The Different Representations of Lady Macbeth’s Character in Shakespeare’s Tragedy and in Kurzel’s Adaptation

Term Paper, 2019

14 Pages, Grade: 1.7

Elli Elsan (Author)



1. Introduction

2. On Theory: Important Terms

3. The ideal Elizabethan Woman

4. Analysis of Lady Macbeth in Shakespeare’s Macbeth
4.1 Lady Macbeth between femininity and masculinity
4.2 Lady Macbeth as a wife

5. Analysis of Lady Macbeth in Kurzel’s Adaptation
5.1 Lady Macbeth the grieving mother?
5.2 Sexual intercourse as a medium of conviction

6. Comparing Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth to Kurzel’s Lady Macbeth

7. Conclusion


Primary Sources

Secondary Sources

1. Introduction

William Shakespeare (bapt. 26 April 1564 – 23 April 1616) was an English poet and playwright, who wrote his poems and plays during the Renaissance. He is known for his various works of literature. “Sonnet 18”, Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet are only a few examples of his famous works. His unique plays are dealing with different topics, showing wide knowledge of human behaviour expressed through a vast range of characters. Shakespeare’s works are still read and taught not only in school and university but also play a role in our daily lives; his topics are still relevant today. According to the Guinness Book of World Records: Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets have been adapted into more than 420 films and TV-Movie versions. Macbeth was filmed 37 times. The most recent Macbeth adaptation is from 2015 by Justin Kurzel.

This term paper will focus on Kurzel’s adaptation, more precisely it will focus on one of Shakespeare’s most controversial characters: Lady Macbeth. Reading Shakespeare offers the reader the opportunity to interpret Lady Macbeth in different ways. While some adaptations present Lady Macbeth as an evil woman who has a masculine side, others present her more as a potent person and give her an empowering touch, there are also people who might see her as a victim of her devotion to her husband.

Focussing on the female gender, this paper will analyse and compare how Lady Macbeth is presented and illustrated in Shakespeare’s original play and in Kurzel’s Adaptation. First, the paper is going to give a general overview on ‘Feminist Theory’ by introducing key terms that are significant for the analysis. Then it will give a short overview of the characteristics of an ideal Elizabethan woman.

The main part will focus on two scenes, in which Lady Macbeth is actively present. After deconstructing the selected Lady Macbeth scenes, in the source text and in the adaptation, it will compare them to each other. Therefore, the main part of this paper will analyse the character of Lady Macbeth focussing on the female gender and compare how she is represented in the book and in the movie. It will pay attention to the historical context, speech, gestures and mimics, but also on costumes and setting.

2. On Theory: Important Terms

This chapter will have a short look at Feminism. After that it will focus on ‘Feminist Theory itself and will explain certain key terms that are relevant for the then following analysis of Lady Macbeth.

Commonly, we speak of three waves of modern feminism. The first wave took place in the late nineteenth century. The main goal of said movement was to create societal opportunities for women. The focus on suffrage and the difference between women and men also played an important role.

The second wave took place in the 1960s and continued for about thirty years. Dominant issues during that time were sexuality and reproductive rights. Compared to the first wave this wave was increasingly radical but also increasingly theoretical, based on different theories and their fusion. The goal of the second wave was to pass the ‘Equal Rights Amendment’ to the Constitution and therefore social equality.

The third wave of feminism began in the mid-90’s. Many constructs like body, gender and sexuality were destabilized. Wearing high-heels and lipstick was no longer linked to being a result of male oppression. Women now were strong and empowered, defining feminine beauty for themselves as subjects. Ethnical differences or differences of class and sexual orientation are now celebrated (Rampton).

“Feminist theory challenges patriarchal ideology and questions how ‘ideas’ themselves are produced, assessed and distributed in our society” (Chedgzoy 50). Feminist criticism is based on feminist theories and is a form of literary criticism. „All feminist activity, including feminist theory and literary criticism, has as its ultimate goal to change the world by promoting women’s equality“ (Tyson 92). More precisely, feminist criticism uses feminist theories to criticize literature, by focusing on the woman in social, political and economic aspects of life.

An important assumption in this field is the differentiation of the terms sex, gender and sexuality. While sex refers to our anatomy, gender refers to our behavior as socially programmed men and women. Gender categories are constructed by society; therefore, gender is constructed by society. Sexuality or sexual orientation basically describes physical and emotional attraction. A woman’s anatomy has been used to justify the idea that men are superior to women (86f).

Judith Butler works on gender, identity and sexuality, influencing, among other fields, feminist and literary theory. In her opinion “the action of gender requires a performance that is repeated” (Butler 178), therefore gender is performed. Traditional gender roles are being adapted and repeated, so they feel “natural” to us.

Further, traditional gender roles support the oppression of women: for instance, women are still underrepresented in leading positions, because traditional gender roles cast them as more emotional than rational, or as the weaker sex (Tyson 86f).

