Lady Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s most famous and ruthless female characters. When the audience first sees her, she is already plotting Duncan’s murder, and this makes her the most frightening and villainous character. She is strong-headed and ambitious and knows how to take charge. As soon as she reads Macbeth’s letter informing her about the prophecies given by the three witches, she knows that she will have to push Macbeth into doing what she believes needs to be done. She thinks Macbeth is weak-minded and will not have the heart and courage to kill Duncan.
Her personality is portrayed as forceful and dominant. Unlike Macbeth who constantly struggles with his conscience and loyalty before finally murdering Duncan, Lady Macbeth has no problem or hesitation with the plan of murder. She gives priority to her ambition and no amount of loyalty or conscience succeeds in making her give it a second thought. Although Macbeth has hoped to find some other alternative to become king without committing murder, Lady Macbeth unflinchingly accepts murder as the only necessary way to fulfil her ambition of becoming the queen.
She is also seen as wishing to strip herself of all feminine qualities so that she can carry out the task of murdering Duncan. This shows Shakespeare’s perception regarding the dynamics between gender and power. It is evident that Lady Macbeth merely reflects the general perception of that time that ambition and violence are inextricably linked to masculinity. Through Lady Macbeth’s character, Shakespeare also seems to be showing that femininity is more closely linked with the capability of manipulation. This is also reflected in the way the three witches are shown to be manipulating the mind of Macbeth. The play thus shows women as using the feminine method of manipulation to realise their own ambitions. Shakespeare implies that women too can have ambitions and they too can be as cruel as men, but the means through which they achieve their ambitions are shrouded in traits of manipulation which as depicted in the play are feminine traits.
It is therefore evident why Lady Macbeth repeatedly questions Macbeth’s masculinity and manhood in order to override his hesitations. She effectively manipulates him into murdering Duncan by telling Macbeth that he needs to prove that he is a man. Lady Macbeth also shows remarkable strength as a woman when she steadies the nerves of Macbeth after he kills Duncan and also takes it upon herself to finish the incomplete task by planting the evidences on the guards. She plans the whole murder; the escape plan as well and keeps the whole situation under her control. She even becomes the strength for her husband whenever he is overcome by weakness and anxiety.
However, her remarkable strength of will that persists through the murder of the King loses its strength once Macbeth becomes king and she the queen. The burden of guilt is too heavy for her to bear. She slowly slides into madness as she begins to sleepwalk and desperately tries to wash off invisible blood stains from her hands during her state of trance. It is her guilt that makes her sick and then ultimately culminates in her death. Lady Macbeth is portrayed to be experiencing the feelings of both ambition and guilt more strongly than Macbeth. Perhaps it is Shakespeare’s way of showing her femininity to portray that women feel emotions more strongly than men.
Over the course of the play, the character of Lady Macbeth changes from an ambitious and ruthless manipulator to a guilt-ridden person who has lost all control over her own life. Her character becomes far more sympathetic towards the end of the play. By the end of the play the audience realises that Lady Macbeth is perhaps not as villainous as she is initially thought to be. Certain moments like her boast to Macbeth that, if she had promised to kill her own child, she would have “dashed its brains out” without hesitation is certainly blood- chilling but it is only an attempt to appear to be cruel through words and not her actual capability to do something like that. She had also admitted that, “I have given suck, and know/How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me.” She very well seems like she is capable of tenderness and warmth. Her wish to be “unsexed” and request to the spirits to “take my milk for gall,” so that she can act without remorse and hesitation, indicate that she fears she has too much of compassion rather than none. Thus, a careful analysis of her character and a willingness to see beyond her strong worded dialogues reveal that there is a difference between who Lady Macbeth is and who she wants to be. We then see a different side of her that suggests that she is not devoid of tender emotions and compassion. We realise that her actual emotions of softness and warmth are shielded by the overriding ambitious desire for power and status making her seem as evil and villainous.
When Lady Macbeth says that she would have killed Duncan herself if he had not resembled her father while sleeping, she portrays herself as ruthless and violent. But her action, or the lack of it, shows that despite her tough exterior, she probably is too soft to kill someone. She has the opportunity to kill the king herself, but she is not able to go through with it. It would have been a lot easier to kill him herself than to convince and manipulate Macbeth into doing it. But the fact that she rather choses to do the latter, shows that she is probably not as ruthless and cold-hearted as she shows herself to be. Moreover, when Duncan’s death is discovered by the others, Lady Macbeth faints in the scene. The most obvious reading of this is that she pretends to faint in order to distract the others from Macbeth’s shaky story. But there is also a possibility that the faint might have been real, and it reveals her soft side, suggesting that she realizes the truth of what they’ve done, and is overwhelmed by the guilt.
After Macbeth and his wife become king and queen, Lady Macbeth assumes the role of comforter and protector of her husband. Her character becomes more sympathetic as she becomes concerned about Macbeth’s guilty state of mind. Her concern for her husband is more prominent when Macbeth gradually estranges from himself and from his essential humanity. Lady Macbeth begins to realise the error of their actions and tries to forget it believing that what’s done is done. She encourages her husband as well to put the past behind him. She puts on a brave face for her husband although her mind is tortured by guilt. She also becomes his protector when Macbeth loses control at the banquet. But when Macbeth becomes estranged from everything and focuses only on securing the throne, Lady Macbeth is left isolated in her guilt with no one to share her deepest thoughts and fears with.