Out of all of Shakespeare’s works, Macbeth is my undisputed favourite. With its gloomy themes of madness and murder, it is pretty unbeatable for those of us who favour the tragic plays over the comedies. That said, the reason I love Macbeth over the other tragedies, excellent though they may be (I have a particularly soft spot for Antony and Cleopatra), is Lady Macbeth.
Lady Macbeth, the conductor of events, the instigator, the menacing presence, ambitious, ruthless, murderous. What is not to love? Only one thing: she more or less disappears in the third act. In the end, even her demise is off-stage, in what could be described as a disappointing end for the initial, and arguably true, villain of the play. Macbeth’s subsequent madness and additional murders notwithstanding, his actions are a consequence of hers, his path was set by her, his rise and fall is down to her. And yet, she fades from view.
I am in two minds about this. On the one hand, we lose sight of one of the most tantalizing characters in the play. The sleepwalking scene, her last, is fantastic: the Lady Macbeth, candlestick in hand, rubbing her hands in anguish, her speech jagged, disordered, not even in verse. It leaves me wondering what we are missing out on in not letting her full story play out.
On the other hand, there is a poetic justice in her diminished visibility. The motivation of Lady Macbeth is power and influence. She wants her husband to be king. She wants to be queen. What could be more fitting than to have her punishment be erasure. The villain who is willing to get blood on their hands to feed their ambition, not even there for their final scene.
“Of this dead butcher and his fiend-like queen,
self and violent hands: i.e., her own violent hands.
Who, as ’tis thought, by self and violent hands
Took off her life”
And so she is gone, one of Shakespeare’s most interesting women, though she reappears under different guises in a plethora of other works. Jezebel, Ellen Tigh, Mrs Lovett, Cersei Lannister to name a few. Repackaged and resold, often more ruthless and more cruel than the main character. After all, the villainous tendencies of the puppet master ought to outweigh that of the puppet. Particularly if the schemer is a woman, and women are meant to be nurturing and kind. Thus Lady Macbeth, in all her unfeminine, power-hungry glory, is the she-spider, the sociopath, the would-be baby killer, and the nastiest character on stage both because of what she is and because of what she is not.
“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 plucked my nipple from his boneless gums
and dashed the brains out, had I so sworn as you
have done to this.”
It is not only the character of Lady Macbeth that is echoed in other works, but also the third act disappearance. The Ladies Macbeth typically die before the final showdown. They have to, in most cases, being the greater villain of the piece. A story with Lady Macbeth still standing is not a finished story.*
Or they used to have to die.
The Ladies Macbeth of late, such as House of Cards’ Claire Underwood, are almost just as likely to take over the reins themselves (contrast with her earlier counterpart Elizabeth Urquhart). Lady Macbeth no more, we get President Macbeth. Toil and trouble looms ahead. The puppet master is on the throne, and we should all be
afraid, very afraid, excited, very excited.
* Also, the Lady has to die before we start wondering why on earth she is not the main character.