Lady Macbeth’s development throughout the play
In many ways, Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth is an ambiguous character. To some, she is the manipulative embodiment of evil. To others, she is a loyal, supportive wife. In any case, her character develops extensively over the course of the play - just like her husband’s.
From the very first moment we meet her (in Act 1, Scene 5), Lady Macbeth is strong-willed and ambitious. She is reading a letter from her husband about the witches’ prophecy, and unlike Macbeth who initially seems doubtful, Lady Macbeth is more than ready to seize power. She seems to know her husband well and already realises that Macbeth is “not without ambition, but without/ The illness should attend it.” (1.5.19-20). She believes he is simply not ruthless enough to aim for the throne, and to her that is a weakness.
Lady Macbeth does not spend time reflecting like her husband does; instead she acts immediately. In her famous “unsex me” soliloquy, she calls upon evil spirits to remove all her feminine (and thereby weak) qualities:
Unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full
Of direst cruelty! make thick my blood;
Stop up the access and passage to remorse [...]
Come to my woman’s breasts,
And take my milk for gall. (1.5.45-52)
She literally asks to be filled with cruelty and to have remorse removed from her body. She also asks that her milk – produced naturally by her body - be exchanged with gall, a bitter fluid produced by the liver and associated with evil.
In Shakespeare’s day, women were considered weaker than men, which explains why Lady Macbeth now wants nothing to do with traditionally feminine characteristics like producing milk for babies. The point is that if she becomes stronger (and more masculine), she will be able to assist her weak husband in seizing power. Her soliloquy therefore indicates to us that she believes that both she and her husband have too much compassion, which she thinks will stop them from succeeding. Her words show that she is willing to go against nature to achieve her goals. Overall, Lady Macbeth seems stronger than her husband, at least in the beginning of the play.
Interestingly, Lady Macbeth addresses the spirits using the imperative: when she says “unsex me” or “fill me”, she is directly ordering the evil spirits to do what she says. The Elizabethans believed in spirits as strongly as they believed in traditional gender roles. To them, Lady Macbeth would seem like a very frightening and unnatural woman as she...