“Something wicked this way comes…” A Feminist Perspective on Shakespeare’s MACBETH


Lady Macbeth is Shakespeare’s sister (must read). Imagine her as a precocious young child. She can read, so we know she has some level of education. She knows the whos and whats of court life. She wants to be involved in what is going on around her. She is not a complacent housewife. She ministers her duties as a hostess and as lady of the house well because it gives her a realm of her own to manage, with servants in her employ, while also giving her an active part in the social goings on of the political arena.

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Judi Dench as the formidable Lady in Trevor Nunn’s 1979 production

“For it needs little skill in psychology to be sure that a highly gifted girl who had tried to use her gift for poetry would have been so thwarted and hindered by other people, so tortured and pulled asunder by her own contrary instincts, that she must have lost her health and sanity to a certainty.” (Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own)

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Patrick Stewart and Kate Freetwood in Rupert Goold’s MACBETH (2010)

Lady Macbeth’s close relationship with her husband – the writing back and forth, and caring so much for what he is doing in the field – has less to do with her marital devotion and more to do with her desire to know what is happening in the outside world. Because she cannot herself participate in politics or the military, she must use her husband’s eyes to see what she is not privileged to see.

Just as Macbeth serves as her eyes outside the home, he must also be her pawn within the home. He is her tool for participating in politics. She needs him to know what is going on and she needs him to execute (no pun intended) what she, as a woman, cannot. Her psychological allegiance between his actions (the murder of Duncan) and her hands (stained with imaginary blood) highlights the link between her thoughts, or “spirit,” and his male person.

Judi Dench performing the sleepwalking scene from Trevor Nunn’s 1979 A PERFORMANCE OF MACBETH

As with Shakespeare’s sister, gender barriers have condemned Lady Macbeth to a life of crime. If a woman in her day had been permitted or encouraged to participate in politics, she would have been able to release her pent-up energies of intelligence and ambition in more legitimate ways. Instead, she was required by custom to marry a man of lesser abilities than she herself possessed, but whom she could easily manipulate.

This twisted arrangement necessitates tropes of manipulation, insanity, and hysteria, and innate cruelty which are then associated with the female sex, though they originate in the misogynistic expectations bestowed upon women by the patriarchal society which then suppresses their early precocity and engenders dissatisfaction and frustration. Within the narrative of Shakespeare’s play, this exasperation is released through murder, though in reality it is often manifested in insanity or suicide.

“English folklore reflects in “mad-songs” and ballads an ancient association of madness, confinement, and women.” (Elaine Showalter, Victorian Women and Insanity)

Lady Macbeth’s desire to be “unsexed” and the violent imagery she uses to distance herself from maternal presuppositions, proves that she wishes to break down the gender barriers that prevent her from pursuing her ambition. The deliberate androgyny of the weird sisters who portend the fate of Macbeth further illustrates the “unnatural” role these women adopt when they dare to speak and attempt to influence events.

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Henry Fuseli’s “The Three Witches” (1783)

Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt attributes Macbeth’s irrational actions to the Machiavellian theory that men “need to fight from ambition, which passion is so powerful in the hearts of men that it never leaves them.” Greenblatt also cites St. Augustine as stating that “evil in it’s more radical form is gratuitous – that is, without an explicable rationale or motivation.” The source of the evil referenced here is Lady Macbeth herself, whom Greenblatt describes as “radically disenchanted,” “coolly sceptical,” and that her reassurances to Macbeth that the murder can be undertaken without fear of guilty conscience are “hopelessly shallow.”

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John Singer Sargent’s “Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth” (1889)

By dismissing the murder as an irrational male reflex, and underrating Lady Macbeth’s role as merely the manipulative wife, Greenblatt’s argument is oblivious to the complex socially-constructed pressures against which Lady Macbeth is reacting. When read through the lens of the female experience, it is clear that the realization of success so close at hand, but yet out of reach, proves too much a temptation for the ambitious Lady Macbeth. She is willing to finally break clear of the chains that have bound her sex, not by deconstructing the gender roles, but by rejecting her gender altogether.

Lady Macbeth’s “desexing” is too radical, so she and all who conspired with her must be violently destroyed. The silent femininity of Macduff’s wife, and the domesticity which she and her house-bound children represent, is made the glorified victim to Lady Macbeth’s radical awakening.

Although the message of the play can be read that nothing but death and destruction follow a woman who steps out of the “female sphere,” there is another reading: a society that suppresses half its population, and consequently half its genius, is doomed to failure. A society that permits all forms of genius to be incorporated into the political and economic realm not only harnesses their resources, but also avoids those scenarios in which the repressed classes are forced to unleash their energies through violence and destruction.

And they say Shakespeare is no longer relevant. Pshaw!


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