112th Annual Conference - Riverside Convention Center, California
Friday, October 31 - Sunday, November 2, 2014

This page is about the 2014 conference. For 2015 conference info, go to PAMLA 2015.

The Transformation of Lady Macbeth: Witchcraft and Kingship in Shakespeare’s Tragedy

Katharine Henry, California State University, Los Angeles

The significance of Lady Macbeth’s role in Macbeth, a significant expansion from the original Holinshed’s Chronicles, is larded with political purpose. In that role, her transformation from center stage decisive and bloodthirsty villain to shadowy sleepwalking madwoman underlines a consistent partnership with Macbeth in which she adapts as the stage necessitates into political ally, wife, queen, and witch to accommodate their shared goal of power.  


Though little is known of William Shakespeare’s life, what is certain is his access to Holinshed’s Chronicles, the authoritative source on British history at the time. From its genealogical account of the kings leading up to the Stuart line, Shakespeare takes inspiration for his tragedy Macbeth. The story of Macbeth, a malevolent Scottish king, unfolds in the Chronicles as a literary drama with metaphors, allusions, and fantasy, all which Shakespeare augments in his darkest play. One of his most notable additions is an expanded role for Lady Macbeth who is largely absent from the Holinshed text. Shakespeare’s additions to Holinshed’s Chronicles darken an already bloody drama. The historical text surveys the consequences of usurpation, enforcing a Divine Right of Kings that sets out hereditary and kin patriarchal lineage as the only legitimate rule. Those that sabotage the throne and do not face a swift punishment are plagued with a torturous existence because to unlawfully depose the king is to challenge God himself. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth launch such a challenge and their force pushes the play towards the foul and mad. While at the start of the play, Macbeth was hesitant to commit violence and Lady Macbeth was dressed in the “direst cruelty” the closing act of the play depicts a complete reversal of roles with Macbeth scheming the murders of Banquo and MacDuff without consulting Lady Macbeth, who becomes withdrawn from the action of the play that she seemed to set in motion. This seems to signify their splintering partnership but rather than fall apart, they seem to take on the dominant qualities of each other. While readings of Lady Macbeth may stress her character difference to Macbeth, how her utter forceful control is an unlikely feminine aggression to his softer, more philosophical persona, this paper has invited an analysis of Lady Macbeth that sees their characters as deeply intertwined all the while she becomes the play’s fourth witch, or fifth, if one counts Hecate. An analysis of Lady Macbeth’s position cannot disregard the gendered associations to her character, as witch and mother, but neither can it ignore those qualities that are idiosyncratically her own. Even while the tragedy unravels in an Aristotelian manner from unity to disunity, Lady Macbeth ends where she began: devoted to her “dearest partner in greatness” and their shared doom in madness and decline.