Role and Functions of Lady Macbeth

Macbeth by William Shakespeare
Macbeth by William Shakespeare

In William Shakespeare’s dramatic works, women are very influential characters who have a great affect on the outcome of the play. Characters like Juliet in Romeo and Juliet, Ophelia in Hamlet, Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra, Portia in The Merchant of Venice, and Hero in Much Ado About Nothing are all memorable and significant women in Shakespeare. Although a majority of these women play subordinate roles, their impact on their story is in no way small or trivial. Lady Macbeth is a prime example. She affects the outcome of Shakespeare’s play, Macbeth, through her power, influence, and decline. Lady Macbeth’s power is a dominant characteristic seen throughout the play.

Lady Macbeth is possibly Shakespeare’s most famous and vivid female character. Everyone, whether they have read or seen the Macbeth play, has a view of her. She is generally depicted in the popular mind as the epitome of evil, and images of her appear over and over again in several cultures. She is usually portrayed in pictures as something like a Disney character, a cross between Cruella De Ville and the wicked stepmother in Snow White. Although she has some of the most bloodthirsty lines in Shakespeare she is not quite Cruella De Ville or the wicked stepmother. The response she gets from the male characters suggests that she is a young, sexually attractive woman and, indeed, in her effort to influence Macbeth, she uses every method at her disposal, including the employment of her sexual charms.

She is usually depicted as a strong, tough woman and, in her drive to induce Macbeth to murder King Duncan, she appears to be that, but, having succeeded, it does not take long for her to crumble and break down, destroyed by guilt, and she ends up committing suicide. Shakespeare does not have any evil characters. What he has are ordinary human beings, like you and me, placed in situations that challenge and test them. Some of them, like lago in Othello, have personality defects, but that’s rare in Shakespeare and it’s not the case with Lady Mcbeth.

The challenges that Shakespeare presents his characters with generates different responses from different people. Lady Macbeth’s challenge is that she discovers that her husband has been tempted by an encounter with three witches to do something about their prediction that he will become king. She knows that the king would have to die for that to happen. When she gets a message that King Duncan plans to spend the night with them at Glamys Castle it seems to confirm the thought that they would have to kill him and that this was their once in a lifetime opportunity. That’s the situation into which she has been thrust.

She is as ambitious as Macbeth but she knows that for all his bravery in battle, all his soldierly and diplomatic qualities, he is basically much too soft -“too full of the milk of human kindness” – to take advantage of the opportunity. VShe makes up her mind to make him do it. And she is right about his lack of resolve they talk it over and he tells her that he just can’t do it. She goes into high gear and virtually holds his hand through it. One of her strongest qualities is persistence and she shows it here.

Macbeth hesitates, equivocates and falters but she holds firm. She argues the case, she mocks him, bringing his manhood into question, she appeals to his sense of loyalty to her, she takes him to bed, and she finally prevails.

When we first see her, she is already plotting Duncan’s murder, and she is stronger, more ruthless, and more ambitious than her husband. She seems fully aware of this and knows that she will have to push Macbeth into committing murder. At one point, she wishes that she were not a woman so that she could do it herself. This theme of the relationship between gender and power is key to Lady Macbeth’s character: her husband implies that she is a masculine soul inhabiting a female body, which seems to link masculinity to ambition and violence. Shakespeare, however, seems to use her, and the witches, to undercut Macbeth’s idea that “undaunted mettle should compose/ Nothing but males” (1.7.73-74). These crafty women use female methods of achieving power-that is, manipulation-to further their supposedly male ambitions. Women, the play implies, can be as ambitious and cruel as men, yet social constraints deny them the means to pursue these ambitions on their own.

Lady Macbeth manipulates her husband with remarkable effectiveness, overriding all his objections; when he hesitates to murder, she repeatedly questions his manhood until he feels that he must commit murder to prove himself. Lady Macbeth’s remarkable strength of will persists through the murder of the king-it is she who steadies her husband’s nerves immediately after the crime has been perpetrated. Afterward, however, Lady Macbeth begins a slow slide into madness-just as ambition affects her more strongly than Macbeth before the crime, so does guilt plague her more strongly afterward. By the close of the play, she has been reduced to sleepwalking through the castle, desperately trying to wash away an invisible bloodstain. Once the sense of guilt comes home to roost, Lady Macbeth’s sensitivity becomes a weakness, and she is unable to cope. Significantly, she (apparently) kills herself, signaling her total inability to deal with the legacy of their crimes.

As king, Macbeth fears his political enemies and embarks on a reign of terror while Lady Macbeth stays in bed, unable to sleep, having nightmares when she does manage it. While walking and talking in her sleep she gives the game away about what they have done and sinks into a moral, physical and spiritual collapse. When Macbeth is on his last legs, with the rebels closing in, he gets the message that she’s dead. At that point, he says he doesn’t have time to think about it. “She should have died hereafter,” he says. Their partnership in this murderous enterprise has destroyed their marriage. The promise of strength that we see in her at the beginning of the play is an illusion. What we are seeing is naked ambition and a willingness to act on it without having the resources to deal with the consequences. We see how guilt can eat up your soul and destroy you. We see how hollow ambition is, both in her journey and Macbeth’s.


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