Behind Every Macbeth There is a Lady, by Emmy Rubin

Behind Every Macbeth There is a Lady, by Emmy Rubin

About Emmy Rubin: I am in my last semester of Literature and I will be going into something probably relating to the study of language at McGill next fall. This essay was from my favourite English class of all time, Shakespearean Drama with Amanda Cockburn. I’m one of those Literature students who love nothing more than diving into classic literature like Shakespeare and analyzing it to the bones. Even the bones get ripped to shreds, to be quite honest. Dawson was the first place to allow Shakespeare and me to find happiness together and I hope that relationship will continue well into the future. Reading rocks!


A tragedy of epic proportions, William Shakespeare’s Macbeth explores the transformation of a hero turned traitor and the consequences of this metamorphosis on the individual and the cosmos. In the case of Macbeth, a subject devoted to his king and country, life would have remained normal and orderly were it not for the influence of a supporting wife, a woman bent on orchestrating her husband’s success and, unknowingly, the destruction of his morality in tandem with that of the kingdom. The existence of Lady Macbeth enriches the play by provoking a discussion about the truths pertaining to gender constructs, drawing connections between the mortal world and the supernatural, and controlling the transformation of the Macbeths’ marriage on a micro as well as a macrocosmic level.

Lady Macbeth is instrumental to the evolution of the play as her definition of masculinity leads to Macbeth’s own destruction through her mockery of her husband’s lack thereof. At the start, when Lady Macbeth is at full force and Macbeth is still in possession of his moral compass, she associates his reluctance to murder Duncan with unmanly traits. When she says, “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.” (Shakespeare 1.7.56-58), she is suggesting that he is less than a man and will only become so when he commits to the plan that he has promised to execute. Lady Macbeth further magnifies her opinion of his lack of masculinity by saying: “I would, while it was smiling in my face, / Have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums / And dashed the brains out” (1.7. 64-66). She, a woman, with feminine qualities devoted to nurturing and loving what her womb produces, would  maliciously end the life she created if it meant adhering to a promise like the one made to her by Macbeth. Finally, after Lady Macbeth whispers her slithering influence into the mind of Macbeth and successfully convinces him to commit murder, he is taunted once more by her scorn in relation to his manhood after suffering from the embodiment of his guilt in Banquo’s ghost. When Lady Macbeth says, “What, quite unmanned in folly?” (3.4.88), she defines a man not only as one who will readily murder and commit to a ludicrous promise, but also one who does not let the guilt of his heinous actions render him insane.

Not only does Lady Macbeth define masculinity, but she challenges the concept of femininity through her language, which is in direct contrast with her actions, creating a paradox in her character and the meaning of woman, further enriching the play. At the start, Lady Macbeth portrays her character as one who wishes to abandon her sex to prove that she has more to offer than what is attributed to her as a woman. When she says, “Come to my woman’s breasts / And take my milk for gall…” (1.5.54-55), she is mentioning “milk” as something that is characteristic of women and unmasculine beings which is evident when she says of Macbeth that he is “…too full o’ th’milk of human kindness” (1.5.17). Through the usage of “milk” in her phrasing, it is clear that she feels that the word is associated with weakness and meekness and is a hindrance when one wishes to accomplish greatness. Since she holds negative opinions toward this trait belonging to her sex, it is logical that she would want to abandon it in pursuit of her endeavor. However, when language becomes action, her true nature is revealed. She is proven to be what she feared: a woman confined to the common definition of womanhood. The passage, “Come, thick night, / And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell, / That my keen knife see not the wound it makes” (1.5.57-59), is written directly after her demand to be separated from her feminine “milk” and it is apparent that when the time comes to take action she will fail or else she would not profess the need for her knife to be concealed by darkness. She feels that she must be blind to her actions so that she will feel no womanly remorse, or worse, hesitation. This foreshadowing is proven when the time to murder Duncan has grown nigh and, in the moment of truth, she is unable to be the one to perpetrate the crime. What is worse is her reasoning for not being the one to murder is stereotypical to the sentimentality of women: “Had he not resembled / My father as he slept, I had done ’t” (2.2.16-17). Furthermore, as mentioned earlier, Lady Macbeth defines her husband’s “folly” as unmanly which points back to her tragic ending as a woman turned insane. For all her efforts, and through her own language, Lady Macbeth unwillingly paints the true image of women through her own deterioration of strength, placing herself in a category that is not that of man but of woman when she herself falls into a guilt-ridden insanity.

 When dissecting the character of Lady Macbeth, it is notable that one of the reasons as to why she is so essential is owing to her connection to the Weird Sisters  which is defined by their conjoined repudiation of gender norms and her continual inclusion of supernatural references in her speech. Perhaps more obvious than Lady Macbeth, the desertion of gender constructs by the Weird Sisters is clear from their very appearance, which is illustrated when Banquo says: “You should be women, / And yet your beards forbid me to interpret / That you are so” (1.3.46-48). Lady Macbeth bridges this connection when she pronounces, “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” (1.5.47-50). Here, she is directly speaking to the witches, referring to them as “spirits” and imploring them to release her from her current sex, filling her blood with the same “cruelty” that runs through theirs, essentially demanding that they transform her into one of them. In that same speech, Lady Macbeth refers to the supernatural power of the Weird Sisters through her mention of the natural: “Stop up th’ access and passage to remorse, / That no compunctious visitings of nature / Shake my fell purpose” (1.5.51-53). Again, she is insisting that the witches alter her being from one susceptible to feelings of remorse to one that is immune. Except, according to her, the only way to accomplish such a feat would be to go against nature Except, according to her, the only way to accomplish such a feat would be to go against nature; but since they are no slaves to nature, they are literally supernatural, they can bend it to their wills. Lastly, when Lady Macbeth receives the letter from her husband recounting his interaction with the Weird Sisters, she states to the non-present Macbeth, “that I may pour my spirits in thine ear” (1.5.29). Lady Macbeth uses the term “spirits” in her own phrasing, reminding us of the Weird Sisters, but not only that, she uses it in a way that elicits the image of her controlling her own supernatural forces, just like the ones belonging to the witches, to influence her husband.

