The Changing Attitudes of Lady Macbeth in William Shakespeare's Macbeth
In Shakespearean England, women’s role in society was very different
to what it is today. Today, women are allowed, and in fact, almost
expected to be educated, independent, confidant, outspoken, and to go
to work, to provide for themselves.
In the 1600’s, it wasn’t like that. Women were gentle, kind, and
fragile. If they were well off, they were expected to stay at home and
sew, whilst their husbands went out and earnt the money. Poorer women
still had to stay at home, and they had to cook, clean, and generally
look after the house. Women were submissive; to be seen and not heard,
and it was unusual for a woman to be educated.
Lady Macbeth is not typical of a woman from Shakespeare’s time, and we
see that when we first meet her in Act I, Scene v, where she is
reading a letter from Macbeth, telling her of his experience with the
‘weird sisters’ and their predictions. The fact she is able to read
shows she is educated and literate, unlike most women. Her immediate
reaction to the letter is ‘thou shalt be what thou art promised’; the
letter has sparked something inside her, and has decided straight away
that she wants to be queen, and therefore she will make Macbeth’s
prediction come true, and he will be king.
The attendant then comes in, informing her that King Duncan will be
staying at their castle with them. Immediately, she shows a savage
side, as her thoughts turn to killing the king to get what she wants.
She is a woman with high goals; she wont settle for being Lady
Macbeth, she wants to be Queen, even if it means killing Duncan.
Her speech also shows us that in this relationship, she seems to be
the tougher of the two. She fears that Macbeth is ‘too full o’th’milk
of human nature’, and, even though he is ambitious, she doesn’t think
he would kill the king to get what she wants. Lady Macbeth also talks
about how she wants to be ‘unsexed’; she wants her breasts filled with
poison instead of milk. The fact that she focuses on her breasts is
significant; she wants to rid herself of the most feminine part of
her, the part that represents being a woman. By wishing away the milk
in her breasts she is wishing away the feelings of love, gentleness
and tenderness that goes with being a mother.