Lady Macbeth Character Analysis

The most treacherous female villain in Shakespeare fascinates audiences

Shirley Verrett as Lady Macbeth, Timothy Noble as Macbeth (1986). Getty Images

Lady Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s most infamous female characters. Cunning and ambitious, Lady Macbeth is a major protagonist in the play, encouraging and helping Macbeth to carry out his bloody quest to become king. Without Lady Macbeth, her husband might never have ventured down the murderous path that leads to their ultimate downfall. 

In many respects, Lady Macbeth is more ambitious and power hungry than her husband, going so far as to call his manhood into question when he has second thoughts about committing murder.

 

Sexism in 'Macbeth'

Along with being Shakespeare's bloodiest play, "Macbeth" is also the one with the greatest number of outright evil female characters. There are the three witches who predict Macbeth will be king, setting the play's action into motion. 

And then there's Lady Macbeth herself. It was unusual in Shakespeare's day for a female character to be so boldly ambitious and manipulative. She's unable to take action herself – perhaps because of the social constraints of the time, so must persuade her husband to go along with her evil plans. 

Masculinity is defined in the play by ambition and power – two qualities that Lady Macbeth possesses in abundance. By constructing the character in this way, Shakespeare challenges our preconceived views of masculinity and femininity. But what exactly was Shakespeare suggesting?

On one hand it was a radical idea to present a dominant female character, but on the other hand, she is presented negatively and ends up killing herself after experiencing what appears to be a crisis of conscience.

 

Lady Macbeth and Guilt

Lady Macbeth’s sense of remorse soon overwhelms her. She has nightmares and in one famous scene (Act 5, Scene 1) appears to try to wash from her hands the blood she imagines left behind from the murders.

Doctor:
What is it she does now? Look how she rubs her hands.

Gentlewoman:
It is an accustom'd action with her, to seem thus
washing her hands. I have known her continue in this a quarter of
an hour.

Lady Macbeth:
Yet here's a spot.

Doctor:
Hark, she speaks. I will set down what comes from her, to
satisfy my remembrance the more strongly.

Lady Macbeth:
Out, damn'd 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
pow'r to accompt?—Yet who would have thought the old man to
have had so much blood in him?

 

By the end of Lady Macbeth's life, guilt has replaced her incredible ambition in equal measure. We are led to believe that her guilt ultimately leads to her suicide.

Lady Macbeth is therefore a victim of her own ambition – and also possibly of her sex. As a woman — in Shakespeare's world, anyway— she is not resilient enough to deal with such strong emotions, whereas Macbeth fights on to the very end despite his misgivings. 

The treacherous Lady Macbeth both defies and defines what it means to be a female villain in a Shakespeare play.