In Defense of Lady Macbeth

I’ve always had a soft spot for Lady Macbeth.  While certainly she does not deserve the title of “good person,” neither does she deserve the utter scorn with which she is usually met.  (Yes, I know that Macbeth takes place in the 11th century, and no, Lady Macbeth is not a Renaissance woman, BUT she is a Shakespearean character written DURING the Renaissance, so close enough!)

"Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth" by John Singer Sargeant

“Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth” by John Singer Sargent

While most definitely a shrew, I do not believe Lady Macbeth to be evil, or even a sociopath.  She is a strong woman in a time where feminine strength would not have been seen by most as a positive trait.  However, how much of that strength is just for show?  Is she truly to “blame” for Macbeth’s murderous rampage?  I would argue that Lady Macbeth’s manipulation of her husband was done because she saw it as being for his own good.  Why?  Because he WANTED to be king (how does she find out anything about this?  Macbeth writes her a letter telling her about it) and lacked the fortitude to do what clearly needed to be done to make it happen.  She was simply providing strength where she saw weakness.  She is being, as Macbeth himself calls her, his “dearest partner in greatness,” (Act I, Scene 5).  

I feel it significant that she must ask the “spirits who tend on mortal thoughts” to “unsex” her–to make her less of a woman–so that SHE can act on this opportunity since she knows that her husband is “too full of the milk of human kindness to find the nearest way,” (Act I, Scene 5).  She sees her husband as being full of milk (very feminine) while at the same time she is requesting “murdering ministers” to “come to [her] woman’s breasts and take [her] milk for gall,” (Act I, Scene 5).  After being unsexed, as requested, she is gifted with the ability to be ruthless and bloodthirsty–qualities that she did not possess unaided.

In fact, even once she has been granted her wish, she still displays a tendency toward sentimental tenderness.  In Act II, Scene 2, we see her congratulating herself on contriving a plan so perfect that it cannot be screwed up–not even by her husband (though she does still worry that he might).  The possibility of her husband’s possible failure weighed so heavy on her mind that, during preparations, she had considered killing Duncan herself.  What stopped her?  In her own words, “Had he not resembled my father as he slept, I had done’t” (Act II, Scene 2).  That’s right–he looked like her daddy.  A TRULY savage woman wouldn’t have cared.  She does.  It doesn’t save Duncan’s life, but it does show that there is still a glimmer of softness there.  

Yet another hint of Lady Macbeth’s less-than-ruthless-side can be found just a bit later in the same scene.  After Macbeth descends the stairs from the King’s chambers post-regicide, he and his wife discuss how Duncan’s chamberlains awoke before the murder had occurred and how the two men then prayed and went back to sleep.  During this process, Macbeth himself had attempted to join in the prayer, but when the time came to say “amen,” the word, “stuck in [his] throat,” (Act II, Scene 2), and he wonders why this would happen at a time when he needed the salvation prayer could provide.  In response to this line of inquiry, Lady Macbeth immediately responds, “these deeds must not be thought after these ways; so it will make us mad,” (Act II, Scene 2).  In other words, if WE think about what WE have done as being wrong, those thoughts will drive US mad.  “Us,” not “you.”  She herself is included in the impending madness.  The pep talk she gives her husband is as much for herself as it is for him.  

By Act III, Lady Macbeth goes from being the baddest bitch in the land to desperate housewife without passing Go.  Now King, Macbeth branches out and starts planning things on his own.  He deliberately leaves her out of the plotting of Banquo’s murder (maybe because he doesn’t think she would approve?!?) and instead just wants her to be “innocent of the knowledge, my dearest chuck, till thou applaud the deed,” (Act 3, Scene 2).  How can this murder possibly be blamed on Lady Macbeth?  Is not Macbeth an adult capable of making his own poor decisions?  Of course he is–and he has decided that Banquo must die.

Lady Macbeth disappears from the play completely through Act IV, and when we meet her again in Act V, she has plunged headlong into guilt-fuelled madness.  The sleepwalking scene is really quite fascinating.  It is only cloaked in the safety of sleep that she can admit to the things that she–and Macbeth–have done.  This harkens back to her advice to Macbeth in Act II–she believed that as long as they were not consciously thinking about what had happened with Duncan, everything would be fine.  Clearly this is not true.  All Lady Macbeth has been successful in doing is repressing her guilt, only to have it float to the surface when she is the most vulnerable–in her sleep.

A  true sociopath would feel guiltless about not only the murder she helped plan, but also all of the deeds that occurred afterward.  Lady Macbeth, on the other hand, is so consumed with regret that the only course of action she can conceive of is self-destruction.  Many would say that her suicide is Lady Macbeth’s final selfish act–abandoning her husband to face the ruinous consequences of their activities alone, but perhaps rather than seeking an escape for herself, she was seeking to protect him.  Without her, Macbeth would be the only one alive who knew what really happened with Duncan, and therefore, there would be no living witnesses to Macbeth’s treason.  Lady Macbeth was truly Macbeth’s partner for better and for worse.

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