Shakespeare’s Macbeth is a key text for concentrating on critical approaches to feminism. In so much literature of the sixteenth century, the partriarchy either portrays women as angels, motherly figures, or ‘madwomen’—often women who express themselves in ways other than the norm. Theorists Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar have much to offer in terms of reading the play through a feminist lens, especially in terms of the rise and fall of lady Macbeth in the play. Psychoanalytic criticism, to which Gilbert and Gubar are indebted, is also a useful tool in reading Lady Macbeth’s dramatic decline and fall.
Shakespeare shows Lady Macbeth as a conflicted character. After receiving Macbeth’s letter about the witches’ predictions, she endeavours to resemble a man in her actions, with a specific end goal of becoming Queen of Scotland. Lady Macbeth seems, by all accounts, to be extremely compelling in arranging things to further her plot, choosing when and how they should execute Duncan, and rebuking her husband for not acting more like a man: ‘I may pour my spirits in thine, And chastise with the valour of my tongue, All that impedes thee from the golden round, Which fate and metaphysical aid doth seem, to have thee crowned withal’ Lady Macbeth decides to ‘chastise’ her husband with the “valour of her tongue’. This particular speech portrays Lady Macbeth as the authoritative spouse within the relationship which opposes the typical gender and social norms of that time period. Yet, in spite of these capacities, she is the motivation behind Macbeth’s seizure of the throne.
Male centric culture urges Lady Macbeth to play the part of mother. Lady Macbeth is viewed as unusual when she admits that there is a circumstance in which she would ‘dash the brains out’ of her child. Patriarchal ideology saw woman’s nature as naturally motherly, and therefore, Lady Macbeth’s admission of such a thing is deemed unnatural. Despite the fact that she is astute and strong from the start of Macbeth, Lady Macbeth declines into an immaterial individual haunted by bad dreams and blame. This change occurs in response to the patriarchal depiction of her sexual orientation. Lady Macbeth, who is not used to doing household duties as Lady Macduff is, hones and utilizes her skills even so. Even though knowledge from a male character could be viewed as an advantageous attribute, the male dominated society in the play characterizes Lady Macbeth’s insight as an indication of her being less of a woman.
Sandra M Gilbert suggests that ‘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’. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, in The Madwoman in the Attic: the Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (1979), assert that the “male voice has for too long been dominant. Because males have also had the power of the pen and therefore the press, they have been able to define and create images of women as they so chose in their male texts”. For example, in Macbeth although Lady Macbeth is ‘notably strong compared to other members of her gender’, she has no way of following through with her plans as ‘she is kept isolated from other women during the course of the play. While her strength is great, she is not powerful enough alone to deal with a murder. She does not reveal the secret of their murderous deeds because she is a woman and thus inherently weak, but she reveals the secret because she is a woman and thus has been selectively isolated from finding strength in number’. In response to Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, I agree that for the 16th century period that the written for Lady Macbeth is a very empowered individual and for the people who read the play in that time period may have been surprised and certainly felt it was against her gender role, I disagree that she became a parody of womanhood, she could be seen as an influence and motivation to other women to also empower themselves and not conform to the prescribed gender roles created by societies patriarchy. It is normal for a human being to turn mad over guilt over murders committed and to say she lost her power and returned to being a helpless female is partially biased, but then perhaps that is what Shakespeare wanted to do, to give her a bit of power to her and then to take it all away. It is apparent that there are many men within the play, but not many women cast within the play, perhaps if there were more woman in the play to support Lady Macbeth the plan of becoming Queen would have been easily reachable. This is mainly due to the fact that during the 16th Century prohibition of women on stage, it was a period where men would act and dress as the female characters as women weren’t allowed to perform.
