Lady Macbeth Is Not Evil; You Guys Are Just Sexist

A Psychoanalytic and Feminist Look into One of Literature’s Most (In)famous Women

Focusing on the character of Lady Macbeth provides an in-depth analysis of how Shakespeare uses the limitations of traditional gender roles to create conflict within Macbeth (1606). The murder of King Duncan serves as a turning point for the play: prior to this event, gender roles appear to be reversed for Lady Macbeth and her husband, as she is the more dominant figure within the relationship, whereas afterwards, it is she who succumbs to guilt and eventually commits suicide despite her initial determination and pertinacity. Therefore, the question this essay will answer is why this is the case. Freud himself has tried to give a reason for the sudden shift in Lady Macbeth’s demeanor, but has failed to come up with a definitive answer (320). Many psychoanalysts including Freud attribute it to her not having a child, but he deems her change in behavior too quick for this to be true (322). To understand this peculiar change in her character, this essay will examine her through psychoanalysis and Anglo-American feminist criticism. It is virtually impossible to separate feminist theory from psychoanalytic criticism, as a significant portion of the former is a response to the latter. Thus, using these two approaches combined, I will provide a character analysis of Lady Macbeth and specifically argue that the reason she goes insane towards the end of the play is not childlessness, but rather the failure of her marriage. I will also contend that following this analysis and contrary to typical characterizations, Lady Macbeth is not evil, but rather a product of the patriarchal forces that drive her to the murder of Duncan and eventually result in her psychological collapse.

Feminist theory looks at the power relations within a text, so in order to understand Lady Macbeth’s character and her eventual demise, we must first examine the dynamic between her and her husband, and the extent to which they adhere to traditional gender roles within their relationship. Such roles entail the assumption that men are brave, commanding and determined, while women are warm, nurturing, and subservient. The play establishes this binary in Act 1. Firstly, Lady Macbeth sees it as her husband’s manly duty to elevate their status and improve their lives by killing Duncan, but Macbeth has some doubts. Thus, Lady Macbeth claims, “when you durst do it, then you were a man” (1.7.56), equating manliness with courage and violence. Similarly, Lady Macbeth as the wife has certain responsibilities that she has to fulfill. For instance, when Duncan arrives in Inverness, he repeatedly refers to Lady Macbeth as “our honored hostess” (1.6.13) or “fair and noble hostess” (1.6.30). As the wife, Lady Macbeth is expected to cater to her husband and his companions. In addition, Lady Macbeth is essentially nameless, and therefore “is not initially defined in her own right but regarded as an extension of her husband” (Liston 234). She is judged not on her own merits, but on her husband’s. In this way, the play effectively demonstrates the roles that both Macbeths are expected to conform to, but it also sheds light on the problematic nature of these obligations specifically for women by having the roles switched for the couple. Being defined by her husband and not “in her own right” creates certain problems in the development of Lady Macbeth’s identity. According to psychoanalyst Georg Simmel, it is virtually impossible for women to build an autonomous identity in a male-dominated world (Vromen 564). Therefore, any ambition Lady Macbeth has is essentially for her husband, and must be realized through her husband. Her goal is not for herself to become queen, but rather for her husband to become king. We can see this inner conflict in her soliloquy in Act 1 Scene 5, where she says:

“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.” (1.5.47-50)

Lady Macbeth is determined to help her husband obtain the crown, but sees her gender as an obstacle and hence wants to be “unsexed”. Instead of being loving and nurturing as she is expected to be, she wants to be cold and remorseless. Since these are typically male qualities, this is where she strays away from traditional gender roles. Her divergence can be seen as a result of what Elizabeth Janeway calls “social castration” (Gilbert 272). She argues that women lack the social freedom and autonomy that men have, and therefore are figuratively castrated (Gilbert 273). In this context, Lady Macbeth’s determination and ambition can be seen as her trying to make up for this lack. Furthermore, a closer look at the dynamic between her and her husband reveals that she is the dominant one in the relationship, and Macbeth is the more sensitive one. In contrast to Lady Macbeth’s unwavering dedication to the murder, Macbeth is “too full o’ th’ milk of human kindness” (1.5.17-8). Thus, Macbeth is also going against what is expected of him as a man. Furthermore, the way they greet each other is also telling of their characterizations. Lady Macbeth greets her husband as “Great Glamis, worthy Cawdor” (1.5.62), whereas Macbeth calls her “my dearest love” (1.5.67). Evidently, Macbeth has a more sensitive approach to their relationship while Lady Macbeth is more focused on status. With gender roles switched for the couple, Lady Macbeth has more power than she should have, so when gender roles are restored, it weakens her both in a social setting as well as psychologically.

