Female Evil in Shakespeare

Lady Macbeth's Influence on the Development of William Shakespeare's "Macbeth"

Term Paper, 2015

17 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Gender Roles in the Shakespearian Play Macbeth

3. Lady Macbeth's Influence on the Plot oiMacbeth
3.1 Act One - Lady Macbeth as Decision-Maker
3.2 Act Two - The Plan Succeeds
3.3 Act Three - Keeping Up Appearances
3.4 Act Five - Getting to Feel the Consequences

4. Conclusion

5. Bibliography

1. Introduction

“Hie thee hither, | That I may pour my spirits in thine ear” (Lott I960, 33) - These words are spoken by Lady Macbeth in her first appearance in William Shakespeare's play \-lacbelh. which he wrote in 1607. Lady Macbeth sets up her plan immediately after having read Macbeth's letter (cf. ibid., 31/33) in which he reports of three witches' prophecies of him being thane of Glamis, becoming thane of Cawdor and finally King. After the fulfilment of the first prophecy that Macbeth would become thane of Cawdor, it is no question for Lady Macbeth that her husband should and will become the King of Scotland. So she does not hesitate to take the decision to talk him into murdering the present King. The consequences of her decision and her following behaviour will be ex­amined in this term paper: How does Lady Macbeth promote Macbeth's plot? How does she manipulate other characters, especially her husband, and what is the aftermath? What effect does her behaviour have on herself? These questions will be answered in the examination of the role ofLady Macbeth.

Another important passage taken from the same scene quoted before is: “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!” (ibid., 35; accentuation MJ). These words lead to the discourse of gender roles in the Shakespearian play. In his article “Resexing Lady Macbeth's Gender - and Ours” (in: Gajowski (ed.) 2009, pp. 25 - 49), Bruce R. Smith explores exactly this discourse with reference to the M\mt\ Macbeth. Therefore, when it comes to examine Lady Macbeth and the effect she has on the play, this should be re­flected by referring to the role of men and women at that time and how Shakespeare deals with it.

After having outlined the discourse of gender and, after that, Lady Macbeth's be­haviour in and effect on the play, a short conclusion will sum up the results of this term paper and try to answer the question: In how far does Lady Macbeth act in a (fe)male way and how does her role affect William Shakespeare's play Macbeth'-

2. Gender Roles in the Shakespearian Play Macbeth

Bruce R. Smith examines Lady Macbeth's role as being a woman in Shakespearian times who wants to “unsex” herself to be able to commit a murder. In the article “Re­sexing Lady Macbeth's Gender - and Ours” (in: Gajowski (ed.) 2009, pp. 25 - 49) he declares that “Macbeth [... i]s the first in a sequence of scripts by Shakespeare that fea­ture strong female protagonists.” (Smith 2009, in: Gajowski (ed.) 2009, 26). By that he underlines the importance of Lady Macbeth being a female character in the play. How­ever, Lady Macbeth does not represent the typical woman in the Elizabethan Age: her role “confirmed models of acceptable female behaviour by representing one particularly horrific counter-example.” (Smith 2009, in: Gajowski (ed.) 2009, 27). Smith clarifies that the question concerning Lady Macbeth's femaleness is not easily answered. His article, therefore, deals with the acknowledged gender roles in the beginning of the 17th century and in how far Lady Macbeth accords to or contradicts this.

First the author writes about the physical aspect of being a woman: “If she has breasts capable of giving milk, she has no choice [...] but to speak of her female gender in biological terms. Giving milk is [...] a marker of womanliness” (cf. Rackin 1999, in: Smith 2009, in: Gajowski (ed.) 2009, 26). This fact is given in the case of Lady Macbeth; nevertheless, she does not have a child, and Smith even writes about “her re­fusal of child-bearing as a female obligation” (Smith 2009, in: Gajowski (ed.) 2009, 27) which shows that she does not adopt the typical image of a woman even though she def­initely is physically a woman. In her first two monologues it is striking that “the lan­guage stresses the femininity of Lady Macbeth's body” (Leggat (ed.) 2006, 140) as it seems to be in contrast to be 'unsexed'. However, this even underlines the change she has to go through now to be able to do what she intends, i.e. committing regicide. Moreover, in her essay “'A Strange Infirmity': Lady Macbeth's Amenorrhea” (1980, in: Leggat (ed.) 2006, pp. 71 - 74) Jenijoy La Belle refers to the “bond between mind and body” (La Belle 1980, in: Leggat (ed.) 2006, 71) because of which Lady Macbeth wishes to dispose of her “biological characteristics of femininity [...] to achieve an un­feminine consciousness capable of murdering Duncan.” (ibid.). A striking example of this is the assumption that when she says “make thick my blood, | Stop up th' access and passage to remorse” (Lott I960, 35) she wants her body to stop her menstruation which is, as La Belle states, the “event in a woman's life [...] that repeatedly reminds her of her sex.” (La Belle 1980, in: Leggat (ed.) 2006, 72).

