Most people would agree that we’ve come a long way in the fight for women’s rights. #IWD
But while there’s no denying that the ‘fairer sex’ has always had the shorter end of the stick, humans like to reduce history to simplistic binaries or ‘grand narratives’. Women on the whole have been consistently oppressed for most of history, but this doesn’t discount the fact that there’ve been some exceptionally strong women (whom we’d nowadays view as ‘proto-feminists’) since classical antiquity.
Think Cleopatra, the last ruler of the Ptolemaic Kingdom in the Hellenistic period, or Joan of Arc, the warrior who led the Siege of Orleans in 1428, or Wu Zetian, the Tang Dynasty Empress and only female monarch in Chinese History. It’s surely one of history’s great ironies, then, that some of its most gung-ho leaders were women – because so much of history has also been spent on refuting women’s ability to get things done.
The most powerful woman in English history
In the context of English – and specifically, Renaissance – history, the supreme representative of strong female power is perhaps none other than Elizabeth I, ruler of England and Ireland from 1558-1603. As I mention in my post on ambition in Macbeth, Liz I was an ever-looming presence over much of Shakespeare’s works, and would likely have shaped, to some extent, how the Bard decided to characterise (and not characterise) female figures in his plays.
Consider, for instance, that Shakespeare’s most iconic ‘bad’ women are from post-1603 plays (i.e. plays during James I’s reign), such as Lady Macbeth and the Three Witches in Macbeth (1606), as well as Goneril and Regan in King Lear (1605-6).
Of course, one could argue that Shakespeare’s craft improved as he matured, and with greater skill comes the ability and confidence to portray women in more nuanced, multifaceted ways. But Juliet and Portia (who are probably the most memorable females in Shakespeare’s Elizabethan plays) are also remarkably complex characters – they’re just clearly not in the ‘bad women’ camp. So go figure.
One of the most vexing things, I find, with cultural/literary criticism about women (whether fictional or real), is this reductive tendency to either demonise or haloise, sluttify or saintify.
Granted, it’s not all critics who do this, and there’s definitely more than a few perspectives out there which appreciate that women, like men, are similarly complicated and conflicted creatures – because human beings are complicated and conflicted by nature.
Personally, I’m a bit wary of applying ‘feminist interpretation’ to any reading, not because I don’t agree with feminist values (I do), but because adopting any specific angle to literary analysis is reductivist, and fundamentally goes against the spirit of literature (which, in my view, is humanist – even though I’m probably going to ruffle some feathers with this comment).
Lady Macbeth the ‘bad’ versus Desdemona the ‘good’ (really, though?)
Among the pantheon of Shakespeare’s female characters, Lady Macbeth and Desdemona are especially interesting as ‘counterpoints’ to each other.
Notice that I put quotation marks around the word ‘counterpoints’, because that’s based on the mainstream premise of Lady Macbeth as a ‘bad’ woman and Desdemona as a ‘good’ woman.
Lady Macbeth has a bad rap because she supposedly spurs her husband towards regicide and murder, whereas Desdemona is Virgin Mary reincarnate because she remains pure, loyal and artless despite being manipulated and wronged by those she trusts.
It’s not that these views aren’t correct, but they’re hardly the sum total of both characters. Traditionally, there’s a certain stigma associated with seeing dramatic characters as real people (as opposed to theatrical devices), but I’ve never really understood this.
After all, why else do we read or engage with literature, if not to regard fiction as a petri dish for reality, and fictional characters as shadows of ourselves? A woman could very well at different points in her life be Lady Macbeth and Desdemona, perspective and circumstances depending. Lady Macbeth in a different time and with a different partner could have been a Desdemona 2.0, and likewise with Desdemona.
What the two characters do share, though, is a tenacious desire to have their voices heard by men, being vocal, confident women who are unafraid and undeterred, whether for good or for ill.
In this post, then, I want to take the Devil’s Advocate point of view (sort of) by proposing that we read Lady Macbeth as less evil than she’s made out to be, and Desdemona as less virtuous than we’re tempted to believe.
