Lady Macbeth is Macbeth's wife in Shakespeare's 1606 play Macbeth. The play, a celebration of the family history of James I, was presented to mark the establishment of James's line as the ruling family of England and Scotland after the death of Elizabeth I. Macbeth is based on Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland (1577), which was based on Boece's Chronicles of Scotland (1527), but Shakespeare altered Holinshed's account so that he could present a more positive portrait of the newly enthroned King James I's mythical ancestor Banquo. After defeating Duncan, the historical Macbeth ruled southern Scotland from 1040 until 1054, when he was defeated by Earl Siward and forced to flee. Lady Macbeth is Shakespeare's rendition of the historical wife of Macbeth, Gruoch, who was the granddaughter of King Kenneth III of Scotland, the widow of Gillacomgan, and the mother of Gillacomgan's son, Lulach the Simple, whose nickname came from his apparent stupidity.
Shakespeare portrays Lady Macbeth as ambitious for her husband and unscrupulous. She contrives a plan by which Macbeth and she can murder the reigning leader, Duncan, although she is unable to murder Duncan because he looks too much like her father. She frames Duncan's servants by leaving bloody daggers in their hands and feigns surprise and grief when the murder is discovered. Macbeth becomes king but is made uneasy by the prophecies of the play's three witches and plots to murder those who might threaten his rule: Banquo and Macduff. Lady Macbeth stands by her husband but eventually is overtaken by guilt. She begins to walk in her sleep, rubbing her hands and trying to rid herself of spots, presumably the blood of Macbeth's victims. "Out, damn'd spot! Out I say!" she exclaims in Act V, scene I. In Act V, scene iv, a messenger announces her death.
The depth, range, and ambition of Lady Macbeth have made her a favorite multifaceted female role. Because of her daring and active part in Macbeth's plotting as well as her dramatic sleepwalking, the role gives actresses a larger part in the staged drama of tragedy. The role was played by Shakespeare when he had to take over after the boy actor Hal Berridge died suddenly before the first performance. It was performed by Mrs. Pritchard in 1768 and 1812, Sarah Siddons in 1775, Ellen Terry in 1889, Mrs. Patrick Campbell in 1895, Sybil Thorndike in 1926, Dame Judith Anderson in 1954, Dame Judi Dench in 1979, and Glenda Jackson in 1988. Giuseppe Verdi composed an opera based on the play, Macbetto, first staged in 1847. More than fifty films have been adapted from the play, including the 1948 Macbeth directed by Orson Welles and starring Jeannette Nolan as Lady Macbeth and the 1971 Tragedy of Macbeth directed by Roman Polanski and starring Francesca Annis in that role.
The character of Lady Macbeth inspired paintings by John Singer Sargeant, who did a portrait of Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth in 1889; Odilon Redon; and Henry Fuseli, who produced several portraits from the play, including one of Mrs. Pritchard as Lady Macbeth in both 1768 and 1812.
Literary critics have been fascinated with Lady Macbeth, seeing her strength and resolve as more masculine than was typical for female characters in tragedies of that era. Lady Macbeth's willingness to dash "the brains out" (Act I, scene vii, line 58) of an infant to achieve her ends casts her as both evil mother and infanticide. As an annihilating mother Lady Macbeth is both a danger to a patriarchal order that depends on maternal kindness to sustain itself and a motivational force for Macbeth, whose actions are spurred by his wife's bravado.
Lady Macbeth is both a threat to the system and a necessary part of it, undoing Macbeth by encouraging his murderous temptations and providing an opportunity for him to prove his manhood in the face of her increasing guilt. Her active presence is a constant reminder of the potentials of birth for Macbeth, who fears the witches' prophecies about the inevitable fate of all those born of women. The fact that Lady Macbeth is initially as murderous as he enables Macbeth to stake his world out as masculine and inhospitable, as being without a woman's touch and, he hopes, without the fate assigned to mothers' mortal children. Macbeth's denial of the feminine in his ambitions results finally in his increased recognition of his own weakness and fears, as they also are reflected in Lady Macbeth when she is overcome by guilt. Lady Macbeth's death spurs Macbeth's recognition of life as empty:
Out, out brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
(Act V, scene iv, lines 23-28)
Dusinberre, Juliet. 2003. Shakespeare and the Nature of Women. 3rd edition. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Neely, Carol. 2004. Distracted Subjects: Madness and Gender in Shakespeare and Early Modern Culture. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Shakespeare, William. 2003. Macbeth. New York: Washington Square Press. (Orig. pub. 1623.)