Mary, Eve, and Lilith in King Lear, Othello, and Macbeth
Feminist criticism often explores the symbolic or archetypal use of the Biblical figures of Mary and Eve in literary criticism. One figure which seems appropriate to such discussions, but so far neglected it seems, is the figure of Lilith. Indeed, in the case of Shakespearean criticism, Lilith seems an appropriate model at times for such characters as Goneril, Regan, Lady Macbeth, and so forth. Accordingly, it is my intention to explore this lost archetype and relate it to three of Shakespeare's tragedies: King Lear, Othello, and Macbeth.
To begin, Lilith is an enigma in many circles, with varying tales and legends ascribed to her. In certain aspects of Jewish folklore, Lilith is believed to have been the original wife of Adam who was exiled from Eden and replaced with the better known Eve because she refused to submit to Adam's male authority (Grolier "Lilith").
According to one version, she slept with Adam after the Fall and birthed evil spirits and also supposedly the devil and birthed the jinn (Arabic demons of legend, sometimes ascribed as being genies). Later in legend, she became identified as a succubus who caused "nocturnal emissions [associated with "wet dreams in men"] and the birth of witches and demons called lilim." Charms were created to protect from her influence and she was believed to have stolen and slain children (Grolier "Lilith").
She is mentioned in the Talmud in several places. Among these references include:
Rabbi Jerimia ben Eleazar further stated: "In those years, after his
expulsion from the Garden of Eden, in which Adam...,was under the
ban, he begot ghosts and male demons and female night demons, or
Liliths." Rabbi Meir said: "...That statement about Adam begetting
Lilim, was made in reference to the semen he emitted accidentally."
("Direct Biblical"; qtd. from B. Er. 18b Talmud)
Lilith, a female demon of the night, has a human likeness, but she also
has wings ("Direct Biblical"; qtd. from B. Nido 24b Talmud).
Rabbi Hanina said: "One may not sleep alone in a house, for whoever
sleeps alone in a house is seized by Lilith" ("Direct Biblical"; qtd. from B.
Shab. 151b Talmud).
It would seem that in a Talmudic sense Lilith was associated with lust and the impurity associated with it, giving birth to evils and ills. The majority of Hebrew sources reflect this dark image of Lilith.
However, some are markedly different. The story of Lilith as told in the Alphabet of Ben Sira 23A-B seems to paint a more sympathetic picture. According to the story, God created Lilith to accompany Adam, who was lonely. However, unlike Eve who was formed from his rib, Lilith was formed from the earth. The two, it is said, quarrelled it seemed immediately.
She said, "I will not lie below you." He said, "I will not lie below you,