Why Lady Macbeth deserves more of our sympathy: “I feel now/The future in the instant”
Let’s begin with an observation by the Shakespearean critic Emma Smith –
The idea that the ‘fiend-like queen’ (5.11) Lady Macbeth manipulates her husband into murder has been a compelling one, not least because it’s an argument with long cultural pedigree drawing on fears about women’s power. It often brings criticism into apparently willing collusion with the play’s own misogyny. The outlines of the argument are so familiar that they are independent of the play itself. Lady Macbeth is the driving force behind her husband… [she] is the prime culprit for the murder.
To clarify, this isn’t Smith’s view on Lady Macbeth – she’s simply summarising the traditional take on this character. But it’s a useful place to start, if only because I find the emphasis in this sort of ‘misogynistic’ argument to be misplaced.
Notwithstanding Lady Macbeth’s independent strength, many critics still see her role in the play as a secondary one, and her motives as being largely political and self-serving.
According to this reading, the woman manipulates Macbeth because she wants him – and by extension, them – to gain the Scottish throne and all the power that comes with it.
Yet I don’t think that’s quite the full picture. In fact, one could argue that Lady Macbeth wants Duncan killed for reasons largely unrelated to political power. The genesis of her wayward desires goes much deeper than that.
So what drives her?
Our first clues lie in her famed “unsex me here” speech in Act 1 Scene 5 –
Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full
Of direst cruelty! make thick my blood;
Stop up the access and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
The effect and it! Come to my woman’s breasts,
And take my milk for gall, you murdering ministers,
Wherever in your sightless substances
You wait on nature’s mischief!
It may seem from references like “Come to my woman’s breasts,/And take my milk for gall” that Lady Macbeth is asking to be “unsex-ed” or “de-womanised”, but a closer reading tells us that it’s in fact the opposite instinct at work. She is spurred towards cruelty by a torturous desire to be maternal, but in the fundamental sense of creating and bringing to bear something in this world.
The reference to “unsexing” isn’t so much a call for the removal of her womanhood, but a replacement of her existing (or the conventional) form of womanhood with a more sinister one.
After all, she doesn’t ask for her “woman’s breasts” to be destroyed, but simply for “gall” – bitterness – to be substituted for her “milk”, which we should interpret in the metaphorical sense of kindness, similar to her earlier reference to Macbeth’s “milk of human kindness”.
The ‘come hither’ way with which she speaks here also invokes the demeanour of a seductress, which is reinforced by the thrice-repeated imperative “Come” in “Come, you spirits/That tend on mortal thoughts”, “Come to my woman’s breasts”, and “Come, thick night”.
Note especially the final lines before Macbeth enters the scene, where she says –
Come, thick night,
And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell,
That my keen knife see not the wound it makes,
Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark,
To cry ‘Hold, hold!’
The irony, of course, is that Lady Macbeth doesn’t ever hold a knife to kill in this play – the execution lies with her husband. So a more possible interpretation of this projection of a “keen knife” is her thinking of childbirth, but specifically, her delivery of a child.
There’s the caesarean “knife” with “the wound it makes” to bring forth an infant (this idea of caesarean childbirth also forebodes what Macduff reveals to Macbeth in their final face-off: “Macduff was from his mother’s womb/Untimely ripp’d”); there’s “the blanket of the dark” which is metaphorical of a mother’s womb (babies are literally protected ‘in the dark’ before they see the light); and there’s also the strangely apt reference to ‘holding’, which is the primary act of any mother upon giving birth to a child.
What emerges from this is a subterranean pattern of maternal imagery, but instead of conventional childbirth, which is absent from the Macbeths’ marriage (we know this from Macduff’s comments after hearing news of his wife and son’s murder – “He has no children.”), she summons forth the paradoxical birth of death – i.e. the violent conception of regicide.
Is it possible, then, that Lady Macbeth’s maternal subconscious is here mixed with a sort of guilt over not bearing children for her husband, which is what in turn leads to her evil germination?