An essay about Stereotypical Images Of Women In Macbeth Shakespeare says, ‘A woman’s sentence’, argue Gilbert and Gubar, could also free women from being reduced to the stereotypical images that all too often appear in literature. They identify the two principal stereotyped images as “the angel in the house” and the “madwoman in the attic”. Gilbert and Gubar, ‘assert that either of these images-the angel or the madwoman are unrealistic representations of woman in society. ‘One canonizes and places the woman above the world, while the other denigrates and places her below the world’. With which both scenarios happen to Lady Macbeth in the play, she begins as quite assertive and dominant within the role she plays as she initiates all the actions to achieve her and her husband’s goal, and then uses her angel – like femininity when she faints because Duncan is murdered to fool people and possibly hide suspicions of his death then becomes the madwoman due to sleep walking, perhaps she is suffering from the guilt of all the murders that occurred and inevitably becomes the madwoman at the end of the writing.
Psychoanalysis today defines psychoanalysis as a ‘theory of how the mind works and a treatment modality’. Freud also suggested that ‘mental maneuvers as transference, projection, and defensiveness, and demonstrated how they distort our functioning’. With connection to Freud’s theories and looking at the evolution of her character, Lady Macbeth begins the play as a strong woman who is cunning and ruthless and schemes alongside her husband to make him king. This is evident in Act 1 Scene 5 when he sees the letter about the prophecy and doubts her husband’s abilities, explaining to him the way a man should respond. In the 1971 film adaptation of the play by Roman Polanski, Lady Macbeth says, “look like the innocent flower but be the serpent underneath, leave all the rest to me”. Lady Macbeth initiates all the plans for the seizure of the throne and at this moment is very strong, assertive and mentally stable for what she wants to achieve.
However, you can identify psychologically that matters are becoming more intense and she is unable to maintain her sanity. One reason may be her guilt over the murders that have taken place and her responsibility for them; for example, Lady Macbeth says ‘Help me hence, ho!’ when she hears the news about the murder and faints. These responses could be interpreted as a projection of guilt which has distorted her functioning. Another scene which speaks to the decline of Lady Macbeth’s stability is while she is sleepwalking and says “Here’s the smell of the blood still. All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand”, the doctor says, “What a sigh is there! The heart is sorely charged” and the nurse gathering the fact that she “would not have such a heart in my bosom for the dignity of the whole body”, Lady Macbeth further says, “I tell you yet again, Banquo’s buried; he cannot come out on’s grace” (5.1). Evidently, Lady Macbeth is suffering from guilt and trauma of the murders; she certainly feels anxious about the murder of Banquo as she mentions his name and assures herself that he cannot come out of his grave. She seems to feel she has blood on her hands for her part in the incidents that occurred, as she can still smell the blood on her hands, and even the perfumes of Arabia couldn’t take the smell away or the smell of guilt. Her nurse has realised that something more sinister is going on and wouldn’t want to bear the Lady Macbeth’s troubles, even it would mean being queen.
While researching Freud’s psychoanalysis on Lady Macbeth, he is struck by her determination at the beginning when she says she would kill Duncan herself, “Had he not resembled/ My father as he slept”, until further on in the play when she sleep walks, ‘she who had seemed so remorseless seems to have been borne by remorse’. It seems she showed so much ruthlessness at the start of the play to become a Queen but then all of a sudden became sentimental. There is the idea that Lady Macbeth had been “originally gentle and womanly nature and collapsed from the strain of violating that nature” which myself and Freud disagree with. Freud believes that Lady Macbeth’s ‘childlessness is at the back of it all. Freud explains that ‘Queen Elizabeth was obliged to recognize James VI of Scotland as her heir’ due to the that she produced no heirs like Lady Macbeth. Therefore, ‘the accession of James I was like a demonstration of the curse of unfruitfulness’ which meant ‘the action of Shakespeare’s Macbeth is based on this same contrast’. For example, Macbeth gets excited when ‘he expects her to “Bring forth men- children only, he seeks to destroy Banquo’s line’ but yet Freud then argues that Lady Macbeth’s ‘collapse could be explained as a reaction to her childlessness’ suggesting that Lady Macbeth not having children is the reason why she became ruthless.