If you have ever written a literary analysis paper in school, chances are you have read William Shakespeare’s Macbeth. This play is undoubtedly one of the great playwright’s most celebrated works. First performed over four hundred years ago, Macbeth continues to capture modern audiences with its compelling story. The depth of its themes is matched only the by the complexity of its characters—qualities that make it a staple of classic literature. Macbeth has been mounted in countless theater productions, adapted into film many times, and performed by many of the greatest actors and actresses in history. While the play’s title suggests that the most important character is Macbeth himself, it can be argued that Lady Macbeth actually plays a more crucial role. Not only is Lady Macbeth behind her husband’s rise to power, but her death also contributes to Macbeth’s eventual downfall.
One of the reasons why Lady Macbeth can be considered as the real force behind her husband’s rise to power is the fact that she is the one who devises the plot to put Macbeth on the throne of Scotland. It is true that Macbeth lusts for power, especially after the first of the witches’ prophecies comes true. But it is also equally true that Macbeth is wracked by uncertainty that causes him to hesitate in killing Duncan and assuming the throne. On the other hand, Lady Macbeth shows none of the uncertainty or hesitation that torments her husband. She exhibits single-minded determination that eventually persuades her husband to go through with the plot. As she tells him, “you shall put / This night's great business into my dispatch; / Which shall to all our nights and days to come / Give solely sovereign sway and masterdom.” These lines delivered by Lady Macbeth reveal the tremendous influence she wields over her husband. More than this, it shows how Lady Macbeth takes matters into her own hands. In this regard, Lady Macbeth exhibits greater resolve to fulfill the witches’ prophecy. While Macbeth has the ambition, she goes beyond mere desire by taking concrete steps that yield actual results. In a way, it can be said that Lady Macbeth is more ambitious, more cunning, and more fearless than her husband, and these qualities make her the power behind him.
Lady Macbeth also proves herself to the true power behind Macbeth through role-reversal. Though Lady Macbeth is a woman, she rejects her inferior station and instead takes on an active role. She relegates her husband into what amounts as a mere follower or pawn in her scheming. The moment she hears her husband’s news, she figuratively sheds her womanhood: “Come, you spirits / That tend on mortal thoughts, 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.” In this scene, she rejects her status as a woman and its connotations of meekness and compassion. Her dialogue alludes to the dichotomy of man and woman: whereas man possesses qualities that make him a great conqueror such as fearlessness and decisiveness, woman possesses the capacity to nourish. But Lady Macbeth trumps this dichotomy by casting away her femininity. She has herself “unsexed” and does away with symbols of her womanhood: “Come to my woman's breasts, / And take my milk for gall.” She relinquishes the symbol of motherhood, an act that can be taken as a metaphorical transformation into a man. This statement takes on greater significance when she berates her husband and attacks him by questioning his manhood: “I fear thy nature; / It is too full o' the milk of human kindness.” These lines highlight how Lady Macbeth assumes control over her husband. She alludes to a reversal of roles—a situation where the husband becomes the submissive creature subject to the wife’s dominant will. The importance of role-reversal in the power dynamic between Lady Macbeth and Macbeth is further illustrated in the banquet scene. Tormented by apparitions of the dead Banquo, Macbeth is reduced to a nervous wreck. But Lady Macbeth does not allow this to affect her. She assumes control of the situation by coming up with excuses for her husband’s behavior and commanding everyone else. She even asks him the question: “Are you a man?” This scene where Macbeth is broken by his own crimes while his wife remains steadfast encompasses the crucial role Lady Macbeth plays in propelling her husband into power.
Even upon her death, Lady Macbeth exercises influence over her husband’s fate, thus demonstrating how she is a prominent force behind his rise and fall. Upon learning of his wife’s death, Macbeth conveys resignation to his imminent doom: “To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow, / Creeps in this petty pace from day to day / To the last syllable of recorded time, / And all our yesterdays have lighted fools / The way to dusty death.” It can be argued that Lady Macbeth is not the direct reason why her husband fails at the end, seeing how the prophecy foretells of their downfall from the very start. Her death, however, serves as a sort of portent. Lady Macbeth’s departure marks the beginning of the end of her husband’s reign—a harbinger of Macbeth’s own death. Without his wife who until recently has served as the linchpin that holds everything together, Macbeth can do nothing more but make a futile final stand against his enemies. Her importance as a character, therefore, is demonstrated by how everything falls apart once she disappears.
Macbeth is celebrated as a gem of literature for many reasons, and one of these is the richness of its characters. Though the play is named after her, Lady Macbeth may as well be considered as the most important character in the play. She is a clever, manipulative, and strong yet ultimately evil woman who serves as the true source of power that fuels her husband’s ambition. Close reading of their exchange, however, reveals that she may be far more ambitious than him and far more resolute in her quest for power even if on behalf of her husband. Transcending perceived limitations imposed by her status as a woman, she has none of her husband’s uncertainty and hesitation. But just as she is the key to fulfilling the prophecy, she serves as the portent to her husband’s demise. Lady Macbeth exhibits her central role in both life and death.