So the fundamental essence of Lady Macbeth, then, isn’t all that different from your average woman – she is maternal in instinct, and she is capable of feeling and guilt. It’s just that in Lady Macbeth’s situation, all the factors culminate in the wrong direction for all hell to break loose. She’s too eager to bring forth something – anything, be it human child or devilish plan – which is also why, upon Macbeth’s entrance in this scene, she cries –
Thy letters have transported me beyond
This ignorant present, and I feel now
The future in the instant.
– with “the future” being a projection of their legacy.
This is a recurring pattern in Lady Macbeth’s characterisation: a lot of the traits which are responsible for her devilish thoughts aren’t bad traits per se, but are activated by the circumstances of the play for bad ends.
Maternal… and artistic? “This is the very painting of your fear”
Further, we see that her desire to ‘create’ isn’t limited to the maternal sense – a closer reading will reveal that she is a naturally creative and imaginative soul.
Notice, for instance, her use of artistic diction in moments of emotional intensity, as in Act 2 Scene 2, when she chides her husband for his reluctance to go back into the dead king’s chamber, and in Act 3 Scene 4, when she tells him off for his flustered behaviour at the feast where he sees Banquo’s ghost –
Infirm of purpose!
Give me the daggers: the sleeping and the dead
Are but as pictures: ‘tis the eye of childhood
That fears a painted devil. If he do bleed,
I’ll gild the faces of the grooms withal;
For it must seem their guilt.
O proper stuff!
This is the very painting of your fear:
This is the air-drawn dagger which, you said,
Led you to Duncan. […]
In the face of her husband’s anxiety, Lady Macbeth proposes imagination as a solution.
Simply imagine, she asserts, that “the sleeping and the dead/Are but as pictures”, and that like the porous line between ‘sleep’ and ‘death’, so too is the gulf between reality and artifice a narrow, and thus negligible, one. Besides, what is ‘real’ is what we imagine it to be anyway, and it is only the inexperienced “eye of childhood/That fears a painted devil” – a devil which is “painted”, unreal and imaginary as long as we think it so in our minds.
Likewise, truth and deception are but two sides of the same coin – they are perceptions wholly fashioned through our thoughts and actions, which is why Lady Macbeth tells her husband that if he’s too much of a wimp to plant the daggers next to Duncan’s sentinels, she’s happy to ‘create’ an alternative ‘truth’ by “gild[ing] the faces of the grooms withal”.
The word “gild”, meaning to cover something with a thin layer of gold, is both ironic and apt, as it is a dirty and inglorious deed she’ll be ascribing to the men, but this act of covering up Macbeth and her culpability will also ultimately prove thin and ineffective.
Similarly, when Macbeth hallucinates Banquo’s ghost in Act 3 Scene 4, she invokes the same idea of reality and deception both being products of human imagination.
She implies that it is ludicrous for Macbeth to let the “very painting of [his] fear” and “the air-drawn dagger” get to him, because these terrors are but ‘painted’ and ‘drawn’ by a feeble mind. At this point, of course, she’s unaware of the additional murder that Macbeth has committed (of Banquo), and so fails to empathise with her husband’s complete breakdown.
Lady Macbeth is also a big picture thinker who’s easily swept up in the passion of the moment, which means that considering granular nitty-gritties or conducting mental SWOT analyses isn’t exactly her metier. She’s not one to take no for an answer – a quality that, in the right time and place, could be perceived as a kind of steely determination.
We see that once she sets her mind to a goal, there’s hardly any turning back – even when the plan hasn’t really been hashed out, the specifics remain up in the air, and the risks are left unevaluated.
An interesting reflection of this is the exchange between husband and wife in Act 1 Scene 7.
Fresh from the giddy excitement of hatching a coup, Lady Macbeth tells her husband off for overthinking, and counsels that they should assume victory even before they’ve taken action (because for her, it’s this assumption that will bring about real victory).
Yet she delivers none of this with actual argumentation or sound logic, instead doing so through a string of hypotheticals and rhetorical questions.
In fact, a significant portion of Lady Macbeth’s words in this scene is composed of questions, starting from her interrogation of Macbeth upon his entrance to the chamber –
Why have you left the chamber?
Know you not he has?
Then begins the taunting –
Was the hope drunk
Wherein you dress’d yourself? hath it slept since?
