Photograph of actress playing Lady Macbeth, holding crown above her head

‘Unsex Me Here’: Lady Macbeth’s ‘Hell Broth’

Sandra M. Gilbert considers how Lady Macbeth in her murderous ambition goes beyond prescribed gender roles, but in doing so only succeeds in monstering herself and becoming a parody of womanhood, until madness again confines her to feminine helplessness.

Throughout most of literary history, Lady Macbeth – the scheming spouse who plots the villainy at the centre of Shakespeare’s devastating ‘Scottish play’ – has been seen as a figure of ‘almost peerless malevolence’. Monstrous and murderous, she was based on a woman described in Holinshed’s Chronicles as ‘burning in unquenchable desire to beare the name of a queene’. Yet actors who played this part have often debated her character. Writing in the early 19th century, the great Sarah Siddons declared that this infamous heroine was ‘a woman in whose bosom the passion of ambition has almost obliterated all the characteristics of human nature’, and recalled that she first learned the part ‘in a paroxysm of terror’, so fearful that the rustling of her own silk dress seemed ‘like the movement of a spectre pursuing me’. But later in the century the charismatic actor Ellen Terry thought it ‘strange’ that Lady Macbeth should be seen ‘as a sort of monster’, claiming that ‘I conceive [her] as a small, slight woman of acute nervous sensibility’, who was perhaps ‘not good, but not much worse than many women you know – me for instance’. The critic Anna Jameson similarly declared that ‘the woman herself remains a woman to the last’.

Portrait of Sarah Siddons as Lady Macbeth by George Henry Harlow, 1814

Portrait of Sarah Siddons as Lady Macbeth by George Henry Harlow

Sarah Siddons, haunted and haunting as Lady Macbeth.

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From a more recent perspective, however, Lady Macbeth has come to be seen not primarily as a fiendish avatar of evil but as an incarnation of gender trouble whose efforts to implement her dreams of power question the sexual hierarchy into which she has been born. Almost her first words in the play, after she receives her husband’s letter reporting his encounter with the witches, dramatise the inversion of gender roles that marks her marriage. The hesitant Macbeth is, she fears, ‘too full o’ th’ milk of human kindness’ (1.5.17, my italics) for his own purposes, and worse still, hers; his effeminate milkiness suggests that, despite being a dutiful warrior, he’s a kind of timid ‘milquetoast’. To combat this, Lady Macbeth plans to ‘pour my spirits in thine ear, / And chastise with the valour of my tongue / All that impedes thee from the golden round’ (1.5.26–28) of the Scottish crown; literally, she’ll ‘screw his courage to the sticking place’ (1.7.60) by giving him a good talking-to. But the fantasy, and ultimately the act, of pouring spirits into someone’s ear, is symbolically masculine, even while in a Shakespearean context, it is villainous. On the one hand, Lady Macbeth’s plan evokes classic representations of a passive Virgin Mary impregnated through the ear by the Holy Ghost, or Spirit, of the Lord in a sort of divine sexual act. On the other hand, her bold (valorous) idea also recalls the poison murderously poured by Hamlet’s wicked stepfather, Claudius, into the ear of his sleeping brother, the rightful king. Either way, the lady’s boastful intention signifies her rebellion against the submissive role to which her culture has assigned her.

Gunpowder Plot medal

Gunpowder Plot medal

Lady Macbeth pours treacherous advice into her husband’s ear: ‘Look like the innocent flower, but be the serpent under it’.

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Lady Macbeth’s passion to transcend her role as a woman becomes even more explicit in her famous call to the diabolical ‘Spirits’ (whom her own ‘spirits’ may reflect):

. . .
unsex me here,
Make thick my blood,
. . .
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose,

Come to my woman’s breasts,
And take my milk for gall … (1.5.40–48, my italics)

Unsexed by her own will, Lady Macbeth is now no longer a conventional ‘lady’: because she has refused to behave as dutifully as her society suggests she should, she seems to become an inhuman creature, a dark parody of femaleness whose blood is too ‘thick’ and clotted for menstrual fertility and whose maternal milk is bitter, dangerous, galling. In unsexing herself she almost appears to have dehumanised herself and stepped out of ‘nature’ – that is, out of the natural order of things in which the ‘milk of human kindness’ nurtures moral feeling.

Seneca His Ten Tragedies, 1581

Seneca His Ten Tragedies, 1581

‘Exile all foolish Female fear’: Seneca’s Medea and Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth.

