You are on page 1of 7

Ebarb 1

Mark Ebarb
Professor Robert Hamm
ENGL 4148
8 May 2008
Lady Macbeth: Shakespeare’s Modern Day Medea
Author and critic Judith Cook explains, “Lady Macbeth…has continued to intrigue and
puzzle most commentators [and] critics over the centuries” (120). Lady Macbeth’s character is
intriguing in that she is strong, persuasive, and committed, and Shakespeare understood the
importance of presenting interesting characters. Former British professor Emrys Jones writes,
“Much of Shakespeare’s power comes from his skill in choosing subjects that arouse interest and
attention” (15). Shakespeare was a man who took what was popular at his time and adjusted
those stories to create his works. In the case of Macbeth, critics have long recognized that
Shakespeare borrowed extensively from Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and
Ireland (1577). Yet to really impress his audience, to truly create a character worth loving,
sympathizing with, or despising, Shakespeare looks to a lesser-discussed author in Seneca to
create a woman who, as Cook describes, “intrigue[s] and puzzle[s].”
Many parallels can be found between Lady Macbeth from Shakespeare’s play Macbeth,
the story of a man and woman who will do anything to get what they want, and Medea from
Seneca’s play Medea, the story of a woman scorned who allows nothing to stand in the way of
her revenge. Shakespeare’s decision to model Lady Macbeth after Medea is based on more than
just recreating a vindictive woman. Rather, Shakespeare aimed to compare his modern-day
detestable character to a classical one to highlight the frictions and conflicts between male and
female and society and self. Ultimately, the overall atmosphere of the play and the depiction of
Lady Macbeth can be attributed to the Latin author.
Shakespeare bases much of his work on the popular works of others. Cook says that
“witchcraft was in the air; James I had written a treatise on the subject…and treason was topical”
(120). He goes on to say, “A play which combined a Scottish king, treason, and witchcraft all in
one plot had obvious appeal” (120). By looking at other writers’ works, Shakespeare could keep
in touch with what was popular. Kenneth Muir writes, “It is reasonable to assume that
Shakespeare chose the subject of Macbeth because James I was reputed to be descended from
Banquo” (167). Macbeth was most likely written in 1606 and based primarily on Raphael
Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland (1577). In this version, “Banquo was
himself involved in the conspiracy to murder Duncan,” but Shakespeare ignored this aspect
because of its implication of treason of the King’s ancestor (168). The historical Macbeth
reigned for seventeen years and survived the battles which returned Malcolm to the throne;
however, Shakespeare presents a series of events which speed to the conclusion of a Macbeth
defeated and beheaded. Shakespeare ultimately compresses ten years of history into his play. The
events of Act two, Scene three – the suspense during the Porter's banter with the audience and
then with Macduff and Lennox; the confusion of the discovery, as Lady Macbeth faints and the
princes Malcolm and Donalbain discuss flight from the country – are all additions by
Shakespeare. Clearly, Shakespeare looked to Holinshed for his basic plot line. However, the
character of Lady Macbeth only appears in a couple of instances in Holinshed’s work. She looks
quite different from the woman we will see in Shakespeare’s play.
To create a character with substance and depth, Shakespeare turns to a lesser-discussed
influence: Seneca, a Latin dramatist who wrote Medea, a Roman tragedy. Miola tells us that
“throughout his career Shakespeare weaves Senecan materials … into complicated and
surprising designs” (9). We know for certain Shakespeare was aware of Seneca’s Medea because
of his inclusion of a specific scene in one of Shakespeare’s early plays, King John. Jones
Ebarb 2

