Shaking Her Fell Purpose: Lady Macbeth as Tragic Heroine

A magnificent painting by John Singer Sergeant of Lady Macbeth, as played by Ellen Terry; she wears a resplendent green dress and is on the cusp of crowning herself.

It would seem impossible to regard Lady Macbeth as anything other than an out and out villain; she seems at best incompetent in her malevolence, and at worst an almost demonic manifestation among humans who spreads her sickness to a far more powerful husband. Yet, on close reading of the text we see that Lady Macbeth has an urgent and bright moral centre, one that ultimately refuses to let her live; she shows regret and repeatedly evinces a morality that her husband is increasingly bereft of. As Macbeth’s better angels flee his increasingly sickened spirit, they seem to spread their wings ever more around Lady Macbeth. Lady Macbeth might be better understood as a tragic hero, in the mould of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, whose fatal flaw is her vaulting ambition; like Caesar she flew too close to the sun and paid the ultimate price. But unique amongst such Shakespearean figures is that Lady Macbeth is undone by patriarchy as well; it was misogyny that had so cribbed her in that using a male surrogate to gain power became an ineluctable necessity, creating a monster that would run out of control.

Yet from the start we are given a number of textual glimpses of Lady Macbeth’s empathy and restraint; “compunctious visitings of nature” would not shake her “fell purpose,” but in the end her own morality did. Such a view stands athwart not only popular notions of Lady Macbeth as an unalloyed villain, but also against some feminist interpretations that regard her simply as a failure, or as little more than a shadowed reflection of unadulterated sexism (Klein 169). It is certainly possible that Shakespeare’s intentions with Lady Macbeth were less than egalitarian in spirit and that he meant for her to be seen as a villain; these things are irrelevant to textual  analysis, however (Wimsatt and Beardsley 469). What is in the play itself matters most, and they point to an interpretation of Lady Macbeth’s character that is a good deal more favourable to her.

Hardly Infirm of Purpose

First it will be necessary to dispense with the idea that Lady Macbeth is simply a “help mate” or other purely misogynist diminution. Joan Larsen Klein argues that Lady Macbeth’s “particularly feminine” anguish represents a kind of punishment for her abjuration of women’s purportedly proper role (169). Lady Macbeth is “enfeebled” by this punishment, the “awareness of her sin” (a particularly passive kind of awareness) driving her to madness (171). Klein even attributes Lady Macbeth’s feint of a faint in Act II to “weakness” (174-175). She portrays Lady Macbeth as not only doomed from the start, but utterly benighted from her first line, a bumbling infirm who serves as little more than a misogynist object lesson. This is to give Lady Macbeth far too little credit for both the depth and truth of her struggles, and to neglect the fact that she actually does not act “particularly feminine” in any way that is actually sincere. Sociologist Raewyn Connell calls compliant, male-oriented femininity (that most enfeebling and degrading kind) ‘emphasised femininity,’ arguing that it is “organised as an adaptation to men’s power… emphasising compliance, nurturance, and empathy as womanly virtues” and that it is “performed, and performed especially to men” (Connell 186-188). Crucially, however, this is a femininity that seeks the marginalisation of its rivals. It is the impetus to be a “good girl” in relation to men, and suppress any women who interpret femininity differently. If this sounds nothing like Lady Macbeth, there is very good reason for that.

To whatever extent Lady Macbeth “performs for men,” as she does in Act 2, Scene 3 when she faints, it is a decidedly expected, high feminine behaviour, except that it can be strongly argued that Lady Macbeth—fully seized of and aware of what she has done, and hardly in a position to be given the vapours by the mere mention of blood she had already dipped her hands in—deliberately faked her faint so as to distract attention from her husband’s flailing excuses. This “performance for men” manipulates them and uses their sexism against them.  When Macduff says to her “O gentle lady, ‘Tis not for you to hear what I can speak: the repetition, in a woman’s ear, would murder as it fell” (2.3.85), there is no small amount of deliberate dramatic irony at work here which makes the scene incredibly effective in its brevity. We know Lady Macbeth would hardly be ‘murdered’ by the naming of the deed that she, no “gentle lady,” had just taken part in. She is, in this scene, trying to control events with the meagre tools available to her, a theme of her character from her first scene.

