This theme of the relationship between gender and power is key to Lady Macbeth’s character: her husband implies that she is a masculine soul inhabiting a female body, which seems to link masculinity to ambition and violence.
Shakespeare, however, seems to use her, and the witches, to undercut Macbeth’s idea that “undaunted mettle should compose / Nothing but males” (1.7.73–74).
By analyzing the letter Macbeth sends Lady Macbeth, after being proclaimed thane of Cawdor, and her consequent reaction, we will better understand how Shakespeare’s gender-bending of Lady Macbeth dislodges and challenges Macbeth’s power while also adding depth and complexity to Lady Macbeth’s character.
The effects of Lady Macbeth’s atypical masculine characterization unhinge the power dynamic between her and her husband.
These crafty women use female methods of achieving power—that is, manipulation—to further their supposedly male ambitions.
Women, the play implies, can be as ambitious and cruel as men, yet social constraints deny them the means to pursue these ambitions on their own.Afterward, however, she begins a slow slide into madness—just as ambition affects her more strongly than Macbeth before the crime, so does guilt plague her more strongly afterward.By the close of the play, she has been reduced to sleepwalking through the castle, desperately trying to wash away an invisible bloodstain.In this case, his weakness and fears are aired for the audience while Lady Macbeth’s resolution is clear.She will “pour [her] spirit into [his] ear” and guide him forward (Shakespeare I.5.24).Lady Macbeth manipulates her husband with remarkable effectiveness, overriding all his objections; when he hesitates to murder, she repeatedly questions his manhood until he feels that he must commit murder to prove himself.Lady Macbeth’s remarkable strength of will persists through the murder of the king—it is she who steadies her husband’s nerves immediately after the crime has been perpetrated.When he finally warms up to the idea he immediately directs a letter to his wife.Julia Barmazel in her essay “Macbeth, Impotence, and the Body Politic” argues, “Macbeth is impuissance embodied” (119).Although the three witches address Macbeth directly it is Lady Macbeth who immediately displays her ambition without hesitation.Macbeth hesitates in believing the prophecy, Lady Macbeth, on the other hand, upon reading the letter immediately exclaims, “Glamis thou art, and Cawdor; and shalt be / What thou art promised” (Shakespeare I.5.13,14).