Lady Macbeth first appears when she reads the letter Macbeth sends ahead in the first Act, telling her of the witches’ prophecies and of Duncan’s imminent arrival in Dunsinane. She immediately responds with ambition. The traditional view of femininity at the time would have been that women are gentle, weak and submissive to their husbands. For example, Macduff refers to Lady Macbeth as ‘gentle Lady’. Lady Macbeth at times plays up to this stereotype, for example, fainting when Macbeth is getting himself into trouble. Yet at other times, Lady Macbeth defies this, opening the play by demonstrating her power, calling Dunsinane her ‘battlements’, and trying to persuade Macbeth to perform the heretical and violent action of murdering the King.
When Macbeth arrives and greets her, she is angry and disappointed in his lack of motivation to kill Duncan, which shows Lady Macbeth’s unusual cruelty. Ideas of masculinity vs femininity are seen repeatedly through Lady Macbeth’s taunting of Macbeth. She repeatedly emasculates Macbeth, telling him that he is ‘too full of the milk of human kindness’. By relating milk (a feminine product) to kindness, Lady Macbeth reveals that she does not believe that kindness is a masculine quality. She believes that masculinity is brutality, cruelty and ambition. At the beginning of the play, Macbeth is definitely strong and brutal - see the description of Macbeth killing an enemy soldier. However, his inability to fulfil his ambitions makes him un-masculine in Lady Macbeth’s eyes. The lack of Macbeth’s masculinity and Lady Macbeth’s own lack of femininity may go some way towards explaining why the two have no children - Lady Macbeth in particular is too brutal a woman to be granted children, symbols of innocence in the play.
Yet to some degree by killing Duncan, Macbeth becomes more masculine to Lady Macbeth, despite the fact that he becomes increasingly cowardly.
Lady Macbeth can thus be linked with the three witches in the play because they both show their brutality and their genders are not clear. The witches are described by Banquo as “you should be women,/ And yet your beards forbid me to interpret/ That you are so.” This shows that they initially appear female, yet are corrupted by masculinity. For the witches, this shows their corruption of the natural world, yet Lady Macbeth’s masculinity shows her cruelty - though she too will corrupt the world by murdering Duncan. Moreover, Lady Macbeth says “unsex me” and “ here/ And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full/ Of direst cruelty!’ This shows her misunderstanding of masculinity - she views it as something which is cruel and ruthless. This view is later rejected by Malcolm and Macduff. To some extent, the Witches and Lady Macbeth both show the danger of womanhood being corrupted by evil.
Lady Macbeth’s sheer persuasiveness also shows her power and her manipulative nature, leading her to eventually successfully convince Macbeth to murder Duncan. ‘Why, worthy thane,/ You do unbend your noble strength, to think/So brainsickly of things.’ She is saying that Macbeth has noble strength but us still acting like a coward. This insult makes Macbeth willing to prove himself and thus he does what Lady Macbeth asks him to do. An audience may, however, question the extent towards this is Lady Macbeth’s doing, and to what degree Macbeth would have killed Duncan anyway, moved by his own ambition.
Lady Macbeth is also ambitious, and from the play’s opening worries about her husband’s kindness being their downfall. She too wants Macbeth to be the King, and she wants to become a man (or at least not to be bound by the social expectations of womanhood.)
She is also extremely smart, and pretends to faint in order to get rid of the suspicions people would have towards Macbeth. When Macbeth sees Banquo’s ghost and acts madly, she attempts to cover it by saying “my lord is often thus”. This shows her quick thinking and how as a woman she is willing to protect her husband, who is her means of being Queen.
We might see a foil for Lady Macbeth in the character of Lady Macduff. The latter is a stereotypical woman in the Jacobean age, she is brave yet focused on her family above all others, and knows that a woman’s place is to be innocent and guiltless, even if this is not rewarded.
Her decreasing involvement in the play and downfall comes from her guilt towards Duncan and is shown in Macbeth’s increasing paranoia - he increasingly doesn’t even tell her when he is plotting murders, telling her to ‘be innocent of the knowledge’. As an audience, we see less and less of Lady Macbeth after Duncan’s murder because of the reversal of roles between her and Macbeth.
Throughout the play Lady Macbeth has also shown weakness, particularly when she cannot kill Duncan because ‘he resembled my father as he slept’. Even in the first half of the play, then, we might see that Lady Macbeth is not quite as cruel, or as unfeeling as she initially seems.
When Lady Macbeth reappears in the sleepwalking scene, she seems to be re-reading a letter in her sleep which shows how big an affect the murder of Duncan has on her. The letter she is re-reading is that which Macbeth sent her at the opening of the play, which began the events of the play. Rereading suggests she notices that this is where everything went wrong, when she told Macbeth to kill Duncan. It is now suggested that she regrets this and and wishes she had done something else. The fact that she must have light by her at all times shows her attempting to search for good in her own moral darkness, as well as her guilt regarding the many sins she has committed.
‘In this slumbery agitation’ means she is troubled in sleep and shows her inner anxiety and turmoil. Sleep throughout Macbeth is a good indicator of the subconscious.
‘Out damned spot!’ This quotation shows the image of blood is haunting her continuously and suggests her inner fear has always come from guilt and regret of her decision. Lady Macbeth now begins washing her hands, attempting to wash the blood off them. 'Out, damned spot', is also reminiscent of Pontius Pilate - spiritual blood and sin cannot be removed. Pontius Pilate was the man who gave Jesus to the crowd who said he should be executed. Afterwards, Pilate tries to wash the blood from his hands metaphorically, but he’s still guilty. 'Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him' - images of seas of blood in the play stem from this one murder, blood spreading linguistically as well as literally. The sin of the murder was so great that the ‘blood’ spread by Duncan’s corpse washes over everything,
To some degree we may see this scene as Lady Macbeth’s last confession, where she confesses what she has done to the audience, if not to God.
She ends her role here saying 'to bed', she cannot change what has happened and so she must die (sleep being the mimic of death). 'there's knocking at the gate', signalling her own impending judgement, as well as the death knell which has been sounding since the murder.