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The Shakespeare Sisterhood: Lady Macbeth

Of all the Shakespearean Sisterhood, there is perhaps least unanimity of opinion as to the character of Lady Macbeth. She enjoys the distinction of being a successful puzzle to critics and commentators, who have exhausted even their ingenuity in attempting to deduce from her attributes any satisfactory conclusions. In the wide range of opinion she exists, successively: as a monstrous horror, delighting, vampire-like, in blood, for its own sake; a "pure demoniac," abstract incarnation of cruelty; a vulgar, vixenish fury; and a magnificent instance of the perversion, by one bad passion, of the rarest natural endowments -- powerful intellect, marvellous force, and strong affections.

It is almost needless to say that the latter is the nearest approach to an intelligent appreciation of Lady Macbeth. Intellect and force we must all concede to her; and notwithstanding our first impulse to deny her any thing "pure womanly," her affections are as profound as may coexist with a mind exclusively masculine, and a heart fully possessed of a very devil of ambition.

It has been contended, with amiable plausibility, that this ambition was entertained only for her husband -- that it was her complete identification of her own with his hopes and far-reaching aspirations which thus steeled her conscience, her woman's tenderness, her very physique, to an insane indifference to crimes, however revolting, so they but advanced his fortunes. But it is not easy to discover this absorbing passion for her husband in Lady Macbeth, or, indeed, any higher regard for him than the half-contemptuous, yet tenacious, affection almost always entertained by "strong-minded" women for men greatly inferior to themselves in force of character and intellect. On the other hand, Macbeth's implicit confidence in his wife, his boundless admiration of her courage, even in crime, his dependence upon her in every emergency to which he feels himself unequal, are but the tribute which every vacillating character, uncertain of its own powers, suspicious of its best efforts, pays to a forcible, self-asserting nature, capable of swaying it at its own grand will.

The individualization of Lady Macbeth is almost independent of her social relations, of her sex even; she is that hateful accident, a masculine heart, soul, and brain, clothed with a female humanity. Even the few touches of pathos or tenderness, introduced to remind us of her sex, as it were, would be natural to any man not positively monstrous; and her final remorse, madness, and death, we cannot regard as the repentance, or even horror, of the soul for its own deeds, but simply as the consequences of an organization physically inadequate to the demands of a too vigorous intellect.

In the same manner, the almost diabolic nerve displayed by her on the night of the king's murder, and subsequently, is plainly a mental victory over a body as frail as becomes her sex; the moment her vigilance is relaxed, or the immediate necessity for its exercise is removed, the fragile structure gives way, and drags down to its pitiful level all the splendors which have glorified its weakness.

What we mean to say is: that a man, having had the wickedness to plan, the courage to dare, the nerve to execute, so revolting a crime as the murder of an anointed king, who was more-over an illustrious kinsman and a condescending guest, would have lived on to the end with as little remorse as Lady Macbeth really felt, and with none of the physical demonstrations which may easily be mistaken for it. Separate Lady Macbeth the individual, from Lady Macbeth the woman, and the mystery of her character is at once cleared -- she is woman in her incarnation only.

The text, oddly enough, supports our theory, in not affording a single hint of her person, whether tall or short, dark or fair.

How to cite this article:
Palmer, Henrietta L. The Stratford gallery, or, The Shakespeare sisterhood. New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1859. Shakespeare Online. 20 Oct. 2009. (date when you accessed the information) < >.

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Lady Macbeth. From The Stratford Gallery by Henrietta Palmer.