Lady Macbeth  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Lady Macbeth is a character in Shakespeare's Macbeth (c.1603–1607). She is the wife to the play's protagonist, Macbeth, a Scottish nobleman. After goading him into committing regicide, she becomes Queen of Scotland, but later suffers pangs of guilt for her part in the crime. She dies off-stage in the last act, an apparent suicide.

The character's origins lie in the accounts of Kings Duff and Duncan in Holinshed's Chronicles (1587), a history of Britain familiar to Shakespeare. Shakespeare's Lady Macbeth appears to be a composite of two separate and distinct personages in Holinshed's work: Donwald's nagging, murderous wife in the account of King Duff, and Macbeth's ambitious wife Gruoch of Scotland in the account of King Duncan.

Lady Macbeth is a powerful presence in the play, most notably in the first two acts. Following the murder of King Duncan, however, her role in the plot diminishes. She becomes an uninvolved spectator to Macbeth's plotting, and a nervous hostess at a banquet dominated by her husband's hallucinations. Her fifth act sleepwalking scene is a turning point in the play, and her line, "Out, damned spot!," has become a phrase familiar to most speakers of the English language. The report of her death late in the fifth act provides the inspiration for Macbeth's "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow" speech.

Analysts see in the character of Lady Macbeth the conflict between femininity and masculinity, as they are impressed in cultural norms. Lady Macbeth suppresses her instincts toward compassion, motherhood, and fragility — associated with femininity — in favour of ambition, ruthlessness, and the singleminded pursuit of power. This conflict colours the entire drama, and sheds light on gender-based preconceptions from Shakespearean England to the present.

The role has attracted countless notable actresses over the centuries, including Sarah Siddons, Charlotte Melmoth, Helen Faucit, Ellen Terry, Vivien Leigh, Vivien Merchant, Glenda Jackson, Francesca Annis, Judith Anderson, Renée O'Connor, Judi Dench, Tabu and Keeley Hawes. Jeanette Nolan played the character in Orson Welles' 1948 film adaptation.


Shakespeare's Lady Macbeth appears to be a composite of two personages found in the accounts of Kings Duff and Duncan in Holinshed's Chronicles (1587). In the account of King Duff, one of his captains, Donwald, suffers the deaths of his kinsmen at the orders of the King. Donwald then considers regicide at "the setting on of his wife" who "showed him the means whereby he might soonest accomplish it." Donwald abhors such an act but perseveres at the nagging of his wife. After plying the King's servants with food and drink and letting them fall asleep, the couple admit their confederates to the King's room who then commit the regicide. The murder of Duff has its motivation in revenge, rather than ambition.

In Holinshed's account of King Duncan, Lady Macbeth is confined to a single sentence:

The words of the three Weird Sisters also (of whom before ye have heard) greatly encouraged him hereunto; but specially his wife lay sore upon him to attempt the thing, as she was very ambitious, burning with an unquenchable desire to bear the name of a queen."

Not found in Holinshed are the invocation to the "spirits that tend on mortal thoughts," the sleepwalking scene, and various details found in the drama concerning the death of Macbeth.

Although Macbeth's wife can be traced to a real-world counterpart, Queen Gruoch of Scotland, Shakespeare's fictional character is tied so weakly to her that the bonds are virtually non-existent.Template:Citation needed

See also

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