Lady Macbeth allows the audience to understand more deeply the devolvement of the Macbeth marriage as it is not only illustrated in the plot but also in the inner, microcosmic world of Lady Macbeth. In the beginning, while one might deduce that the Macbeth marriage is slightly toxic due to the manipulation on the part of Lady Macbeth, it is nevertheless successful, which can be seen through their interactions and their comprehension of each other’s metaphors. When Lady Macbeth instructs her husband on how to go about murdering Duncan in a way that will ensure his success, she says: “Look like th’ innocent flower, / But be the serpent under ’t” (1.6. 76-78). Essentially, she is saying to put on a mask of sincerity in order to trick the unassuming victim when it is time to strike. Later, Macbeth finally consents to adhere to the plan and answers her with: “False face must hide what the false heart doth know” (1.7.95-96). This statement is an echo of his wife’s earlier metaphor in which he is conveying the idea that he will hide his true face, his true purpose, even if his heart knows that his actions are deplorable; it is a continuation of an earlier conversation, all based on the trust that they understand each other’s meaning through convoluted discussions. A more distinct example of the unity in the Macbeth marriage at the start of the play is Macbeth’s assertion that his wife is “[his] dearest partner of greatness” (1.5.11), in the letter addressed to her about his meeting with the Weird Sisters. This statement is a clear starting point from which the deterioration of the Macbeth marriage can be measured. They start out as loving “partners,” but soon enough, Macbeth is going about his plans in perfect secrecy, excluding his wife and purposefully hiding them: make our faces vizards to our hearts / Disguising what they are” (3, 2, 38-39). Although Macbeth speaks these words about his dinner guests, it can also be construed as an admission of secrecy toward Lady Macbeth, especially through the use of the word “heart.” It has been made evident through Macbeth’s perpetual affirmations of love to his wife up to this point in the play that Lady Macbeth is his life, his love, and his heart, and so when he speaks of putting on a mask to render his heart a fool as well as everybody else, it can be deduced that this statement includes his wife and that she will not be privy to what goes on behind his mask.

When thinking about how the transformation of the marriage is personified in Lady Macbeth, there is nowhere to look but at her dialogue, which slowly shifts and unravels like her psyche. Before, when her marriage is still healthy, Lady Macbeth utilizes the same speech patterns as her husband, keeping to the established form and rhyme scheme. However, before she completely loses all notions of sanity, she begins to speak like this: “Naught’s had, all’s spent, / Where our desire is got without content. / ’Tis safer to be that which we destroy / Than by destruction dwell in doubtful joy” (3.2.6-9). This format of speech is reminiscent of that of the Weird Sisters, of the supernatural, and the topsy-turvy nature of their world. What is more  remarkable is that she only speaks like this when she is by herself; when Macbeth appears she reverts back to her usual way of speaking. This is indicative of the breakdown of their marriage as not only is Macbeth hiding his plans from her but they are both hiding from each other their simultaneous mental deteriorations. The final nail in the coffin of the Macbeth marriage is Lady Macbeth’s psychic break, which flings her into a world of confused lunacy in which she is only capable of speaking in past conversations, thus completely eradicating one half of the pairing. Even before her suicide, there is only one person left in their marriage who is more or less  capable of sound thought. Not once in the entire scene in which Lady Macbeth is being cared for by the Doctor and the Gentlewoman, lost in her psychosis, does Macbeth come and visit her to ensure that she is well, to care for her as any devoted husband would. Macbeth’s loss of love for his wife is made clear by how he responds to hearing of her death, merely saying: “She should have died hereafter. There would have been a time for such a word” (5.5.20-21). No feeling. No grief; a man wrenched from his wife as a forgotten doll taken from a child.       

Lady Macbeth is an essential character in Macbeth. It is true that without her, there would still be a play with a relevant plot, but if she were completely eradicated from it, it would be robbing the audience of a layered and enriched story. Without Lady Macbeth there would have been a diminished idea of gender constructs, a supernatural world with one less tie to the realm of mortals, and a basic depiction of a marriage gone bad. Actually, without Lady Macbeth there would be no marriage to begin with. Lady Macbeth is the classic great woman behind her great man, even though she tries to the best of her abilities to get out from under that shadow by making herself something other than a woman, something that can stand alone and brave the world without any handicaps attributed to her sex. It is perhaps one of Shakespeare’s greatest feats of dramatic irony that it is the limitation of her sex, the one thing that she wishes to escape from the most, that catches her in the end and sends her to a most tragic death.

Work Cited

Shakespeare, W. (2013). Macbeth. B. A. Mowat and P. Werstine, Eds. The Folger

Shakespeare Library.

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