To what extent can Lady Macbeth be seen as a female gothic protagonist at the start of the play?
At first meeting, Lady Macbeth appears to us as a ruthless predator, an emancipated woman driven by an all-consuming passion and displaying perfectly, the antithesis of womanhood.She has, it seems, acquired all the necessary requirements to fill the role of a female gothic protagonist.Whether or not she utilises these factors to the full extent and can really be called the protagonist will be discussed in further detail.
Her character is not unveiled until Act I Scene V where, with the use of three speeches, she exposes the workings of her mind and lay it out for the audience.
Her second speech displays perfectly the idea of Lady Macbeth as a ruthless predator. She calls on the supernatural to ‘unsex me here, And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full Of direst cruelty!’ She asks them to ‘Stop up the access and passage to remorse’ and to ‘make thick’ her blood. Here she displays a woman incapable of any feelings of love or amity, but it is important to think of her before she makes this request. If it is necessary for her to ask for the remittal of her remorse, then she must have had the ability to feel such feelings beforehand. We are given no background information on this woman and it is therefore difficult to say if she was always like this or whether it was Macbeth’s letter that changed her; this appeal she makes is one of few insights into her possible mind-set as Lady Macbeth before the play.
Her status as a woman who displays the antithesis of womanhood can hardly be doubted, but Lady Macbeth would not have publicised these feelings. We know this from her relation with Duncan who refers to her as ‘our honoured hostess.’ The King of Scotland would hardly encourage a woman to act the way Lady Macbeth does on the audience’s initial meeting with her. Indeed, Lady Macbeth is a woman changed entirely when in the presence of people of such high status. She appears to be a domesticated woman, one happy to be at home while her husband goes out to war to serve as a loyal citizen. And yet, we know otherwise. In her second speech, she refers to her home as ‘my battlements.’ This presumption of hers, this idea that she should own her home and not her husband would have been a farcical one.
The most menacing speeches uttered by Lady Macbeth occur not just when she summons iniquity, but when she does so with a language that refutes and distorts her maternal nature. In her second speech, she speaks to these ‘spirits’ and asks that they ‘come to my woman’s breasts, And take my milk for gall…’ This line turns this universally natural feature of womanhood into something dark and troubling. Adding to this, the suggestion of changing a mother’s milk, what she feeds her children on, to poison, is a disgusting one. Further on in the play, Shakespeare manipulates this perversion of motherhood again when Lady Macbeth conveys a fantasy of infanticide:
‘I would, while it was smiling in my face, Have pluck’d my nipple from his boneless gums, And dash’d the brains out…’
This horrific image is so against the searing love a mother feels for her child, that it is impossible for the reader to accept that Lady Macbeth fully comprehends firstly, what she is saying and secondly, that maternal love despite her previous statement of ‘I know how tender ‘tis to love the babe that milks me…’
However, Shakespeare has allowed the reader room for doubt. While we are certain that Lady Macbeth is a woman depraved of all the typical qualities of a homemaker, we do see a potential insight into the Macbeth’s sexual relations and Lady Macbeth’s ‘duty’ as a wife. Here, it appears she abides but it does become apparent that it is her who leads the way. Our insight into this idea is in her first speech where she talks of ‘pour[ing] my spirits in thine ear; And chastis[ing] with the valour of my tongue.’ The suggestion here that Lady Macbeth can impress things on her husband through the use of sex, would have been a shocking one. So while these sexual insinuations suggest the ‘wife’ side of Lady Macbeth, the knowledge that she can manipulate him as such, is once again the perfect display of the antithesis of womanhood.
The gothic impact of Lady Macbeth’s indiscretion has less to do with her demonic entreaties, but rather more so with the reversals of her female nature, which show how willing she is to contemplate and fulfil her ambition for power. While certain aspects of her speech allow the reader to imagine her, for a second, as a woman happy to live and serve as a reclaimed wife, her ability to twist and distort words and ideas disallow the audience to hold these thoughts for long. This amalgamation of supernatural desires and her willingness to abandon her sex create, for the reader, a potent force of evil and the perfect female, gothic protagonist.
disparagingly of her husband’s ‘human kindness’ but she summons demonic powers with her invocation: ‘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’ (1.5.38-41). She continues in similar vein: ‘Come to my woman’s breasts, / And take my milk for gall’ (1.5.45-46). Her communing with the forces of darkness is expressed in terms that seek to remove the ‘compunctious visitings’ of her female nature. Later, in one of the play’s most disturbing images, Lady Macbeth expresses a fantasy of infanticide:
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 pluck’d my nipple from his boneless gums
And dashed the brains out
However, when it comes to her manipulation of Macbeth, she adopts the powerful weapon of sexual taunting:
Art thou afeard
To be the same in thine own act and valour
As thou art in desire?
When you durst do it, then you were a man.
Lady Macbeth’s evil allows her at one and the same time to deny her maternal nature and to control her husband by invoking her sexuality. It is this capacity to
distort her female identity to gain her political ends that makes Lady Macbeth at once a potent force for evil and a transgressive figure of the female gothic.