Lady Macbeth Character Analysis

Shakespeare's most treacherous female villain fascinates readers

A portrait of Lady Macbeth and Macbeth in full color.

Johann Zoffany / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Lady Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s most infamous female characters. Cunning and ambitious, she is one of the protagonists of the play, encouraging and helping Macbeth carry out his bloody quest to become king. Without Lady Macbeth, the titular character might never venture down the murderous path that leads to their mutual 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.

Masculinity and Femininity

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

Then, there's Lady Macbeth herself. It was unusual in Shakespeare's day for a female character to be so boldly ambitious and manipulative as Lady Macbeth is. She's unable to take action herself, likely because of social constraints and power hierarchies, so she must persuade her husband to go along with her evil plans.

When Lady Macbeth persuades Macbeth to kill King Duncan by questioning his manhood, Shakespeare equates masculinity with ambition and power. However, those are two qualities that Lady Macbeth possesses in abundance. By constructing her character in this way (with "masculine" characteristics), Shakespeare challenges our preconceived views of masculinity and femininity.

Lady Macbeth's Guilt

Lady Macbeth’s sense of remorse soon overwhelms her, however. She has nightmares, and in one famous scene (Act Five, Scene One), she tries to wash her hands of the blood she imagines has been left behind by 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, which complicates her role in the play. She both defies and defines what it means to be a female villain, particularly in Shakespeare's time.