Why Lady Macbeth is literature’s most misunderstood villain

That fateful choice, in Lady Macbeth’s case, may be best understood as that of a woman navigating a strongly patriarchal world. If women had ambitions in early modern England, they mostly had to accomplish them through men, and there’s a strong sense that Lady Macbeth missed an opportunity to achieve greatness both because of her sex and her husband – Macbeth might have status on the battlefield but has less so in court. Her questioning of his manly courage (“Art thou afeard?”) cannot simply be viewed as emasculation but an indication that she could have married a man with more political power. “There is a really interesting theme that there’s a different tragedy for Lady Macbeth when she’s [played] older – she could have easily been queen,” Whyman says. “[Shakespare is] consistently curious about what it is to be a female leader and he keeps putting these guys up with deep flaws, and then suggesting there’s a woman close to them who could have done it better. Of course, he was also living through a time where the idea of a queen was very potent.” Whyman points to Hermione in The Winter’s Tale as another of Shakespeare’s women who suffers at the hands of a weak-minded husband. The virtuous Queen of Sicily is falsely accused of infidelity by King Leontes and is forced to stand trial: “Queen Hermione is treated appallingly [but] she would have led the country brilliantly.

King James I might have been the British sovereign when Macbeth was published but his predecessor, Elizabeth I, was an obvious influence on Shakespeare. Upon her ascension to the throne, the monarch challenged gender roles; she refused to submit to marriage – arguing she was “already bound unto a husband, which is the kingdom of England” – while clinging to her feminine identity in her aesthetic and various speeches, describing her subjects as her “children” for example. But she also displayed the royal traits (considered masculine because of the traditionally male hierarchy) of active agency and decision making, and was referred to using royal male descriptors, like “princely” and “Prince of Light” , as well as being classified as “king” in Parliamentary statute for political purposes. However, where Elizabeth I embraced political androgyny and reigned for 45 years, Lady Macbeth unsexes herself and loses her way. “She thinks the only way to get success is to follow a set of rules that are patriarchal,” says Whyman. “She’s not a kind of power-hungry, man impersonator – she’s wholly in her skin, but she does think the only way to have agency in the world is to do this terrible deed and she’s quite wrong about that. If she held onto her morals, so her femininity in that sense, it wouldn’t have happened.”

Shakespeare was miles ahead when it came to female representation and Lady Macbeth is a character that has too frequently been painted in a two-dimensional light. Had she been afforded more scenes in the play, her motivations might not have appeared so ambiguous to narrow-minded viewers. As it is, Lady M exits the play after her sleepwalking scene and in act five scene seven is reported as dead, evidently by suicide if Malcolm’s comment that she “by self and violent hands took off her life”  is to be believed. But Coen complicates things by adding a sequence involving Lady Macbeth and nobleman Ross (Alex Haskell) that suggests even more foul play might be involved. Did she throw herself down the stairs – either because the guilt was too much or as an act of atonement – or was she pushed by Ross as revenge for her husband’s order to murder his cousin Lady MacDuff? That’s up to the viewer to decide. What is clear, is that Macbeth cares for his wife until the end and Coen presents this by having Washington’s tragic hero looking down upon her laying at the bottom of the fateful staircase, staggering slightly as the pain washes over him. The one constant in this adaptation is their love for one-another.

McDormand joins a welcome list of women bringing enough depth and layers to this formidable character to combat 400 years of gross misunderstandings that say more about those interpreters than the multifaceted literary figure Shakespeare created. Lady Macbeth is a timeless, tragic heroine who should be cherished not scorned. “It’s unhelpful to portray her as wicked or to suggest that because she hasn’t got a child she’s, in some ways, hollow and barren and inevitably evil,” says Whyman. “She’s not a villain; she’s complex, she’s curious – we should admire her.”

The Tragedy of Macbeth is available from Friday internationally on Apple TV+

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