Reading Shakespeare: The Tragedy of Lady Macbeth

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: How to Read and Understand Shakespeare

By Marc C. Conner, Ph.D., Washington & Lee University

One of the factors that made Shakespeare’s plays so prolific was his representation of the powerful women in his tragedies. One of the most memorable, dynamic, and profound characters was that of Lady Macbeth.

Picture showing an old book with Shakespeare written on the cover.
Shakespeare’s tragedies have often featured strong, dynamic women in the lead.
Lady Macbeth, the titular character’s wife in Macbeth, was one such woman.
(Image: JasaShmasa/Shutterstock)

Shakespeare’s tragedies feature a series of magnificent, powerful, women: Juliet, Lady Macbeth, Lear’s three daughters, Gertrude and Ophelia, Desdemona, and of course, Cleopatra. 

These unforgettable women are intrinsically tied to the tragedy. While the great female figures in Shakespearean comedies, such as Viola, Rosalind, and Portia act as beacons of reconciliation and love, the female figure in the tragedies was often sacrificed to the play’s ambition or power struggle, or was actually privy to the increase in the power struggle. Lady Macbeth’s character follows the latter. 

An Introduction to Lady Macbeth’s Personality Traits

The courage in Lady Macbeth’s character is evident the minute she walks on stage, alone, reading aloud a letter. In Shakespeare’s time, there was a certain anxiety created by literate women; such women were often condemned as witches. 

The letter’s contents, written by the woman’s husband, call her “my dearest partner of greatness”. These words show a seemingly passionate, equal, and real love shared by the murderous, overly ambitious couple.

Lady Macbeth’s response to the letter is equally telling about her character. She says she fears his nature—“It is too full o’th’milk of human kindness, / To catch the nearest way”, an indication that her mind is already filled with the thought of assassination, which she fears her husband, the greatest warrior in Scotland, is too kind to carry out. She is already trying to inspire, or perhaps manipulate the death of the king through Macbeth.

Learn more about Shakespeare’s tools for tragedy.

The Honesty of Lady Macbeth

It is not easy to condemn her as the culprit behind the whole thing, though. Lady Macbeth says about her husband: “Thou wouldst be great; / Art not without ambition”; she knows he wants greatness but is too cowardly to act for it. She says, “What thou wouldst highly, / That wouldst thou holily; wouldst not play false, / And yet wouldst wrongly win”. 

She is, in a way, the more sincere one out of the two, the one who accepts her husband’s desire, wrong as it may be. As a solution, she lends him her resolve, saying “Hie thee hither, / That I may pour my spirits in thine ear, / And chastise with the valour of my tongue / All that impedes thee from the golden round”. 

Indeed, compared to her, Macbeth is the hypocrite. This power shift is another common feature of Shakespearean tragedies. 

It is at this point in the play that the imminent arrival of the king is announced, and a deeply thrilling, yet unsettling aspect of Lady Macbeth’s personality is revealed. 

This is a transcript from the video series How to Read and Understand Shakespeare. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Lady Macbeth’s Powerful Womanhood

Upon hearing of the arrival of her husband with the king, Lady Macbeth utters the following words: 

“Come, you spirits

That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here, And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full Of direst cruelty! make thick my blood;

…………… ………….

Come to my woman’s breasts,

And take my milk for gall, you murdering ministers, Wherever in your sightless substances

You wait on nature’s mischief! Come, thick night, And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell,

That my keen knife see not the wound it makes,

Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark,

To cry “Hold, hold!” ” 

In this remarkable prayer to “murdering ministers”, she asks them to “unsex” her, make her masculine or genderless, to do the dark deed she plans to do.

She then asks them to nurse themselves on her milk, and for that milk to become “gall”, not the stuff of life but of anger and murder. She asks for a night dark as hell to hide the wound she intends to make in Duncan’s body, and for heaven not to see what she does and not to stop her. This is an intense portrayal of her powerful womanhood.

At this moment, Macbeth himself enters. He tells her that Duncan will be staying in their castle that night, and she responds that he shall never leave. Macbeth is hesitant and unwilling to commit to the idea of murder, so Lady Macbeth says “Leave all the rest to me”.

The pair then graciously greets and welcomes King Duncan in the next scene, and then we have a scene of the two of them alone once again. This leads the play toward an impassioned soliloquy from Macbeth against the killing. He realizes that the act doesn’t end when committed: it would return to haunt the doer, “return / To plague th’inventor: this even-handed Justice / Commends th’ingredience of our poison’d chalice / To our own lips”. 

Then, he realizes that as his host and subject, he is required to keep the king safe. He lists all of King Duncan’s virtues, which “will plead like angels” and invoke heaven’s pity should he be harmed.

Macbeth concludes with “I have no spur / To prick the sides of my intent, but only / Vaulting ambition.” It is at this point that Macbeth’s better intentions are interrupted by his wife. 

The picture shows black and white digital drawing of Lady Macbeth.
Although Macbeth does not wish to kill King Duncan, it is his wife who forces him to commit the murder.
(Image: drawhunter/Shutterstock)

Lady Macbeth, however, doesn’t give in to his unwillingness to proceed. She attacks Macbeth’s courage and manhood, “From this time / Such I account thy love”, and further, “When you durst do it, then you were a man; / And, to be more than what you were, you would / Be so much more the man”. 

Now, this is a hard saying for a fighting man like Macbeth to take. But she then takes it to another level: “I have given suck, and know / How tender ‘tis to love the babe that milks me,” she says. But then: “I would, while it was smiling in my face, / Have pluck’d my nipple from his boneless gums, / And dash’d the brains out, had I so sworn / As you have done to this”.

She asserts her knowledge of motherhood, but then says that if she had taken an oath to kill Duncan as Macbeth has (although actually we have not heard him swear to this), then she would take the nursing child and knock its brains out.

The speech has seen the responses from various critics over the centuries. Renowned Romantic poet and Shakespearean critic Samuel Taylor Coleridge said: 

“Though usually thought to prove a merciless and unwomanly nature, [this passage] proves the direct opposite: she brings it as the most solemn enforcement to Macbeth of the solemnity of his promise.”

Getting to the Plan

By this time, it is clear that Lady Macbeth is the key figure of the plot. When Macbeth asks her the outcome of their possible failure, she responds, “screw your courage to the sticking-place / And we’ll not fail”. After that, she unfolds the entire plot for him, how they would get the guards drunk, sneak in, kill Duncan, lay the blame on the guards, and so on and so forth.  

Not only does this convince Macbeth, but also puts him in awe of her apparent masculinity. “Bring forth men-children only!” he declares. “For thy undaunted mettle should compose / Nothing but males. … I am settled, and bend up / Each corporeal agent to this terrible feat”.

It’s as if this powerful woman enhances Macbeth’s own manly qualities—if we think that betrayal and murder are manly qualities.

Learn more about Shakespeare’s theater and stagecraft.

Common Questions about the Tragedy of Lady Macbeth

Q: Who is Lady Macbeth?

The titular character’s wife in Shakespeare’s popular tragedy, Macbeth, Lady Macbeth is an ambitious woman, who plots King Duncan’s murder.

Q: Who does Lady Macbeth murder?

While Lady Macbeth does not murder anyone herself, she is the one who goads her husband into killing King Duncan. Following this murder, Macbeth goes on to kill several other characters, including his friend Banquo and Banquo’s friend, Fleance.

Q: Why is Macbeth reticent to kill the king?

Macbeth is unwilling to kill King Duncan as he knows that the king is a virtuous man.

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