women of literature

Lady Macbeth

Lady Macbeth is one of the leading characters in the tragedy Macbeth written by William Shakespeare. She is the wife of Macbeth, a Scottish nobleman who is the hero of the play. She urges her husband into committing regicide, after which she becomes the queen of Scotland. The role of Lady Macbeth has attracted several noble actresses over the centuries, such as Vivien Leigh, Judi Dench, Alex Kingston, or Marion Cotillard to name a few.

Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth, 1889 by John Singer Sargent

Lady Macbeth in Macbeth

The first appearance of Lady Macbeth is when she learns in a letter from her husband that three witches have prophesied his future as king, in the scene five of the first act. Later, when King Duncan becomes her overnight guest, she sees in it the opportunity to realise his murder. As she thinks that her husband is too kind for committing a regicide, she plots the murder carefully and then she persuades her husband.

When the king retires after a night of feasting, Lady Macbeth drugs his attendants and lays daggers ready for the commission of the crime. She waits nearby while Macbeth kills the sleeping king. Then he brings the daggers from the king’s room, and she orders him to return them to the crime scene, but he refuses. So, she carries the daggers to the room and smears the drugged attendants with blood. Then the couple retire to wash their hands. When Duncan’s sons flee the land, they fear for their lives and Macbeth is appointed king.

After this, Macbeth plots other murders to secure the throne, but without consulting with his wife. She has a powerful presence in the play, especially in the first two acts, however after the murder of King Duncan, the importance of her role diminishes becoming an uninvolved spectator to her husband’s plotting. She is also a nervous hostess at a banquet, being dominated by her husband’s hallucinations.

Her last appearance in the play is the sleepwalk scene, which is one of the most celebrated scenes not only from Macbeth, but in all of Shakespeare.

With the exception of few closing lines, the scene is entirely in prose, being Lady Macbeth the only major character in Shakespeare tragedies to make a last appearance without verse. Generally, Shakespeare assigned prose to characters exhibiting an abnormal state of mind or condition such as somnambulism, since the regular rhythm of verse is inappropriate to characters who lost their equilibrium of mind. Lady Macbeth’s recollections – the blood on her hand, the striking of the clock, her husband’s reluctance – are brought forth from her disordered mind randomly with each image deepening her anguish.

She dies off-stage in the last act of the play, apparently, she committed suicide.

In Art

As it happens with other Shakespeare plays, Macbeth have appeared and been reinterpreted in many forms of art and culture since it was written in the early 16th century, especially in films and in literature, but also in the visual arts.

Great artists such as Henry Fuseli, Rossetti or John Singer Sargent found in Macbeth the inspiration to some of their works. Among the women artists, I could find only an sculpture by American artist Elisabet Ney.

Detail of Lady Macbeth by Elisabet Ney

Curiosities:

  • Her sleepwalking scene in the 5th act is a turning point in the play. Her line “out, damned spot!” has become a phrase familiar to many speakers of English.
  • The report of her death late in the 5th act provides the inspiration for Macbeth’s “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” speech.
  • Lady Macbeth’s compulsive washing of her hands to rid them of blood is reminiscent of hand washing common among sufferers from obsessive-compulsive disorder.
  • Her role was understood sometimes as an anti-mother or even as a witch.

References:

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