And wakes it now, to look so green and pale
At what it did so freely? From this time
Such I account thy love. Art thou afeard
To be the same in thine own act and valour
As thou art in desire? Wouldst thou have that
Which thou esteem’st the ornament of life,
And live a coward in thine own esteem,
Letting ‘I dare not’ wait upon ‘I would,’
Like the poor cat i’ the adage?
What beast was’t, then,
That made you break this enterprise to me? […]
[…] when in swinish sleep
Their drenched natures lie as in a death,
What cannot you and I perform upon
The unguarded Duncan? what not put upon
His spongy officers, who shall bear the guilt
Of our great quell?
And finally –
Who dares receive it other,
As we shall make our griefs and clamour roar
Upon his death?
This extraordinary barrage of rhetorical questions reveals that Lady Macbeth, for all her bluster and zest, has neither answers to their doubts nor assurance of their victory.
But true to her belief that what’s imagined is as good as what’s real, what’s assumed is virtually what’s established, too. So when she asks – “What cannot you and I perform upon/The unguarded Duncan?” – she’s not so much insinuating that there’s nothing the duo can’t do and succeed in doing, but that there’s technically nothing they can’t do regardless of how it all ends up.
Many critics have interpreted these questions as Lady Macbeth’s emasculation of her husband, but surely this is a superficial reading, because far from discounting him, she reminds him that he possesses the means and desire for greatness.
When she asks “Was the hope drunk/Wherein you dress’d yourself?”, the implication is that he harbours the “hope” for becoming king; when she prods with “Art thou afeard/To be the same in thine own act and valour/As thou art in desire?”, she reminds him that he in fact possesses the “act” (physical capacity), “valour” (mental strength) and “desire” (psychological trigger) to bring their plan to fruition; and when she teases “What beast was’t, then,/That made you break this enterprise to me?”, she’s amplifying for her husband the presence of his voracious, ruthless hunger for power, symbolised by that “beast” which had first encouraged him to share with her the Witches’ prophecy.
As such, Lady Macbeth’s function is to expand and ignite the pair’s imaginative potential – to have the “undaunted mettle” not only to kill, but to imagine themselves beyond their current station.
…or watch me explain in the video below!
Why Desdemona is more complex than we think: “the divine Desdemona”
It’s hard to dislike Desdemona – apparently.
Not only is she courageous in love and progressive in values, she’s also a selfless vessel of virtue whose eventual martyrdom has inspired pathos through the ages. And yet, there’s also an argument to be made that this is precisely what makes her unlikeable.
By the way, it’s not even as if Desdemona is portrayed as wholly virtuous in the play – it’s just that popular opinion over the years has haloised her character, which is understandable given the contrast against Iago’s evil and Othello’s misguidedness.
What’s most interesting about Desdemona, in my view, is her embodiment of irony: she promises the archetype of a perfect, saintly woman, but dramatises instead the failure of a woman ever becoming perfect or saintly – because that’s just not human, and ergo, an impossible task.
Her tragedy, then, has very little to do with whether she’s cheated on Othello with Cassio. Rather, it’s the disposition of ‘holiness’ that she consistently projects in the play, and worse, her expectation of ‘holiness’ from those around her (especially Othello), which eventually leads to her tragic end.
One of the most striking features of Desdemona is her frequent, earnest allusions to “heaven” or its lexical variants. (Iago and Othello also invoke ‘heaven’ at points, but mostly in an ironic or curse-y way). She seems to associate herself with all that’s elevated, and indeed, this impression is only strengthened by the men in her life, who see her as the real-life manifestation of this ‘impossible woman’ trope – much to her detriment.
For example, Cassio calls her “the divine Desdemona”, who, “the grace of heaven,/Before, behind thee, and on every hand,/Enwheel thee round!” (2.1), Othello refers to “her name, that was a fresh/As Dian’s visage” (3.3), and even Iago, in a pun, recognises that “she’s framed as fruitful/As the free elements” (2.3) – “fruitful” here connoting either a generosity in spirit or in sexuality. The point, though, is that all three men see Desdemona in superhuman terms, comparing her to a heavenly saint (“divine” and “free elements”), or to the goddess of chastity (“Dian” is an allusion to Diana, the Roman virgin goddess).