Smith goes on with explaining the Aristotelian description of maleness and fe­maleness which was still valid in the 16th and 17th century: “the female is less spirited than the male; [...] the female is softer in disposition, is more mischievous, less simple, more impulsive, and more attentive to the nurture of the young” (Barnes, in: Smith 2009, in: Gajowski (ed.) 2009, 30). When adopting these elements to Lady Macbeth some differences become obvious: Lady Macbeth even literally summons her “spirits” (Lott I960, 35) which shall help her to be brave and calm enough to be able to commit a murder which she feels very confident about. In addition to that she also seems not to be “softer”. However, as she reveals her well-thought-out plan to her husband in Act One, scene seven, the audience can guess that she in fact belongs to the “more mischievous, less simple, more impulsive” gender. In these descriptions Lady Macbeth fits into the category of femaleness. The last argument, again, is not suitable for Lady Macbeth because, as I already pointed out, she refuses to have a child. Aristotle goes even further and sets up the standard that “the male is by nature superior, and the female inferior; and the one rules, and the other is ruled” (Barnes, in: Smith 2009, in: Gajowski (ed.) 2009, 30). In the case of Lady Macbeth and her husband this is not correct at all as well; but this point will be illustrated in the third chapter of this term paper.

In the following Smith deals with “Galenic medicine” (Smith 2009, in: Gajowski (ed.) 2009, 30) which describes the in Shakespearian times acknowledged notion of how different personalities and characters come into being. Galenic medicine also “elaborated the material differences between male and female” (ibid.). According to that “[a] womans [sic] mind is not so strong as a man's [...] nor is she so full of understand­ing and reason andjudgement, and upon every small occasion she casts off the bridle of reason” (Lemnius 1658, 274, in: Smith 2009, in: Gajowski (ed.) 2009, 31) which leads to the same results as Aristotle's descriptions. Similar to that, further explanations of the “Dutch physician” (Smith 2009, in: Gajowski (ed.) 2009, 48) say: “a woman is quickly angry and flaming hot, and rageth strangely; but this rage and crying out, is soon abated, and grows calm in a body that is not so strong and valiant, and that is more moyst; and all her heat and fury is quenched by her shedding of teares, as if you should throw water upon fire to put it out.” (Lemnius 1658, 274, in: Smith 2009, in: Gajowski 2009, 31)

All these aspects apply to Lady Macbeth's character as she is impulsive and gets very angry and upset when her husband doubts her intention (cf. Lott I960, 45). However, these characteristics are combined to her being not weak but strong in mind which ap­pears to be a threatening mixture. Throughout the whole preparation and completion of her plan to murder the King she feels confident about it and her “rage” is not “soon abated”. Nevertheless, she falls back into the idea of the typical woman of the Eliza­bethan Age in the end of the play when she shows “sleeplessness, [...] obsession with washing away her guilt, [and a ...] hopeless physical condition at the hands of her male physician” (Smith 2009, in: Gajowski (ed.) 2009, 27), but this, again, will be examined in chapter three.

Furthermore, Shakespeare presents direct links to Galenic medicine in his play when he gives Lady Macbeth the words “make thick my blood” (Lott I960, 35) and “take my milk for gall” (ibid.).


Excerpt out of 17 pages


Female Evil in Shakespeare
Lady Macbeth's Influence on the Development of William Shakespeare's "Macbeth"
University of Duisburg-Essen  (Anglophone Studies)
A Survey of British Literature
Catalog Number
ISBN (Book)
Macbeth, William Shakespeare, Women, Analysis, Gender, Lady Macbeth
Quote paper
Master of Education Marie Sophie Jendrusch (Author), 2015, Female Evil in Shakespeare, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/1236021


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