            As stated earlier, the turning point in the play is Duncan’s death; afterwards, gender roles are restored for the Macbeths, and this creates some complications for Lady Macbeth specifically. Having committed the murder and become king, Macbeth reclaims his masculinity and becomes the dominant figure in the marriage. Meanwhile, Lady Macbeth shows hesitance in the face of killing Duncan: “had he not resembled / My father as he slept, I had done ‘t” (2.2.16-7). She is curiously disillusioned after the deed, saying “naught’s had, all’s spent, / Where our desire is got without content” (3.2.6-7). This leads us to believe that somehow, she has weakened in spirit, possibly due to guilt. Before we analyze why, we must first understand what actually happens to her when she gives into this guilt which she tries to repress. Much of Freudian psychoanalysis is concerned with how psychological trauma that has been repressed into the unconscious returns in several potential forms. In the case of Lady Macbeth, the repressed comes back in the form of hysteria. Hysteria is a form of mental dissociation caused by repression and inner complexes (Coriat 7-8). In hysteria, the complex does not show itself in a literal way, but rather becomes symbolized (Coriat 11). The symbolized complex can make itself apparent during sleep, thus producing what is called “monoideic somnambulism” (Coriat 12). This is when one complex breaks away from the main stream of consciousness, and takes a life of its own. During sleep, this new stream of thoughts takes over, and results in sleepwalking (Holland 220). This is why during her somnambulic episode Lady Macbeth repeats the same gestures and words. She is seen to rub her hands repeatedly, as if trying to wash them, saying “out, damned spot, out I say” (5.1.37). Hanns Sachs suggests that this washing is symbolic of her lost moral purity (Holland 67). Her severe guilt over the loss of her morality becomes a mental complex, which then leads to hysteria in the form of somnambulism. The question is, where did this guilt come from? The murder was her idea; she asked evil spirits to fill her with cruelty and pushed her husband to do it. This sudden change from the strong, calculating and determined Lady Macbeth to this broken down, helpless Lady Macbeth is a sudden and surprising one, and the general consensus amongst psychoanalysts is that it all stems from her childlessness.

            Freud argues that childlessness is what drives Lady Macbeth to murder and what ultimately breaks her. He claims that her transformation after the murder is a direct result of her conviction of “her impotence against the decrees of nature” (322), and there is textual evidence to support his claim. When confronting Macbeth’s hesitance in Act 1, Lady Macbeth says: “I have given suck, and know / How tender ‘tis to love the babe that milks me” (1.7.62-3). This suggests that she has had and lost a child in the past. The childlessness of the couple is reiterated when Macbeth laments that he wears a “fruitless crown” and holds a “barren scepter” (3.1.66-7). His frustration demonstrates the general attitude towards women who have failed to produce an heir, and if Lady Macbeth has internalized this judgement, it is possible that she tries to make up for her shortcomings by trying to make Macbeth king. In addition, during her somnambulic episode, Lady Macbeth repeats: “Come, come, come, come. Give me your hand. What’s done cannot be undone. To bed, to bed, to bed” (5.2.70-2). This can be seen as if she were talking to a child, hence reinforcing the idea that her psychological breakdown is caused by repressed pain over the loss of a child. Freud argues that after the murder, through her childlessness she is “reminded that it is through her own fault if her crime has been robbed of the better part of its fruits” (322). However, this still does not reflect Lady Macbeth’s situation precisely; she does achieve what she set out to, since Macbeth is now king, and as Freud agrees, her transformation happens too quick for it to be caused by long-term frustration over not having a child (322). Psychoanalyst Frieda Mallinckrodt proposes a different view on her childlessness: Lady Macbeth has a divided personality; she has a masculine and feminine side. She can only express her masculine side through her husband, and her tender feminine side is frustrated by being childless. Before the murder of Duncan, her masculine side drives her, but after, Mallinckrodt argues that she loses any hope of children and thus her feminine side overpowers her, and she falls ill (Holland 227-8). This also is not entirely accurate, since there is no textual evidence to support that she loses hope of having a child after the murder. Ultimately, neither of these theories provide a comprehensive explanation for Lady Macbeth’s sudden illness, so I argue that it was not childlessness, but instead the failure of her marriage with Macbeth that causes her collapse.

