Lady Macbeth is a leading character in William Shakespeare's tragedy Macbeth (c. 1603–1607). As the wife of the play's tragic hero, Macbeth (a Scottish nobleman), Lady Macbeth goads her husband into committing regicide, after which she becomes queen of Scotland. Some regard her as becoming more powerful than Macbeth when she does this, because she is able to manipulate him into doing what she wants. After Macbeth becomes a murderous tyrant, she is driven to madness by guilt over their crimes and kills herself offstage.
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 sleepwalking scene in the fifth act is a turning point in the play, and her line "Out, damned spot!" has become a phrase familiar to many 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.
The role has attracted countless notable actors over the centuries, including Sarah Siddons, Charlotte Melmoth, Helen Faucit, Ellen Terry, Jeanette Nolan, Vivien Leigh, Isuzu Yamada, Simone Signoret, Vivien Merchant, Glenda Jackson, Francesca Annis, Judith Anderson, Judi Dench, Renee O'Connor, Helen McCrory, Keeley Hawes, Alex Kingston, Marion Cotillard, Hannah Taylor-Gordon, Frances McDormand, Ruth Negga, Saoirse Ronan and Valene Kane.
Stephanie Chamberlain in her article "Fantasizing Infanticide: Lady Macbeth and the Murdering Mother in Early Modern England" argues that though Lady Macbeth wants power, her power is "conditioned on maternity", which was a "conflicted status in early modern England". Chamberlain argues that the negative images of Lady Macbeth as a mother figure, such as when she discusses her ability to "dash the brains" of the babe that sucks her breast, reflect controversies concerning the image of motherhood in early modern England. In early modern England, mothers were often accused of hurting the people that were placed in their hands. Lady Macbeth then personifies all mothers of early modern England who were condemned for Lady Macbeth's fantasy of infanticide. Lady Macbeth's fantasy, Chamberlain argues, is not struggling to be a man, but rather struggling with the condemnation of being a bad mother that was common during that time.
Jenijoy La Belle takes a slightly different view in her article, "A Strange Infirmity: Lady Macbeth’s Amenorrhea". La Belle states that Lady Macbeth does not wish for just a move away from femininity; she is asking the spirits to eliminate the basic biological characteristics of womanhood. The main biological characteristic that La Belle focuses on is menstruation. La Belle argues that by asking to be "unsex[ed]" and crying out to spirits to "make thick [her] blood / Stop up th' access and passage to remorse", Lady Macbeth asks for her menstrual cycle to stop. By having her menstrual cycle stop, Lady Macbeth hopes to stop any feelings of sensitivity and caring that is associated with females. She hopes to become like a man to stop any sense of remorse for the regicide. La Belle furthers her argument by connecting the stopping of the menstrual cycle with the persistent infanticide motifs in the play. La Belle gives examples of "the strangled babe" whose finger is thrown into the witches' cauldron (4.1.30); Macduff's babes who are "savagely slaughter’d" (4.3.235); and the suckling babe with boneless gums whose brains Lady Macbeth would dash out (1.7.57–58) to argue that Lady Macbeth represents the ultimate anti-mother: not only would she smash in a baby's brains but she would go even further to stop her means of procreation altogether.
Some literary critics and historians argue that not only does Lady Macbeth represent an anti-mother figure in general, she also embodies a specific type of anti-mother: the witch. Modern day critic Joanna Levin defines a witch as a woman who succumbs to Satanic force, a lust for the devil, and who, either for this reason or the desire to obtain supernatural powers, invokes (evil) spirits. Levin refers to Marianne Hester's Lewd Women and Wicked Witches: A Study of Male Domination, in which Hester articulates a feminist interpretation of the witch as an empowered woman. Levin summarises the claim of feminist historians like Hester: the witch should be a figure celebrated for her nonconformity, defiance, and general sense of empowerment; witches challenged patriarchal authority and hierarchy, specifically "threatening hegemonic sex/gender systems". This view associates witchcraft – and by extension, Lady Macbeth – not with villainy and evil, but with heroism.
Literary scholar Jenijoy La Belle assesses Lady Macbeth's femininity and sexuality as they relate to motherhood as well as witchhood. The fact that she conjures spirits likens her to a witch, and the act itself establishes a similarity in the way that both Lady Macbeth and the Weird Sisters from the play "use the metaphoric powers of language to call upon spiritual powers who in turn will influence physical events – in one case the workings of the state, in the other the workings of a woman's body." Like the witches, Lady Macbeth strives to make herself an instrument for bringing about the future.
She proves herself a defiant, empowered nonconformist, and an explicit threat to a patriarchal system of governance in that, through challenging his masculinity, she manipulates Macbeth into murdering King Duncan. Despite the fact that she calls him a coward, Macbeth remains reluctant, until she asks: "What beast was't, then, that made you break this enterprise to me? / When you durst do it, then you were a man; / And to be more than what you were, you would / Be so much more the man." Thus Lady Macbeth enforces a masculine conception of power, yet only after pleading to be unsexed, or defeminised.
In 2001, actress Maura Tierney portrayed a modernized version of Lady MacBeth in the satirical film Scotland, PA.
In 2009, Pegasus Books published The Tragedy of Macbeth Part II, a play by American author and playwright Noah Lukeman, which endeavoured to offer a sequel to Macbeth and to resolve its many loose ends, particularly Lady Macbeth's reference to her having had a child (which, historically, she did - from a previous marriage, having remarried Macbeth after being widowed.) Written in blank verse, the play was published to critical acclaim.
In 2010, Gloria Carreño's play "A Season Before The Tragedy of Macbeth" was produced by British Touring Shakespeare and received the plaudits of critics for "its amazing grasp of language". It was deemed "a feat" and a must-see for fans of Shakespeare. The dramatist Gloria Carreño describes events from the murder of "Lord Gillecomgain", Gruoch Macduff's first husband, to the fateful letter in the first act of Shakespeare's tragedy.
Alex Kingston starred as Lady Macbeth opposite Kenneth Branagh in his and Rob Ashford's adaption of Macbeth. The play was first performed at the Manchester Festival in 2013 and then transferred to New York for a limited engagement in 2014.
Marion Cotillard played the character in Justin Kurzel's 2015 film adaptation opposite Michael Fassbender as Macbeth.
Frances McDormand played the character in The Tragedy of Macbeth opposite Denzel Washington as Macbeth directed by her husband Joel Coen, the first film directed without his brother Ethan Coen.
In the 2022 Broadway revival of Macbeth, directed by Sam Gold, Ruth Negga played Lady Macbeth opposite Daniel Craig as Macbeth.