Camille Peterson
English 2010 MWF
Literary Analysis
October 25, 2009
Lady Macbeth: Hot Topic
Stem-cell research. Gay and lesbian marriages. Global warming. Cancer. In the movie
I Am Legend that released in 2007, the modern day America finds a “cure for cancer”, which
ends up turning all who partook of the curing medicine into monsters. The plot seems like a
twisted idea suggesting that a cure for cancer could turn us into monsters. Discovering a cure for
cancer proved an effective subject for this movie since interest and active research abound today;
thus, totally relevant to the worries and concerns of this day. Any literature, for that matter,
which brings up controversial subjects, finds a more likely chance at success. If literature
includes hot topics of the day, it proves even more likely than before to be successful. Therefore,
when discussing the genius play writer, William Shakespeare, it can only be assumed that he
understood this about literature.
In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, a “hot topic” subtly creeps in beside the obvious affairs of
war and religious beliefs. The ideology of women sneaks its way in as a dominant hot topic.
The strongest female part in Macbeth, maybe aside from the witches, is Lady Macbeth. Lady
Macbeth’s character has been discussed and analyzed for a long time in search of her being good
versus evil. This is not what I wish to discuss here. I wish to compare Lady Macbeth’s character
to the ideology of women during Elizabethan times to demonstrate how her character played a
larger effect to Shakespeare’s audience than they do to audiences in our present day.
Through the decades, there have been many, many different things perceived in Lady
Macbeth. Some say she is the evil mastermind behind the death of Duncan, the mastermind to
Macbeth’s rise to the crown and the mastermind to Macbeth’s surrender to evil. Others argue
Lady Macbeth was a weak character, who is slowly left alone with no glory or position. How
does one judge character? Through one’s thoughts, words, and deeds. Therefore, to better
understand Lady Macbeth, studying the things she says to others and to herself appear ultimately
the only way to shape her character.
When Lady Macbeth first enters the play at Inverness, Macbeth’s castle, she receives the
news from Macbeth regarding the witches’ prophecy. She makes her famous speech and plea to
receive the capacity to do the evil deed of killing Duncan for Macbeth to receive the crown at
this point. She also expresses her worries that her husband will not have what it takes to follow
through with Duncan’s murder. In her monologue, she beckons to Macbeth saying, “Hie thee
hither, That I may pour my spirits in thine ear, And chastise with the valor of my tongue All that
impedes thee from the golden round…” (Shakespeare, 1609). From these words, there is no
question of Lady Macbeth having evil intentions. Also from this, Lady Macbeth has no question
that she can influence her husband in his actions. Apparently her words influence their
relationship in strength and power. She seems to feel an equal in the decisions they make.
Later during this same scene, Lady Macbeth asks to be unsexed. She desires to become
unholy – to become wicked and able to commit murder. Later, as she tries to toughen up her
husband to murder Duncan, she declares her ability to dash the brains out of a smiling infant as
she was nursing it if she needed to. Skipping to the final acts of Lady Macbeth in the play, Lady
Macbeth struggles to suppress her evil deeds from her memory. This as the case, she goes crazy
with hallucinations of blood on her hands unable to rinse clean. Unable to handle the guilt and
pressure, she kills herself by means never depicted in the script. Here lie a few of the major
points of Lady Macbeth’s character.
The ideology of women in England in the Elizabethan era prove different than what Lady
Macbeth’s character portrays. During these centuries, women were thought the weaker sex. Joan
Larsen Klein declares how they understood women “to be weaker than men in reason and
physical strength, prone to fears and subject to the vagaries of their imaginations” (Klein, 1980).
Klein shares that, the Bible when discussing the creation, declares “the perfect woman was an
afterthought, created later than the perfect man, shaped from his rib in order to forestall his
loneliness and to be a ‘helpe meet for him’” (Klein, 1980). Women assumed the role as loving,
supportive spouses for their husbands. If their husbands began doing bad things, the wives
brought them back into virtuous ways. Women were seen as weak, and not influential. Women
received no recognition for having real position or say in their household. The role of simply the
caretakers of the infants and hostesses belonged to them.
