As part of our Monstrous Women collection, Rachel Duarte has contributed with a detailed analysis on the ultimate femme fatale, Lady Macbeth. Rachel graduated from the University of Roehampton with a BA Honours in Drama and Dance, and a PGCE in English and Drama. She is the Head of English at Wolsingham School and is currently studying an MA in English studies.
So we’re here to talk about monsters, monstrous women to be precise. Yet just what do we mean by a monstrous woman? One who is a hideous, ugly beast; a giant superhuman; an evil sub-human killer? Or simply a frustrated female fed up with being subjected to the unfairness of a dominant patriarchal society and unwilling to play along with the feminine stereotype dreamt up by men?
One of the earliest archetypal monstrous femme-fatales has to be the iconic Lady Macbeth, Shakespeare’s meatiest role for a woman. She is cruel, cunning and conniving, convincing her husband to commit the ultimate crime: regicide in her quest for power and control. Yet is she really the monster she is often made out to be or is she really a scapegoat for male fears and concerns about intelligent women?
So just what is the case for Lady Macbeth?
Let’s start with the evidence. The first time she is seen on the stage she is reading a letter from her husband explaining his encounter with the witches and their subsequent prophecies. Described as his ‘dearest partner in greatness’ it is immediately clear that she is not a subservient minion responsible for running an efficient household, but rather an intellectual equal, even a superior, with powerful brains, foresight and intelligence. Is it any surprise then that such a smart woman would not be content to stay in the shadows, playing second fiddle to her man and confined to the domestic role? What would be more natural than for such a character to strive for a more stimulating role in life? It is a sure sign of the times that simply by naming her his ‘partner in greatness’ and his equal sets her up as an unnatural wife, a woman to be afraid of – a ‘monster’!
As a genuinely insightful woman, she understands from the start that her husband is ‘too full o’ the milk of human kindness’ (1,5) to fulfil their joint ambitions and so realises that she has a job of persuasion on her hands. She knows that, despite all her qualities, it is only through her husband’s promotion that she can gain any active control over her destiny and so she knows she has to persuade him to “do the deed” (1,5)
Her next speech depicts her summoning spirits and it is this soliloquy, which is often used as damning evidence in the charges of monstrosity. As she calls on those evil beings who ‘tend on mortal thoughts’ (1,5) asking to be filled ‘from top to toe with direst cruelty’ (1,5) and for all compassion and remote to be effectively ‘stopped’ there are clear parallels with those other monstrous women in the play: the witches. However, she also rather strangely asks to be ‘unsexed’, a curious and telling command and one, which reveals quite another aspect of her character. By asking to be made androgynous, Lady Macbeth recognises that, as a woman, she has feelings, which would make her unequal to the role of murder and even that of accomplice. She needs to be ‘filled with cruelty’ as it is not in her nature. She requires her feminine emotions and empathy to be removed in order to go ahead with her plan, highlighting that she does have these emotions, but she sees them as a sign of weakness. In a society filled with barbaric battles and the most vicious fighting, is it any wonder that power is viewed as in the hands of those who seize it for themselves? Merely because Lady Macbeth is a woman existing in a man’s world can we condemn her for trying to emulate male behaviour in order to achieve her political aims?
Another male fear and literary trope of the monstrous woman is the female who emasculates her man. Again, Lady Macbeth is shown to use this method effectively to shake up her reluctant husband in order to persuade him to go ahead with killing King Duncan. Calling him a baby and metaphorically ‘unmanning’ him indeed hits a sore spot and ultimately succeeds in ‘screwing his courage to the sticking place’ (1,7). So does this really make Lady Macbeth a monster? Surely, behind the majority of great men (to quote the song) there has to be a great woman (Franklin, 1985) and across history it is the females in the background who have made their men into household names. It is again a mark of her own frailty that she needs Macbeth to do the actual killing while she waits for him to go ‘about it’. Surely if her husband were a real man he would not allow himself to be easily convinced by a few taunts and insults.
Probably the most damning evidence in the argument of Lady Macbeth’s monstrous identity is in this speech. Her admission that:
[…] I have given suck, and know
How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me.
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums
And dashed the brains out, had I so sworn as you
Have done to this. (1.7.62-67)
is a horrific image clearly intended to create abhorrence in the viewing audience. What greater evidence could there be of an unnatural monster; a woman who would willingly kill her own offspring is surely pure evil. Indeed, this statement does the trick and drives Macbeth to agree to kill the king. Yet, if we look more closely, look beyond the hyperbolic admission and at the grammatical construction of these words, a rather different perception is waiting. By using the subjunctive mood here, Shakespeare actually writes that she ‘would…have…dashed the brains out, had I so sworn…’ meaning that she would have killed her own baby if she had promised to do so. Obviously she did not make any such promise and so can safely claim to commit any heinous crime safe in the knowledge that is it simply a tool in her persuasive armoury.
So Lady Macbeth stands as one of literature’s most monstrous female characters and as such she has to be punished. Her demise is both pitiful and ironic. As the partner who ensured her husband’s success, the clever accomplice covering his back when he went to pieces, she pays the ultimate price for claiming the ultimate prize. As Macbeth withdraws his support and effectively abandons her to her guilty conscience, madness descends and suicide beckons. Her ‘unwomanly’ behaviour, which threatened the male hegemony, is her downfall in order for Shakespeare to maintain the patriarchal status quo.
The monstrous Lady begins the literary trope of the ‘mad woman in the attic’ and so a whole stereotype is born.
Image rights obtained:
Shakespeare, W. (1997) Macbeth (Wordsworth classics) (Wordsworth classics). United Kingdom: Wordsworth Editions
Frankin, A. 1985. Sisters are doing it for Themselves. Arista Records. United States.