Her husband was one of those meagre tools, the implement that she prayed for the strength to use; these are not the actions of a woman wallowing in the performance of emphasised femininity, but rather one who is trying to manipulate it to her advantage in a particularly cunning way. There is no doubt that she is confined by sexism here and belittled by Macduff’s words. But those societal circumstances are best understood as the tragedy that the world of the story has set up for Lady Macbeth. They are part of her individual journey down the road to tragic heroism.

The Unimportance of “Unsexing”

It is here that we work backwards, to Lady Macbeth’s infamous opening speech which appears to at a stroke foreclose any consideration of her as a “hero,” tragic or otherwise. It is here that Klein finds her central idiom for discussing Lady Macbeth’s failures; the analysis turns on whether or not Lady Macbeth could be “unsexed,” as she so energetically demanded of the heavens. Klein concludes she was not, and that she remained fatally connected to womankind in ways that would be her undoing (169). “As long as she lives, Lady Macbeth is never unsexed in the only way she wanted to be unsexed—able to act with the cruelty she ignorantly and perversely identified with male strength” (179). But Lady Macbeth’s prayer to be unsexed matters less in its literal success or failure than its poetic plea to transcend the limits of her gender, of which she was all too conscious. It was an elegant gesture to her worldly circumstances, haunting poetry that says—more than anything else— that she recognises the patriarchy that surrounds her. That awareness in and of itself, so often forbidden to women in older literature, is striking, and speaks profoundly to Lady Macbeth’s agency. It is the evil that she struggles against (albeit in perverse ways).

But Klein portrays the arc of the story as being one simply of failed transcendence; Lady Macbeth could not ascend to the heights of being “unsexed” and tragically fell to earth, into the muck of emphasised femininity and in the end is nothing more than an object of pity. I would not be so quick to use such a stark, zero sum dichotomy here, however. In a very large sense, Lady Macbeth did transcend the limits of her gender; she died not because of ‘womanly weakness’, but because of a morality that is shared among all people, regardless of gender. Klein suggests that Lady Macbeth perished because Shakespeare wished to show us that a woman could not help but have these enfeebling pangs of empathy and remorse. This point is irrelevant. What matters is that, in the world of the story, men also have these feelings of empathy and moral outrage, suggesting there is more to the “milk of human kindness” than femininity. The men that appear heroic, like Macduff, are shown as ‘feeling’ men who have access to the very virtues that Macbeth has, with a chilling lack of error, shorn from himself. When Macduff learns of his family’s murder, he avers that he must not only dispute the crime as a man, but “feel it as a man” (4.3.220).

We come, then, to an interesting symmetry between Macduff and Lady Macbeth. She too mourns Macduff’s loss: “The Thane of Fife had a wife. Where is she now? What, will these hands ne’er be clean?” she says during her painful sleepwalking confession (5.1.45). She shares Macduff’s pain, but from the guilt-riven perspective of the one who fears that she made the killing possible, that she created the monster who robbed the Thane of Fife of his “pretty ones.” This connection, which reveals to us men and women sharing the same deeply empathetic mourning, does suggest that Lady Macbeth’s moral malaise is about something more than mere emphasised femininity. Lady Macbeth dies and Macduff lives, but Lady Macbeth’s necessary guilt is responsible for that—and it is, again, a very human guilt.