3. The ideal Elizabethan Woman

In order to understand and analyse Lady Macbeth’s character, it is of significance to have a look at history. This chapter will focus on Caroll Camden’s book The Elizabethan Woman and will give an overview of characteristics that an ideal Elizabethan woman was supposed to own.

Religion played an important role in the lives of Elizabethan women. Religion was the foundation of their lives; it taught the Englishwoman important values and “its teachings made her defer to the wishes of the father and later of the husband” (Camden 40). Women were taught “virtue, prudence, temperance and generosity” (40) from an early age on. The most important ones were virtue or chastity. It was seen as a protection of women and their pure souls (41).

As a wife, the woman is subordinate to her husband. The marriage contract clearly specifies that the wife must obey the superior husband and therefore that they are not equal. Her duty is to love her husband and “consider him as a divine and holy being” (121). The ideal woman was supposed to respect her husband and honour him as her lord and master, she was supposed to submit herself to him and to obey him in almost every manner (121).

The ideal Elizabethan wife must always put her husband first. His welfare is more important than her own. She will do anything to make her husband happy, to help him achieve his goals, for his wealth and his health. But she was not allowed to do anything without asking her husband for permission and discussing matters with him. Therefore, the Elizabethan wife was supposed to look out for her husband’s feelings and put them first, “a good wife will never provoke her husband to anger but will rather let her mood correspond to his” (123). So her own feelings and her mood must correspond to her husband’s, sometimes this ends in ignoring her real feelings just to perform the duties expected from her (128).

Besides her duties towards her husband, the Elizabethan wife also had duties concerning the household. Women or girls were taught how to cook, how to keep the house clean and wash clothes, also other skills like spinning and sewing were taught (43). Having maids and servants meant instructing them, teaching them and controlling their work (13).

It is obvious that people in the Elizabethan era had distinct notions on how a woman was supposed to be like. They expected them to be submissive and put their husbands first, sometimes resulting in neglecting their own feelings and needs.

4. Analysis of Lady Macbeth in Shakespeare’s Macbeth

The following will analyse Lady Macbeth’s character in the source text. It will focus on Act 1 Scene 5 and 7. The focus will be on how Lady Macbeth could be interpreted in relation to her gender and her behaviour including the historical context as a criterion and summarizing the main characteristics of Lady Macbeth. As it is the first time in Scene 7 that Lady Macbeth and her husband conduct a somewhat longer dialogue, analysing its’ dynamics enriches the aim of the analysis immensely, as it gives further insight into their relationship.

4.1 Lady Macbeth between femininity and masculinity

Lady Macbeth wants to be less feminine and more masculine in order to achieve her husband’s goals. Lady Macbeth fears that her husband “is too full o ‘th’ milk of human kindness” (Macbeth 1.5.14-15) to do what, in her opinion, must be done to become King. In the Elizabethan era people believed that there was a bond between mind and body, that’s why Lady Macbeth wants to be unsexed physically or biologically in order to free herself from the psychological characteristics of femininity and become more masculine (La Belle 381f). By being “unsexed” and giving up her femininity, Lady Macbeth hopes to gain qualities that were considered masculine and not feminine. “Traditional gender roles cast men as rational, strong, protective, and decisive; they cast women as emotional (irrational), weak, nurturing and submissive” (Tyson58). She hopes to become decisive and ruthless – more like a warrior, in order to acquire the necessary strength to kill the king and make her husband the new king.

On the one hand Lady Macbeth fulfils the gender role society has set. Lady Macbeth is highly aware of her sex, when she talks about her “woman’s breast” (Macbeth 1.5.45) and therefore she is also aware of gender roles. She puts her husband and his needs first and she is devoted to her husband, like it was expected from a woman during this period of history. Her devotion is the reason for her wanting to help her husband to achieve his goals – the kingship. She says, “leave all the rest to me” (Macbeth 1.5.71), expressing that she is willing to help and do whatever it takes.

On the other hand, Lady Macbeth has characteristics that are contrary to the ideal of an Elizabethan woman. Lady Macbeth thinks that her husband is flawed. While the ideal Elizabethan woman “must consider her [husband] as a divine and holy being” (Camden 121), Lady Macbeth considers her husband as being too weak, to kill the king. She knows that he is ambitious, but he is “without the illness” (Macbeth 1.5.17-18) to do something that is vicious. Also doing something as a woman on your own without asking for permission or telling your husbands was very uncommon. By calling evil entities Lady Macbeth tries to take control over the situation, even though she tries to help her husband, an Elizabethan woman “must not engage in any business ventures without discussing the matter with her husband” (Camden 128).

In this scene Lady Macbeth appears for the first time. Even though the scene is quite short, it does reveal a lot of information. The reader does not only get to know Macbeth’s thoughts written in the letter, read by Lady Macbeth, but most importantly and mainly the reader is introduced to Lady Macbeth’s character. Lady Macbeth is already thinking about planning to murder the king in order to make her husband successor. She seems ruthless and wants to become even more evil and more masculine to be able to do what it takes for her husband to achieve his goals. She radiates loyalty towards her husband, that corresponds to the idea of an Elizabethan woman but at the same time she is willing to cross a line and to violate Christian values.