            Building on Mallinckrodt’s theory that Lady Macbeth has a masculine and feminine side, I contend that instead of childlessness, it was the failure of her marriage that caused her feminine side to take over. A gap forms between the couple after the murder; they are not as close as they were before it. We can see this in Act 3 Scene 2 when Macbeth refuses to tell Lady Macbeth of his plans to kill Banquo: “be innocent of the knowledge, dearest chuck, / Till thou applaud the deed” (3.2.51-2). Before, he refers to her as his “dearest partner of greatness” (1.5.11) and shares everything with her, but now they are on much more unequal ground. After the banquet, Lady Macbeth calls Macbeth “sir” (3.4.161). She says it once before during the banquet, which can be due to them being in public, whereas her use of the word in private suggests a shift in their dynamic. This is caused by the restoration of gender roles; as Macbeth regains his masculinity, Lady Macbeth loses dominance in the relationship. Towards the end of the play they are physically separated and we can see the extent of their emotional estrangement when Macbeth finds out about Lady Macbeth’s suicide. His dismissive “she should have died hereafter. / There would have been a time for such a word” (5.5.20-1) is proof of his detachment and the failure of their marriage. Losing Macbeth as an outlet for her masculine side causes Lady Macbeth’s feminine side to overwhelm her, and leads to her eventual demise.

            Following this character analysis of Lady Macbeth, we can also call into question the typical characterization of her as evil. Ludwig Jekels sees Lady Macbeth as the “demon woman” who comes between the Father, Duncan, and the Son, Macbeth (Holland 221). Moreover, French author M. Jankélévich suggests that Lady Macbeth personifies the “satanic self” of Macbeth (Holland 223). The general attitude towards her seems to be that Lady Macbeth is the evil, corrupting force that influences Macbeth and drives him to commit murder. However, I argue that this is not the case. Firstly, the paradoxical statement of the Three Witches “fair is foul, and foul is fair” (1.1.12) suggests that no single character in the play is entirely good or entirely evil. Moreover, the fact that Lady Macbeth asks evil spirits to unsex her and fill her with cruelty in Act 1 Scene 5 indicates that she does not naturally have these characteristics, but rather possesses the determination and strength to ask for them. Secondly, her hesitation to kill Duncan because he resembles her father is symptomatic of her tender side. Hence, she is not naturally evil, but has violent tendencies. Karen Horney suggests that human aggression is not innate but rather a product of anxiety caused by the oppression of the masses, and specifically of women, by patriarchy (Garrison 682). This is especially relevant because Lady Macbeth herself does not actually kill anyone; she just drives her husband to do it. This idea, coupled with Janeway’s social castration theory, confirms that Lady Macbeth is not inherently evil but rather a product of patriarchal oppression. Her ambition regarding wanting to advance her husband’s position through murder is not wickedness but instead results from an intense desire to overcome this oppression. This explains her divided masculine and feminine sides; in a society where women are not allowed to have masculine qualities, it is impossible for her to survive without the support of her husband. This intense desire is ultimately unsustainable as trying to overcome patriarchy is futile; thus she succumbs to guilt and eventually commits suicide.            

In Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (1998), Harold Bloom points out that unlike any writer that came before him, Shakespeare invented characters that were dynamic and changing (xvii). Indeed, his acute understanding of the human mind is unprecedented, which makes a lot of his characters seem a certain way on the surface, but a completely different way in depth. Such is the case of Lady Macbeth; she is generally depicted as the femme fatale that corrupts Macbeth and eventually breaks down due to her feminine weakness. However, a thorough examination of her character through psychoanalysis and feminist theory produces a different conclusion. It is the reversal of gender roles in the beginning of the play that sets up her internal conflict, which intensifies when the roles are restored. Her psychological breakdown is not a result of her frustration over her childlessness, but the failure of her marriage, which ultimately means she has to deny the side of her that is considered masculine. This leads to her intense resentment of her social castration and the limitations of her gender in a patriarchal society, and thus to her demise.


Works Cited

Bloom, Harold. Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. Riverhead Books, 1998.

Coriat, Isadore H. The Hysteria of Lady Macbeth. Moffat, Yard and Company, 1912.

Freud, Sigmund. Some Character-Types Met with in Psycho-Analytic Work. 1916. The Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, vol. 14, The Hogarth Press, 1957, pp. 311-33.

Garrison, Dee. “Karen Horney and Feminism.” Signs, vol. 6, no. 4, 1981, pp. 672–691. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3173737.

Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic. Yale UP, 1984.

Holland, Norman N. Psychoanalysis and Shakespeare. McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1966.

Liston, William T. “‘Male and Female Created He Them’: Sex and Gender in Macbeth“. College Literature, vol. 16, no. 3, 1989, pp. 232–239. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/25111824.

Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Macbeth. Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2009.

Vromen, Suzanne. “Georg Simmel and the Cultural Dilemma of Women.” History of Euroepan Ideas, vol. 8, nos. 4-5, 1987, pp. 563-679, doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/0191-6599(87)90151-3.

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s