The Second Sexing of Lady Macbeth

Lady Macbeth did indeed escape some of the limitations of womanhood—by demonstrating a keen awareness of her social condition and then acting in ways that would allow her to deal with the deck stacked against her, she showed that despite her ultimate failure, it was not a collapse into typical Renaissance womanhood that sundered her. Rather, we should give her the dignity of saying that she fell on the sword of her own designs—a fact we would surely admit if she were a male character from the outset, all other things being equal. But another question must now be addressed: even if all of this can be granted, surely this just makes her a more complex villain than Klein and others credit, and in no sense a tragic heroine? Lady Macbeth’s struggle against the gender roles of her time, and her ability to make the best of the difficult hand she has been dealt, both speak positively of her; in the end and in the full context of the play, her sinister prayer to have her milk taken for gall appears less as a statement of true character than as a desperately beautiful moment of fleeting pique and poetic exposition. At almost every other point in the play, pinpricks of Lady Macbeth’s virtues are revealed. When she has a moment of empathy upon regarding the sleeping Duncan, we see that side of her (2.2.13).  Lady Macbeth, further, demonstrates great self awareness upon recognising her lack of contentment and the reasons for it (3.2.5); all in a scene that markedly contrasts Lady Macbeth to her husband, whose “mind is full of scorpions” because he seeks to become yet more bloody in his rule. It can even be surmised that Macbeth realises that his wife is a far better creature than he when he refuses to tell her of his plans to kill Banquo. The tension in this scene, where Lady Macbeth tries to get her husband to cease worrying about Banquo and his issue, arises from the fact that she has a dawning awareness of the monster awakening in her royal husband. Still to come is the famous, even cathartically bone-chilling hand-washing scene, which should leave us in no doubt about the torment of Lady Macbeth by her better angels.

A classic black and white photo of a well dressed Lady Macbeth, holding a letter and looking over her shoulder, foot on a step.
Lady Macbeth, upon reading the missive that would change everything for her.

Lady Macbeth’s two, intimately interwoven, fatal flaws are her sweeping ambition and her cynical view of politics; for the latter she can hardly be blamed, however. The Scotland of the time was a bloody game of swords—she could be forgiven for thinking that politics red in tooth and claw was the only way to achieve one’s ambitions. And it was Lady Macbeth’s own ambitions that drove her to urge her husband to make good the Weird Sisters’ prophecy; the scale and sweep of those ambitions, their impatience, and—most importantly—their uncritical endorsement of hegemonic masculinity, were her undoing. As the play grinds forward, Lady Macbeth reveals her bright moral centre all the more, and the towering tragedy was that she had snuffed it out for but a brief space in time that would end her life—remember that the hatching and execution of the regicide took place over the course of less than twenty four hours. But for this one fit, this one moment of profound and fatal moral weakness (not femininity-as-weakness), she would live, and with a clean conscience. It is worth noting that it is not her femininity that undoes her in this reading, but rather that moment of darkness with only the gold of the crown glinting in Lady Macbeth’s eyes where she gives into a profoundly masculine temperament—a hegemonically masculine one premised on emotionless, bloodless, heartless and savage strength. That is the weakness that undoes her.

The point has been made by gender scholars that Lady Macbeth and other strong women in fiction are very easily dismissed as villains and attacked due to their gender; we view them in the particular as “women” rather than as “women who are political actors” or “women with moral paroxysms” engaged in a deeply human struggle. Cristina León Alfar has called for a broader view to be taken of Shakespearian “villainesses” that would restore to them a context of fuller humanity, rather than simply presuming an utterly confined and inhuman feminine archetype for them before exegesis ever occurs:

Because the gender prescriptions [Shakespearian women] ostensibly fracture have never been adequately explored in relation to the dynamics of gender and power that inform their tragedies, they are read within their designated domestic roles as daughters and wives. Consequently, the political context of their actions is ignored in favour of a reinscription of obedience, mercy, and compassion as natural and appropriate feminine behaviours (Alfar 26).

