The mettle of a woman is often times weighed down by societal expectations. Women in literature are repeatedly boxed into roles describing them as weak and without power. In the case of Lady Macbeth in William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the character is wrought with intelligence, ambition, and fortitude, which are qualities that are typically ascribed to male characters. Lady Macbeth is a woman who is not afraid to take control of a crowded dinner party full of powerful statesmen. She exhibits a compelling drive that moves her forward as a character and moves her husband’s actions in order to achieve greatness at whatever costs. Lady Macbeth actively embodies the ideals and characteristics ascribed to other male characters throughout the play. By analyzing the letter Macbeth sends Lady Macbeth, after being proclaimed thane of Cawdor, and her consequent reaction, we will better understand how Shakespeare’s gender-bending of Lady Macbeth dislodges and challenges Macbeth’s power while also adding depth and complexity to Lady Macbeth’s character.
The effects of Lady Macbeth’s atypical masculine characterization unhinge the power dynamic between her and her husband. Although the three witches address Macbeth directly it is Lady Macbeth who immediately displays her ambition without hesitation. Macbeth hesitates in believing the prophecy, Lady Macbeth, on the other hand, upon reading the letter immediately exclaims, “Glamis thou art, and Cawdor; and shalt be / What thou art promised” (Shakespeare I.5.13,14). Macbeth wrestles with the ideas presented in the prophecy of the weird sisters. He states, “why hath it given me earnest of success / commencing in a truth? (Shakespeare I.3.131,132). He reveals his own vacillating doubts and is uncomfortable with the prophecy. When he finally warms up to the idea he immediately directs a letter to his wife. Julia Barmazel in her essay “Macbeth, Impotence, and the Body Politic” argues, “Macbeth is impuissance embodied” (119). After Macbeth receives the prophesied title of thane of Cawdor, he is still looking for approbation from his wife, thus, his power is dislodged and ceded to Lady Macbeth.
Macbeth is unable to take effective action or, in other words, he is powerless. Barmazel further emphasizes the power dynamics at play when she states, “Macbeth’s inability to master his sexuality and/or impregnate his wife implies that he is also incapable of legitimately fathering a nation” (120). The implications of Macbeth’s lack of power/fertility again reinforces the nature of his wife masculinity. He is not satisfied by the original message from the witches, rather he informs his wife, “I burned with desire to question them further” (Shakespeare I.5.3,4). Again, he is left powerless by forces beyond his control but he feels the need to divulge this to his wife. His lack of firmness contrasted again Lady Macbeth’s headlong approach to the question of kingship is extreme telling. In fact, when Lady Macbeth questions her husband’s own resolve she acknowledges, “rather thou dost fear to do” (Shakespeare I.5.22). In this case, his weakness and fears are aired for the audience while Lady Macbeth’s resolution is clear. She will “pour [her] spirit into [his] ear” and guide him forward (Shakespeare I.5.24). Macbeth’s weakness or vacillations do not cloud her judgment. She counsels and directs Macbeth moving the power dynamics somewhat away from a patriarchal structure.
By challenging Macbeth’s power, Lady Macbeth’s own character becomes a much more complex and interesting player. There is no doubt that Lady Macbeth possesses femininity for, as she demonstrates it after reading her husband’s letter, she knows her husband well and she fears his “nature” for he is “too full o’th’ milk of human kindness” (Shakespeare I.5.14,15). Her femininity lies in her deep devotion to her husband and the degree to which she understands and loves Macbeth. In hashing out critical opinion of Lady Macbeth in the Victorian Age Mari Balestraci states “Lady Macbeth is inherently feminine and, to varying degrees, sympathetic, as a result of her femininity” (145). However, Lady Macbeth’s femininity does not remove or negate her masculine characteristics.
Balestraci herself confirms what she calls negative (masculine) behavior when she describes Lady Macbeth as “forceful,” “ambitious,” and “driven by intellect” (146). The nature of Lady Macbeth’s feminine/masculine duality lies in her strength of character. She is willing to do what even a man might cower to do. She admits that Macbeth “would be great,” but lacks “the illness should attend it” (Shakespeare I.5. 16–18). Her motivation adds complexity to her character because she is not solely attempting to gain greatness for herself but additionally also for her husband. However, her motivations are not totally selfless, for by becoming the queen she would be elevated to the highest possible rung of society. Unlike what she states about Macbeth she does have the ambition and drive to remove whoever she needs to remove from her path to reach the echelon of society she desires.
Lady Macbeth’s, so called, masculine traits also mold our perception of her relationship with her husband and the message from the witches. Her interactions with her husband allude to a deep bond between the two. Macbeth refers to her as his “dearest partner of greatness” (Shakespeare I.5.9,10). Macbeth acknowledges her intelligence and drive for power. He values Lady Macbeth’s masculine traits. Yeeyon Im in “Beyond the Gender Divide” explains that “Lady Macbeth is… a formidable figure in Shakespeare’s tragedy” (21). It is evident that Macbeth is aware of the power that Lady Macbeth wields and her influence over him because he doesn’t hesitate to ask her for advice. Lady Macbeth is also aware of her influence over her husband as she says she will “chastise [Macbeth] with the power of her tongue” (Shakespeare I.5.25). Her insight into their relationship and the balance of power between the two allows us to ponder on her role as a counselor. She is not only a lover but the instigator behind Macbeth’s actions. As a character, she is established with a deep reservoir of motivations. Balestraci underscores Lady Macbeth multifacetedness when she states by “establishing Lady Macbeth as a powerful, beautiful, and intelligent character, [and also with] an Aristotelian sense of empathy and admiration… Lady Macbeth [takes] the role of a classical tragic hero” (145). The depth of the character lies with her fervent qualities but also in her innate believe in the metaphysical as she says herself, “fate and metaphysical aid doth seem / to have thee crowned withal” (Shakespeare I.5.27,28). However, Lady Macbeth, ultimately, relies on her drive, ambition, intelligence, forcefulness, and lust to cause evil and harm but on the grounds of helping her husband and under the promise from other-worldly influence.
Shakespeare’s gender-bending of Lady Macbeth’s character allows her to interrupt the societal restrictions placed upon women if nothing else than within the realm of her relationship. The letter declaring Macbeth’s appointment as the thane of Cawdor and Lady Macbeth’s reaction to it elucidates the power balance between the couple and allows us to see the consequences of Shakespeare’s gender-bending. By demonstrating her influence and her ambition she becomes the driving force behind Macbeth and his actions. Her masculinized characteristics allow her to at once show dominance and tip Macbeth’s hand towards her own personal desires but also for the betterment of their situation. It is Lady Macbeth’s masculine nature that propels Macbeth to victory and, in the end, tragedy.
Balestraci, Mary. “Victorian Voices: Gender Ideology And Shakespeare’s Female Characters.” Dissertation Abstracts International 73.9 (2013): MLA International Bibliography. Web. 31 May 2016.
Im, Yeeyon. “Beyond The Gender Divide: Looking For Shakespeare In Han Tae-Sook’s Lady Macbeth.” New Theatre Quarterly 32.1  (2016): 19–30. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 31 May 2016.
Shakespeare, William. “Macbeth.” Ed. Stephen Greenblatt, Walter Cohen, Jean E. Howard, Katharine Eisaman Maus, and Andrew Gurr. The Norton Shakespeare: Essential Plays, the Sonnets. 1343–1406.New York: W.W. Norton, 2009.
Thomas, Catherine E. “(Un)Sexing Lady Macbeth: Gender, Power, And Visual Rhetoric In Her Graphic Afterlives.” The Upstart Crow (2012): 81. Literature Resource Center. Web. 31 May 2016.