During these Elizabethan times, there was also a ubiquitous anxiety concerning women
of this era. Since women were supposed to be the nursing mothers, it was a concern that women
would potentially kill their infants, committing infanticide. In fact, in Stephanie Chamberlain
paper “Fantasizing Infanticide: Lady Macbeth and the Murdering Mother in Early Modern
England,” she demonstrates that there were “existing early modern anxieties about the inherent
dangers of maternal agency both to helpless children as well as to a patrilineal system depend
upon women for its perpetuation” (Chamberlain, 2006). During these times, it was a concern of
society (or more specifically for men of society) that women killed off their offspring. For if
they did not have offspring, their lineage would not progress! Apparently, during these times,
this was a “hot topic” in society. Amanda Kane Rooks of Central Queensland University,
Australia, when writing about Geoffrey Wright’s recent movie with a modern take on Macbeth,
quotes Hillary Fogerty who refers to the late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century as “a
historic inability to comprehend the complexity of sex and gender” (Rooks, 2007).
Lady Macbeth’s character and the ideology of women during the Elizabethan times
contrast. Lady Macbeth had evil intentions for Macbeth to become king by murdering Duncan.
Lady Macbeth having these evil intentions plays on a fear of this era. Women are supposed to be
quiet, supportive wives. If needs be, they will bring their husbands back to virtuous ways if they
start making wrong decisions. Therefore, for Shakespeare to have Lady Macbeth bring up the
evil ideas breaks the ideology of women. Women are supposed to be weak in mind, passive
contributors to society. Lady Macbeth is blatantly not passive. She has a thought – a deep desire
– and she acts determined to carry out her secret plan. This contradicts Elizabethan ideology.
A similar contradiction Lady Macbeth makes against Elizabethan ideology is her
unconscious declaration that Macbeth will not only listen to her input, but he will succumb to it.
This is out of womanly character. No woman should have such position in a household. Lady
Macbeth’s character plays into 17th century people’s fears of not only women who could
potentially have this kind of influence, but it plays on the fear that this is how women are if you
do give them the capacity to be an influence.
Lady Macbeth’s claim to be able to “dash the brains out” of a baby she was nursing hits
upon a major point (Shakespeare, 1609). A touchy subject for this era, a hot topic of this time
comes to light. Literature written for our day and age revolves around what happens in our
present time. Therefore, for Shakespeare to address this hot topic in Macbeth, he makes the play
all the more meaningful for his 17th century audience. Macbeth proves an even more
controversial play during these times than we give it credit for. However, since Lady Macbeth’s
character has so far been the opposite of Elizabethan ideology, Shakespeare brings familiar
feminine behavior back into Lady Macbeth’s character. This happens in the end of the play
when Lady Macbeth sleepwalks trying to wash her hands of the blood that will not come off of
her hands. She tries in vain, overcome with guilt. She cannot handle the actions she committed
that her sex did not possess. Lady Macbeth’s transition to insanity returns to the ideology of
women in the Elizabethan era. This adds a new dimension to Shakespeare’s Macbeth, because it
adds to the richness of Lady Macbeth’s character and her effect on Shakespeare’s Elizabethan
audience. By making Lady Macbeth’s character consist of an extreme and a familiarity, the
audience must embrace the extreme as part of their ideology. Lady Macbeth’s thoughts, words
and deeds make them accept the idea that a woman could truly have such evil intentions and
influence in her domain.
Without a doubt, Lady Macbeth portrays a character who had evil intentions, an
unrighteous influence over her husband, and confessions of the ability to commit infanticide.
Lady Macbeth inflicts fear and confirms anxieties of people in the Elizabethan era. Her
character adds to the effectiveness and richness of Shakespeare’s Macbeth in this era. By
looking back at their perceptions and expectations of women in their society, understanding
comes on how Lady Macbeth’s character would be more frightening to people during this era
than for those who simply perceive her as evil. Lady Macbeth’s character contrasts against the
ideology of women during Elizabethan times.
The contrast of character and ideology creates a larger effect on Shakespeare’s
Elizabethan audience than they do to audiences in our present day. If Shakespeare wrote a
drama for our day and age, I’m sure he would include controversies such as global warming,
stem-cell research, and abortion. Shakespeare was not only a genius of playwriting, but a genius
of his culture, his time, and the hot topics.
Works Cited
Chamberlain, S. (2005, Summer). Fantasizing infanticide: Lady Macbeth and the murdering
mother in early modern England. College Literature, 32 (3), Retrieved from http://web.
Klein, J. L. (Ed.). (1980). Lady Macbeth: “Infirm of Purpose”. Urbana: University of Illinois
Rooks, A. K. (2009). Macbeth’s wicked women: sexualized evil in Geoffrey Wright’s
“Macbeth.” Literature Film Quarterly, 37 (2), Retrieved from http://web.ebscohost.com.
Shakespeare, W. (1986). The tragedy of Macbeth. New York, NY: Signet Classic.