Yet we see from Desdemona’s behaviour that she’s clearly marked by human flaws, which are not so much unchastity and dishonesty as stubbornness, immaturity and a certain lack of empathy.
This is most evident in her dogged insistence on Othello’s forgiveness of Cassio, which is a classic demonstration of doing the wrong thing at the wrong time (despite genuinely good intentions).
For instance, having asked Othello to consider retracting his demotion of Cassio, she insists that he gives a prompt response, which uncannily echoes Cassio’s earlier characterisation of her as “her captain’s captain” –
Ay, sooth; so humbled
That he hath left part of his grief with me,
To suffer with him. Good love, call him back.
Not now, sweet Desdemona; some other time.
But shall’t be shortly?
The sooner, sweet, for you.
Shall’t be to-night at supper?
No, not to-night.
To-morrow dinner, then?
I shall not dine at home;
I meet the captains at the citadel.
Why, then, to-morrow night; or Tuesday morn;
On Tuesday noon, or night; on Wednesday morn:
I prithee, name the time, but let it not
Exceed three days: in faith, he’s penitent;
And yet his trespass, in our common reason–
Save that, they say, the wars must make examples
Out of their best–is not almost a fault
To incur a private cheque. When shall he come?
Tell me, Othello: I wonder in my soul,
What you would ask me, that I should deny,
Or stand so mammering on. What! Michael Cassio,
That came a-wooing with you, and so many a time,
When I have spoke of you dispraisingly,
Hath ta’en your part; to have so much to do
To bring him in! Trust me, I could do much,–
Prithee, no more: let him come when he will;
I will deny thee nothing.
Later, when Desdemona says that she’s a “child to chiding” after Othello strikes and calls her a whore, we may be reminded of her ‘childlike’ behaviour in this comparatively milder scene.
She badgers and cajoles and even borderline guilt-trips Othello into granting her wish, which, notwithstanding one of noble intentions, is not delivered in the most mature way.
The issue here isn’t with a wife ‘nagging’ her husband, but with an individual not registering that another individual may need time to consider a decision, or that certain things are best discussed in a private, one-on-one setting, or even that just because we want something now doesn’t mean it must be granted to us in the moment.
There’s also a hint of Lady Macbeth’s taunting in Desdemona’s remark of “I wonder in my soul,/What you would ask me, that I should deny,/Or stand so mammering on”, which is basically her way of implying that Othello shouldn’t deny her request, because she, on the other hand, would grant whatever he wants in a heartbeat.
There are possible sexual connotations to this statement, but in any case, this ‘guilt-tripping’ tactic reflects a certain level of manipulation and power play in their marriage, which shows that Desdemona isn’t really the paragon of divinity which many readers perceive her to be. And I must stress that this isn’t a bad thing, or that I think Shakespeare is discounting Desdemona’s character – it simply reveals Desdemona’s humanity, our acknowledgement of which is likely to yield a more rewarding and less reductive approach to interpreting her role in the play.
Interestingly, the only character who doesn’t really buy into the image of Desdemona (or women in general) as a representation of purity and perfection is Emilia, who is in many ways a foil to her mistress. Unlike Desdemona, Emilia is earthly, common and even a tad bit crude – but this just makes her more relatable.
In public, she is conditioned to behave like an obedient wife, which she does at the start of the play when Iago openly disparages women as being no better than prostitutes (to which she only gives a curt “You shall not write my praise”, 2.1), but she eventually rejects this when she discovers and exposes her husband’s diabolical plot (for which she is punished by uxoricide).
In private, however, Emilia has the forward-mindedness to question the unrealistic social expectations of womanhood or wifedom, which proves a refreshing counterpoint to Desdemona’s ‘heavenly’ mores.
This is perhaps best borne out in the two women’s conversation in Act 4 Scene 3 about the role and parity of wife and husband –
I have heard it said so. O, these men, these men!