In her analysis of Macbeth and other Shakespeare plays Alfar says she will “reread them as political tragedies that put pressure on orthodox notions of gender and power.” This is precisely the vein in which I have been reading Macbeth here: as a play where patriarchy clearly exists, but where the drama unfolds nearest the hairline fractures in its edifice. The indictment of hegemonic masculinity, Lady Macbeth exploring the outer and inner limits of herself without regard for the delimiters of wifehood, Macduff’s epiphany about “feeling as a man,” the Weird Sisters beards, all give testament to that emergent gender anxiety just beneath the play’s surface. It is in that world that Lady Macbeth’s tragic flaw—the very human flaw of ambition—takes flight. But I argue that this is difficult for us to see because we become too caught up on the fact that Lady Macbeth is a woman.

Sexism, like a saboteur in the night, silently cuts our moral and critical brake lines, leaving us vulnerable to antagonising women for flaws that we would deeply qualify, excuse, or complicate, if we were beholding a man in similar circumstances. We may simply think that our moral indignation is the objectively mechanistic result of a character’s genuine moral failings—we dislike Lady Macbeth because she is “bad”—but we fail to recognise the higher standard to which we hold her because she is a woman. She is less likely to be allowed to exist as a morally complex, tormented, even heroic figure; she must either be an angel or a demon; Madonna or whore. Yet her tragedy here lays primarily in an epic mistake occasioned by the unfortunate confluence of social and personal forces at the wrong moment in Lady Macbeth’s life.


The play clearly gender stereotypes on one level, associating certain virtues with masculinity and others with femininity. But it is hegemonic masculinity that comes across as a clear villain, due to its merciless demands for dominance and the self-abnegation that results from it (Connell 184). Lady Macbeth drinks briefly but deeply from that intoxicating elixir, and almost immediately realises that she has committed a grave sin as a result. But she does not end, as Klein suggests, in an enfeebled state of emphasised femininity. She is a complex character who achieves instead a deeper understanding of her own humanity, but at the tragic cost of her own life; it was the only penance she could offer in the depraved, bloody world built on fear and daggers that her husband, whose hegemonically masculine monster she helped to unleash, had created.

Yet her heroic qualities are demonstrated, first and foremost, by the world the story creates, partially through the easily discerned web of gender stereotypes that threads through the play, but also through Lady Macbeth’s awareness of patriarchy and the condescension shown to her by many of the men around her. She has to struggle against this to do anything, including advance her career. She retains a number of virtuous qualities, such as her capacity for remorse and empathy, and the great tragedy of the play is observed largely through her. We see through Lady Macbeth’s eyes not only the utter collapse of her plans but also the shocking moral inventory she performs throughout the play, accepting her culpability in the terror around her and watching with horror as her husband spiralled out of control, seeing the wages of her enjoining him to “manliness” writ starkly in blood before her.

So if we can find in Caesar a tragic hero, whose hamartia was ambition, then we can surely find the same in Lady Macbeth who also fell on the sword of her hubris. It is not punishment for her being a woman, per se, but rather a story of sin and atonement that is as human as any other, where Lady Macbeth’s “fell purpose” is ultimately shaken by her heroic qualities—her humanistic virtues. The fact that Lady Macbeth is a woman in a patriarchal society does, indisputably, change things somewhat. But only to the extent that it adds to the complexity of the story’s political context and gives Lady Macbeth additional confinements that add to the depth of the tragedy; for this is decidedly a tragedy of gender, of the fatal flaw that is hegemonic masculinity, and the mistake that Lady Macbeth makes in using it, however briefly, to overcome the societal sexism to which she is so justly opposed.

Works Cited

Alfar, Cristina León. Fantasies of Female Evil: The Dynamics of Gender and Power in Shakespearean Tragedy. New York: University of Delaware Press, 2003. Print.

Connell, Raewyn. Gender and Power. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987. Print.

Klein, Joan Larsen. “Lady Macbeth: Infirm of Purpose.” Shakespeare: Macbeth. Ed. Sylvan Barnet. New York: Signet, 1998. Print.

Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Macbeth. New York: Signet, 1998. Print.

Wimsatt, William K. and Monroe C. Beardsley. “The Intentional Fallacy.” Sewanee Review 54 (1946): 468-488. Print.

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