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In fact, as a diabolical creature Lady Macbeth has aligned herself with the three Weird Sisters, whose violation of sexual norms (‘you should be women’, says Banquo, ‘And yet your beards forbid me to interpret / That you are so’) proclaims their witchcraft (1.3.45–47). And just as the witches cook up the vile ‘hell-broth’ that motivates Macbeth’s treachery (4.1.19), his unnatural wife stirs up the feast of blood that is the ‘great business’ of the play (1.5.68). Decisively plotting the implementation of her husband’s fell desire, she advises him to act innocent and ‘Leave all the rest to me’ (1.5.74). When Macbeth, still wavering, confides his own ambivalence about murder in an image of maternal tenderness, describing feelings of ‘pity, like a naked new-born babe’ (1.7.21), she responds with a savage description of a mother’s most unnatural fantasy, infanticide:

I have given suck, and know
How tender ‘tis to love the babe that milks me:
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have pluck’d my nipple from his boneless gums,
And dash’d the brains out, had I so sworn as you
Have done to this. (1.7.54–59)

Then, once her plans, along with the king and his servants, have been executed, sleep – ‘great Nature’s second course’ (2.2.36) – is murdered too, and much more of the natural order is subverted; so much so that darkness blots out daylight, a mere ‘mousing owl’ kills a proud falcon (2.4.13), and Duncan’s horses – the ‘minions of their race’– turn wild and, incredibly, ‘eat each other’ (2.4.15–18).

Boydell's Collection of Prints illustrating Shakespeare's works

Boydell's Collection of Prints illustrating Shakespeare's works

The three witches in their cave. Macbeth, Act 4, Scene 1 by Joshua Reynolds.

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Ironically, Lady Macbeth is often portrayed as accomplishing her purpose by adopting traditionally ‘feminine’ tricks. Some actors depict her as seductive, luring her husband towards crime by playing the part of his ‘dearest chuck’ (3.2.45). As the critic Stephen Greenblatt has noted, too, the Macbeths’ marriage is one of Shakespeare’s most extraordinary dramatisations of ‘spousal intimacy’, a companionate union in which ‘husband and wife speak to each other playfully, as if they were a genuine couple’. This representation of conjugal closeness may help explain the sympathy with which, say, Terry and Jameson commented on Lady Macbeth’s womanliness. Certainly, as Siddons astutely noted, even after the two have been overcome by guilt, ‘Unlike the first frail pair in Paradise, they spent not the fruitless hours in mutual accusation.’ Where Milton’s Adam and Eve blame each other for the Original Sin that expelled them from Eden, the Macbeths continue to protect each other, each one eventually suffering in isolation from horrifying remorse.

1901 edition of Anna Jameson's Shakespeare's Heroines, illustrated by Robert Anning Bell

1901 edition of Anna Jameson's Shakespeare's Heroines

Robert Anning Bell’s striking image of Lady Macbeth suggests both power and beauty.

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Indeed, by the end of the play, the couple have been restored to their ‘proper’ gender roles. Macbeth gains in murderous masculinity, ordering killing after killing like a gangland boss, including the deaths of the dutifully domesticated Lady Macduff and the ‘pretty ones’ (4.3.216) who are her children, while Lady Macbeth lapses back into the feminine helplessness she had earlier rejected. Her loss of control is most theatrically manifested in her guilt-ridden sleep-walking scene. Here the sleep, whose murder she had commanded, overwhelms her, forcing her to confess her sins while failing to ‘knit up the ravell’d sleeve of care’ (2.2.34). And though Macbeth too had wished to purify himself of crime, grandiosely fearing that he could not be cleansed by ‘all great Neptune’s ocean’(2.2.57), his sleep-walking lady, enacting an obsessive-compulsive ritual of hand-washing, whimpers that ‘all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand’ (5.1.50–51). Madness, curiously, forces her back into the stereotypical femininity that her transgressive yearning for imperial power had repudiated.

Over the years, many efforts have been made to rehabilitate Lady Macbeth. Since the late 20th century, for instance, as William C Carroll has reported, a number of writers, especially feminists, have produced prequels or sequels to the play in which the wicked heroine is revealed as a sympathetic, motherly woman. ‘Perhaps today’s Lady Macbeth needs Women’s Liberation’, mused the critic Ruby Cohn in 1976, and her comment predicted the appearance of such spin-off novels as Susan Fraser King’s Lady Macbeth (2008), Lisa Klein’s Lady Macbeth’s Daughter (2009) and R J Hartley and David Henson’s Macbeth: A Novel (2012). It seems unlikely, however, that any revisionary perfume can sweeten the ‘hell-broth’ of crime and punishment stirred up by one of Shakespeare’s most unnerving characters.

  • Sandra M. Gilbert
  • Sandra M. Gilbert has published eight collections of poetry with a new one, Judgment Day, forthcoming in 2018, and among her prose books are Wrongful Death, Death’s Door, Rereading Women and The Culinary Imagination: From Myth to Modernity. She is currently at work, with longtime collaborator Susan Gubar, on a history of seventies feminism tentatively titled “Still Mad." Also with Gubar, Gilbert is co-author of The Madwoman in the Attic and co-editor of The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women, along with numerous other volumes: the two received the 2012 Award for Lifetime Achievement from the National Book Critics Circle.

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