Dost thou in conscience think,–tell me, Emilia,–
That there be women do abuse their husbands
In such gross kind?
There be some such, no question.
Wouldst thou do such a deed for all the world?
Why, would not you?
No, by this heavenly light!
Nor I neither by this heavenly light;
I might do’t as well i’ the dark.
Wouldst thou do such a deed for all the world?
The world’s a huge thing: it is a great price.
For a small vice.
In troth, I think thou wouldst not.
In troth, I think I should; and undo’t when I had
done. Marry, I would not do such a thing for a
joint-ring, nor for measures of lawn, nor for
gowns, petticoats, nor caps, nor any petty
exhibition; but for the whole world,–why, who would
not make her husband a cuckold to make him a
monarch? I should venture purgatory for’t.
Beshrew me, if I would do such a wrong
For the whole world.
Why the wrong is but a wrong i’ the world: and
having the world for your labour, tis a wrong in your
own world, and you might quickly make it right.
I do not think there is any such woman.
For contemporary audiences (especially those in societies where gender equality is encouraged), Desdemona’s incredulity is likely to come across as either naive or phony. By not believing that there are women who’d cheat on their husbands, she’s in essence denying that women are, like men, humans with weaknesses.
This is not about moral superiority – just because people commit adultery doesn’t de facto make them ‘bad people’. It does, however, suggest that virtue is relative, and that no one can be virtuous all the time.
Notice that Desdemona’s lines here are marked by hyperbole and superlatives – “in such gross kind”, “for all the world/for the whole world”, “any such woman” etc., which reveals both her out-of-touchness with human nature, as well as her inability to empathise with (and readiness to judge) those other women “in the world” who may not see sexual and marital mores in the same light as her.
In contrast, Emilia keeps it real with her sexual puns and witty humour, which subtly rebukes her mistress’ moral posturing. When Desdemona exclaims in shock horror “by this heavenly light” that she would not cheat on her husband even in exchange “for all the world”, Emilia gently mocks the heaven reference with the “light/dark” antithesis, implying that if she were to cheat she’d “might do’t as well i’ the dark” – a reference to having sex in the dark and doing questionable things in secret.
Unlike Desdemona, who keeps invoking the ‘heaven’ trope, Emilia bluntly states that she “should venture purgatory for’t” – purgatory being the level where most Christians go to explain their sins after death. The idea here is that she’s not above the ordinary person, which is why she also doesn’t measure herself by unrealistic, ‘heavenly’ terms.
Additionally, she turns Desdemona’s virtue on its head with the logic of pragmatism – “who would/not make her husband a cuckold to make him a monarch?”. This shows that moral absolutes don’t work, because at the end of the day it’s all about weighing up the relative ‘good’ and ‘bad’ of actions in light of the actual circumstances.
So, in theory, it’s not great to cheat on one’s husband, but if cheating on him makes him king of the world, then maybe he wouldn’t mind it so much either.
What may seem “wrong” at one point or from one perspective may be entirely “right” in another moment or from another angle, and just as there are no set boundaries for morality, so words can take on opposite meanings in different situations, which Emilia reinforces in a chiasmic reversal of the words “wrong” and “world” –
Why the wrong is but a wrong i’ the world: and
having the world for your labour, tis a wrong in your
own world, and you might quickly make it right.
But what of Desdemona’s wrongful death at the end? Does that not deserve our pity?
It does, and indeed, it should, not because it is wrongful (even though of course it is), but because it is a death of many misunderstandings – the most of which are Desdemona’s own.
This is not about pointing fingers at who’s responsible for her murder (a case could be made for Othello, Iago or even Cassio); rather, it is an cautionary tale of what could happen when we hold ourselves to impossible standards of behaviour, encourage others to see us by such impossible standards, and ultimately fail to realise these same standards which no one could feasibly fulfil.
Is all this Desdemona’s ‘fault’, then?
No. And ascribing ‘fault’ isn’t the point either. The point is that recognising she’s not just a ‘victim’ at the hands of male insecurity and human evil should be the first step to building a more interesting, complex response to Desdemona – one which goes beyond mere sympathy or feministic indignation.