4.2 Lady Macbeth as a wife

Lady Macbeth does not act submissive towards her husband. She does not “carry herself as inferior” (Camden 121), but more so she seems equal to her husband or in this scene maybe even dominant. The way she talks to her husband shows that she does not obey, even though Macbeth clearly signalises her to, when it comes to killing the king. He demands that they “will proceed no further in this business” (Macbeth 1.7.32). Lady Macbeth hopes that she can convince her husband and argues with him. During Shakespeare’s time, it was common that the marriage contract clearly specified that the wife is inferior to her husband and therefore must obey. She is rejecting her traditional gender role, because “she is convinced that she must divest herself of her femininity if she is to have any effect on the public life of her husband” (Carolyn Asp 160).

Lady Macbeth is the manipulative force behind the murder. Only by using words, Lady Macbeth is trying to persuade her husband into killing the king, after he decided for himself that he has “no spur to prick the sides of [his] intent” (Macbeth 1.7.25-26). She manages to reach her aim by challenging Macbeth’s manhood and using traditional gender roles against him. “Lady Macbeth’s idea of masculinity is devastatingly conventional: a man is one who acts” (Dusinberre 284). She calls him a “coward” (Macbeth 1.7.43) and says that he was a man only when he wanted to kill the king. “[I]t is considered unmanly for men to show fear […] or to express their sympathy for other men” (Tyson 87). Macbeth fears to kill the king and shows sympathy for him, for Lady Macbeth this is a clear sign that he is weak, and, in her opinion, he is not a real man.

Lady Macbeth is still trying to detach herself from femininity. In this scene her aggressiveness and the lack of empathy showed by Lady Macbeth is especially noticeable. She persuades her husband, for instance by saying “I have given suck, and know [h]ow tender ‘tis to love the babe that milks me: I would, while it was smiling in my face, [h]ave pluck’d my nipple from his boneless gums, [a]nd dash’d the brains out, had I so sworn” (Macbeth 1.7.54-58). She is trying to adopt the characteristics that she wants to see in a man, for example being strong, aggressive and most importantly she wants to show Macbeth that she would not fail because “failure in any domain implies failure in one’s manhood“ (Tyson 87).

Recapitulating, this scene reveals how Lady Macbeth acts in her marriage and towards her husband. She seems to be equal to her husband and does not fit into the submissive role. She is provocative and manipulating, she knows her husband very well and knows what she has to say to make him do what she wants. She uses his weakness against him showing little empathy and is successful in doing so.

5. Analysis of Lady Macbeth in Kurzel’s Adaptation

The following will focus on Lady Macbeth, played by Marion Cotillard, in Kurzel’s Adaptation Macbeth (2015). It will analyse how she is represented and illustrated in the context to the female gender, focussing on setting, colours, acting and the language.

5.1 Lady Macbeth the grieving mother?

The scene that matches Act 1 Scene 5 in the source text can be considered as three shorter scenes in the movie. The first one includes Lady Macbeth reading her husband’s letter preceding a short scene in which Macbeth comes back from a battle and enters the church, and finally we have the last scene in which a dialogue between Lady Macbeth and Macbeth takes place.

The first scene in the movie is the burial of Lady Macbeth’s and Macbeth’s child. (Macbeth. 2015: TC 00:01:02 – 00:02:06). Such scene does not exist in Shakespeare’s original play. Lady Macbeth says that she has “given suck” (Macbeth 1.7.54) meaning that she nursed a child, so Shakespeare indicates that Lady Macbeth had at least one child before, but he does not imply how many and when she had them. This scene has an important meaning regarding her character and the way she is presented. It can be assumed that this could be the reason why Lady Macbeth’s hardened ego calls for those ‘spirits’ to come to her breasts and take her milk for ‘gall’” (Behera and Dutta 27).

Another difference, compared to the source text, is the fact that Lady Macbeth’s monologue has been shortened and the chronological order of her text has been changed. This results in a longer dialogue between her and her husband (Macbeth. 2015: TC 00:18:30 – 00:23:50).

The first of the three scenes (source text Act 1 Scene 5) takes place in a chapel. It is a small, cottage-like building with only a few lit candles and a little window to illuminate it. The whole scene is filmed with little light, so it is dark and gloomy in there. Darkness is often associated with the evil, putting Lady Macbeth, completely dressed in black, in a dark chapel could give some viewers the feeling that Lady Macbeth herself is a dark and gloomy or even an evil person. The fact that she seemingly does not feel uncomfortable but is rather calm, can support that (Macbeth. 2015: TC 00:18:30 – 00:20:42).


Excerpt out of 14 pages


The Different Representations of Lady Macbeth’s Character in Shakespeare’s Tragedy and in Kurzel’s Adaptation
University of Bonn
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
Shakespeare, Macbeth, Lady Macbeth
Quote paper
Elli Elsan (Author), 2019, The Different Representations of Lady Macbeth’s Character in Shakespeare’s Tragedy and in Kurzel’s Adaptation, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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