The Big Bad in Macbeth: Why I want Lady Macbeth to be an Anti-Hero

by Ammielle Charles

Image by Steve Oprey from Pixabay’s Elise Ringo wrote a compelling argument in her article “Villainesses Required: Why the Dark Side Needs More Women”. Even though she acknowledged female villains that already exist in pop culture, she argued that female villains “are bound by the stereotypical limitations of their gender.” Even though “some female villains…break the mold,” there is still a need for good female villains. She explained,

Biological essentialists have long held that women are naturally kinder, gentler, and more morally upright than men are. They claim that women, as nurturers and child-rearers, must carry the burden of seeing to society’s moral needs, and guiding others to the light.

Ringo believes that “‘good representation’” means that there must be good female villains in addition to good female heroes.

Lady Macbeth did not think that Macbeth was mean enough to kill the Scottish King Duncan in order to become king. She then takes charge of the assassination plot herself (Shakespeare 1.5. 15-61). Lady Macbeth asked “spirits” to “fill” her with “direst cruelty” and to “unsex” her, among other things. (Shakespeare 1.5.45-61) She decided to become “evil” (Mowat and Werstine 32). According to, unsex means to “To deprive of the qualities considered characteristic of one’s sex; esp., to make unwomanly.” (YourDictionary) Lady Macbeth did not use the moral high ground to help her husband.

In “‘Unsex Me Here’: Lady Macbeth’s ‘Hell Broth’” British Library’s Sandra M. Gilbert implied that Lady Macbeth’s decision to take charge “is symbolically masculine, even while in a Shakespearean context, it is villainous…the lady’s boastful intention signifies her rebellion against the submissive role to which her culture has assigned her.” Taking away her female morality makes Lady Macbeth a villain, Gilbert further explained.

Unsexed by her own will, Lady Macbeth is now no longer a conventional ‘lady’…she seems to become an inhuman creature, a dark parody of femaleness…In unsexing herself she almost appears to have…stepped out of…the natural order of things in which the ‘milk of human kindness’ nurtures moral feeling.”

Macbeth himself showed that he admired her. Impressed with her plan, courage, and determination, Macbeth tells Lady Macbeth that she could “only” give birth to boys because of her “mettle” (Shakespeare 1.7. 83-85)

The play has many assumptions about gender. In Act 1, Scene 7, Macbeth did not want to kill Duncan anymore. Macbeth’s manhood is then discussed after Lady Macbeth practically calls him a “coward” (Shakespeare 1.7. 47). Lady Macbeth claimed that Macbeth would not only be “a man” if he went through with the plot but would be “so much more the man” if he was to become king (Shakespeare 1.7.50-62). Manhood is also associated with courage several times, especially when Macbeth becomes afraid before he dies and says that the circumstances had “cowed…[his] better part of man” (Shakespeare 5.8. 21-22). The Folger Shakespeare Library edition of Macbeth suggests that the phrase could mean “courage” (Mowat and Werstine 186).

In Stephen Greenblatt’s Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics, Chapter seven (titled “The Instigator”) observed that 

The real instigator of the murder plot is not Macbeth but, rather, his wife…The tyrant, Macbeth and other plays suggest, is driven by a range of sexual anxieties: a compulsive need to prove his manhood, dread of impotence, a nagging apprehension that he will not be found sufficiently attractive or powerful, a fear of failure. Hence the penchant for bullying, the vicious misogyny, and the explosive violence. Hence, too, the vulnerability to taunts, especially those bearing a latent or explicit sexual charge.” (Greenblatt 98-99).

Greenblatt paints Lady Macbeth as the real villain who is responsible for “the birth of the tyrant” that had been “the embodiment of ambivalence” (Greenblatt 99-100). It is hard to argue with this since Lady Macbeth is actually behind it all.

However, I wonder if Macbeth could still count as a villain that already had the makings of a villain. Macbeth was also able to plan the death of his friend Banquo and kills the family of another Scottish noble named Macduff (Shakespeare 3.2.129-162, 4.2.71-98).

Greenblatt continued to discuss the mentality of a tyrant and Macbeth. He describes the misery of his circumstances, emotional state, and downfall. Even though Greenblatt continues to describe a kind of “devastating experience”, He knows that some of the things Macbeth went through were “brought upon himself” (Greenblatt 111). Greenblatt also mentioned that “In a famous sleepwalking scene, we see her grappling with her own inner demons…” He does not really analyze what that means for Lady Macbeth’s psyche, at least in this chapter.

Ringo wrote that “some female villains…often lack the depth and complexity of their male counterparts: They don’t get the fascinating origin stories, or the moral ambiguity, or the narrative sympathy.” However, Ringo still wants “women who are really, truly, bad. Women who are willing to burn the world down…Women who are ambitious, who crave power, who are willing to crush people on the way to the top.”

Lady Macbeth is truly evil. She wants Macbeth to be king no matter what. Does this mean that she can’t be sympathized with, or portrayed as one of what Ringo called “female anti-heroes”? After all, she was affected by what she did, and the play showed that in the scene where she sleepwalked (Shakespeare 5.1.1-84). She also decided not kill Duncan herself, because he looked like her father when he was asleep. However, she was still cold after the murder and was able to plant the murder weapons (Shakespeare 2.2.15-17, 58-88).

Gilbert observed that there have been “many efforts have been made to rehabilitate Lady Macbeth. Since the late 20th century, for instance, as William C Carroll has reported, a number of writers, especially feminists, have produced prequels or sequels to the play in which the wicked heroine is revealed as a sympathetic, motherly woman.”

I do not think Lady Macbeth needs to be motherly, but I wholeheartedly stand behind sympathy for female villains.


Gilbert, Sandra M. “‘Unsex Me Here’: Lady Macbeth’s ‘Hell Broth.’” British Library, 15 Mar. 2020, Accessed 5 Dec. 2020.

Greenblatt, Stephen. “The Instigator.” Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics, W.W. Norton and Company, Inc., 2018, pp. 96-112.

Ringo, Elise. “Villainesses Required: Why the Dark Side Needs More Women.” Tor.Com,, 16 Apr. 2020, Accessed 5 Dec. 2020.

“Unsex Definitions.” Your Dictionary,, Accessed 5 Dec. 2020.


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