Lady Macbeth

Lady Macbeth

Lady Macbeth is even more ambitious and ruthless than her husband. As soon as an opportunity to gain power presents itself, she has a plan in mind. She uses her influence to persuade Macbeth that they are taking the right course of action and even takes part in the crime herself.

For a while she is able to suppress her actions but eventually she becomes unable to deal with the guilt of what she has done. She becomes unable to sleep, and mentally unstable, eventually dying in tragic circumstances.

Lady Macbeth, featuring labels that highlight her as cunning, conscience-stricken and ambitious
How is Lady Macbeth like this?EvidenceAnalysis
AmbitiousLady Macbeth is, perhaps, even more determined than her husband. She can only be Queen if he becomes King so when he hesitates she displays enough ambition for both of them. Once she has worked out a plan, nothing will turn her from that course until her ambition is fulfilled.Glamis thou art, and Cawdor, and shalt be / What thou art promised; yet do I fear thy nature, / It is too full o'th'milk of human kindness / To catch the nearest way. Thou wouldst be great, / Art not without ambition, but without / The illness should attend it. (Act 1 Scene 5) Lady Macbeth's determination to succeed is clear here. She is insistent that Macbeth will become King ('shalt be what thou art promised') However, she recognises that he is 'too full o'th'milk of human kindness' and that this could stand in their way. It is interesting that she describes the necessary ruthless streak as an 'illness'. This suggests that even at this stage she knows what she is doing is wrong.
CunningTo the outside world, Lady Macbeth seems like the ideal supportive wife but this is part of her ability to be deceptive. When Macbeth expresses doubts, she uses every trick she can think of to make sure he carries out their plan to murder Duncan. When he hesitates, she is there to urge Macbeth on.All our service, / In every point twice done and then done double, / Were poor and single business to contend / Against those honours deep and broad wherewith / Your majesty loads our house. (Act 1 Scene 6) Lady Macbeth welcomes Duncan to her home and flatters him so that he will not suspect a thing. She almost overdoes it when she exaggerates 'In every point twice done and then done double'. The word 'double' also links Lady Macbeth to the evil of the witches - they use the word repeatedly in one of their spells.
Conscience-stricken Lady Macbeth seems to go from being someone with no conscience at all to someone who is overwhelmed by feelings of guilt. She cannot bear to think of what she has done and eventually dies alone and unmourned even by her husband.Out, damned spot! Out, I say! One, two. Why then 'tis time to do't. Hell is murky. Fie, my lord, fie, a soldier, and afeard? What need we fear? Who knows it, when none can call our power to account? Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him? (Act 5 Scene 1) As the guilt-stricken Lady Macbeth sleepwalks, she remembers all the evil things she and her husband have done and tries to wash imaginary blood from her hands (Out, damned spot: out, I say!). In particular, she recalls the night of Duncan's murder and the part she played in persuading her husband to act. She is also aware that she will be going to hell for her sins.

Social and historical context

In both Shakespeare's time and in the time when the play takes place, women had a much lower status than would be the case today. Wives were little more than the property of their husbands and had no legal rights. Their main purpose was to have children and support their menfolk. Lady Macbeth appears to be a much more feisty character with ambitions and desires of her own; these are characteristics that could imply a lack of femininity. It is worth remembering that in the original performances of the play the part of Lady Macbeth would have been played by a man and this would have helped to emphasise the character's masculine qualities.

Analysing the evidence

quote
Come, you spirits That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here And fill me from the crown to the toe topfull Of direst cruelty: make thick my blood, Stop up th'access and passage to remorse, That no compunctious visitings of nature Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between Th'effect and it. Come to my woman’s breasts, And take my milk for gall, you murd'ring ministers, Wherever in your sightless substances You wait on nature’s mischief. (Act 1 Scene 5)
Question

What are we told here about Lady Macbeth's character?

How to analyse the quote:

"Come, you spirits That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here And fill me from the crown to the toe topfull Of direst cruelty: make thick my blood. Stop up th'access and passage to remorse, That no compunctious visitings of nature Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between Th'effect and it! Come to my woman's breasts, And take my milk for gall, you murd'ring ministers, Wherever in your sightless substances You wait on nature's mischief." (Act 1 Scene 5)

  • 'Come, you spirits' / 'Come...you murd'ring ministers' - Lady Macbeth feels powerful enough to summon and command evil spirits
  • 'unsex me' - she asks for her feminine qualities to be removed
  • 'direst cruelty' / 'Stop up th'access and passage to remorse' - she wants any feelings for others she might have replaced with absolute wickedness and doesn’t wish to feel sympathy for others
  • 'fell purpose' - the most important thing to her is achieving her ambition

How to use this in an essay:

Lady Macbeth has just learned her husband's news about the Witches' predictions and that King Duncan will be staying with them that very night. In a scene of shocking ambition she calls upon the powers of evil to assist her ('Come, you spirits' / 'Come ... you murd'ring ministers'). In this respect she is very much like the Witches casting a spell to summon up evil spirits. She feels that the most important thing for her to achieve is her 'fell purpose' and will stop at nothing to accomplish this. She even wishes to remove her own feminine qualities ('unsex me') and trade 'remorse' for 'direst cruelty'. All of this would have been doubly shocking to Shakespeare's original audience because it was spoken by a woman.