boneless gums,/And dash'd the brains out, had I so sworn as you/Have done to this.”

The important bits, it seems to me, are the ‘would’ and the ‘if’. Essentially, what she’s saying is ‘If I’d promised you I’d kill my baby, I would do it.’ But, of course, she hasn’t made any such promise and probably wouldn’t even consider doing so. However, she’s playing on his emotions – telling him that she loves him so much that she would keep any promise, no matter how heinous, she made to him. Is it emotional blackmail? Probably. Is she saying whatever she has to, to get Macbeth to go through with the murder? Yes. But this cannot be used as evidence that she has or would readily commit infanticide.

To me, claiming that Lady Macbeth is a bitch, that Macbeth’s downfall is her fault and that she has bloodthirsty ambition does the play and her character an injustice. She is much more complicated than many people give her credit for and, as far as I'm concerned, the popularity of her character among actors (many of whom would give a limb to play her) goes to prove that.

If you'd like to find out more about Lady Macbeth and the other characters of the play, why not take a look at What's It All About, Shakespeare? A Guide to Macbeth, which is available on kindle. You can find it right here.


  1. Great article! I performed Macbeth in high school and although I was no lead, I had to learn all about Macbeth and Lady Macbeth from my director. I agree to disagree in some parts, but agree for the most of it!

    1. Hello there! Thanks for the compliment. I hope you had fun playing her, she's certainly a juicy part to get your teeth into. If you feel like sharing, I'd be interested to know the ways in which you see her differently. I'm by no means claiming that mine is the only possible interpretation of her, and it's always fascinating to hear other people's.