compares Medea’s speech when she hears the wedding bells of her newly-lost husband, “We are
undone! Upon my ears has sounded the marriage hymn. So great a calamity scarce I myself,
scarce even yet can comprehend” with Constance’s tirade in King John. Jones says “The
resemblance is only momentary…but enough to show that Shakespeare probably knew Medea as
a play and not simply as a few bits and pieces in an anthology” (270).
Why might Shakespeare have been so interested in Senecan tragedies? It is well
documented that Seneca’s influences were widespread throughout Europe. In his article “English
Seneca: A Preamble,” B. R. Rees writes, “Seneca’s influence on the serious drama of most of
Western Europe is almost immeasurable…In effect, the Latin dramatist founded a tradition
which at least until the 19th century passed through Europe in secure and often undisrupted
triumph” (119). We know that “it was mainly from Seneca…that Shakespeare learned what little
he knew about classical tragedy and about how to write in a classical manner” (Jones 267).
Based on what Shakespeare knew about Senecan drama, he needed to find a way to incorporate
the classical with the current. Translator Frederick Ahl writes, “Senecan drama constantly takes
us beyond a character’s words into his or her very thoughts, keeping us aware of the tension
between what someone says and does and what that same person perceives as the reason for what
is said and done. We see a character’s hopes, illusions, and delusions played out before us”
(Seneca 18). Shakespeare must use Seneca’s sense of character development of Lady Macbeth
over Holinshed’s if he wants to create such a character. While words are important,
Shakespeare’s characters walk and roam across the stage with ulterior motives and secretive
intentions. For example, in Macbeth we see the title character tell his wife, “Away, and mock the
time with fairest show. / False face must hide what false heart doth know” (Mac. 1.7.82-3). The
idea of putting on a front, of letting actions, not words, relay the information, is key. For Seneca,
meaning extends beyond the surface. Shakespeare follows accordingly.
Both Shakespeare and Seneca portray their female characters as harsh and powerful
women. To maintain this front of force, both women desire to be unassociated with the female
gender. Medea’s yearning to rid herself of her femininity is evident when she says, “Away with
women’s fears!” (Med. 4.489). During Seneca’s time, women were completely dependent upon
men. As Hines explains, women during Medea’s time had no legal recourse. Medea does not
have an ordinary divorce with Jason; she has nowhere to go (22). Once banished, she no longer
has the protection of her husband or other men. The only way for her to survive is to become a
man - someone with power. Katherine Heavey’s points out in her article “Translating Medea into
the Sixteenth Century” that “male authors in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries undermine
[Medea’s] autonomy” (7). To deal with her as a threat, authors often emphasized her harshness.
For example, French dramatist Corneille presents Medea setting fire to the temple of Hera and
burning herself to death at the end. Medea is not afraid to cause destruction.
Shakespeare follows suit with his contemporaries and presents Lady Macbeth without
undermining her power.After reading the letter from her husband and discovering that she could
potentially be the queen, Lady Macbeth says, “Unsex me here” (Mac.1.5.39). She wants to be rid
of any feelings of remorse and kindness usually associated with the female gender because she
knows that she must be cold and calculating to perform the deeds she is planning. In some, but
not all, of his works, Shakespeare portrays women as “feisty females [who] were transvaluated…
into docile embodiments of domesticity, gentility, and deference (Gundersheimer 7). For
example, A Midsummer Night’s Dream celebrates the happy transition from maid to wife
accomplished by Hippolyta, Hermia, and Helna and the rehabilitation of Titania from unruly to
obedient wife” (Lanyer 246). Lady Macbeth clearly breaks from this convention; Shakespeare
presents her as someone with traits like those of Medea. A woman whose noble status should
reveal traits of femininity and courtesy is replaced by a fiery and harsh character. In both cases,
Ebarb 3

the authors portray the self-assertive female as forceful characters. Shakespeare’s use of this
detail steps on the toes of those who see women as mere “docile embodiments.”
One repercussion of casting off womanly features is the rejection of the role of
motherhood. When contemplating the slaughtering of her children, Medea says, “Children are
sweet as the buds in spring, / But I've noticed that those who have them / Have nothing but
trouble all their lives” (Med. 5.987-8). Cleasby calls Medea “a tigress bereft of her young” (61).
And rightly so. Seneca wanted to convince his audience of Medea’s wrath of fury, and, as
Cleasby notes, “Seneca was among the first [writers of Medea plays] to represent the murder of
the children on the stage” (64). Medea is the title character. The entire play centers around her
actions. Seneca wants the audience to see a graphic and bloody representation of murder through
Medea, one that leaves little room for questioning her status as a good mother.
Lady Macbeth, on the other hand, never lays a hand to her children because she does not
even have one. Instead, she verbally denounces the idea of children and selfishly rejects them so
she can focus on power for herself. She says:
I have given suck, and know
How tender ‘tis to love the babe that milks me;
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums
And dashed the brains out, had I so sworn as you
Have done to this. (Mac. I. V. 55-9)
However, we never see her physically kill another person. Shakespeare often deviated from his
sources to include more titillating details, but in Macbeth, we never see Lady Macbeth convict an
act of coldblooded murder like Medea. It is clear that Elizabethan and Jacobean audiences
reveled in shocking drama, but Lady Macbeth’s power does not come in her actions. Her words
are harsh, poignant, and completely insensitive, and for the first three acts she is vindictive,
controlling, and ruthless. Shakespeare does not portray Lady Macbeth killing a child because the
subplots of murder, treason, and betrayal frame and control the work. The story is not solely
about Lady Macbeth. Although not as harsh as Medea, Lady Macbeth is still a powerful woman
who rejects motherhood for the sake of herself.
While both women are personally able to persuade and dictate the action that surrounds
them, they both turn to evoking figures from the dark world. Medea herself is a sorceress, and
her connection to the dark world is apparent. Hines notes that “Medea’s first word is ‘gods,’ and
in the long magic scene she invokes Hecate, and other underworld gods” (31). Medea says, “If
you dwell in heaven, holy / Justice, I invoke and call as witness your divine power” (Med. I. 439-
40). While it is expected for a sorceress to exhibit these actions, Lady Macbeth steps out of the
norm and eerily echoes Medea, a clear example of Shakespeare’s interest in this plot.
To give his audience their dose of the supernatural, Shakespeare decides to have Lady
Macbeth, a woman living in a Christian world, invoke spirits like Seneca’s Medea. When Lady
Macbeth reads the letter from Macbeth in the opening act, she resolves to convince her husband
to do whatever is required to seize the crown; as she awaits her husband’s arrival, she says,
“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” (Mac. 1.5.36-39). We know that Christianity surrounds the
court. In Act Two, Scene Two, Macbeth tells Lady Macbeth how the drugged servants in
Duncan's chamber said “God bless us!” and “Amen,” but that he himself could not say it. He
says, “But where fore could not I pronounce ‘Amen’? / I had most need of blessing, and
‘Amen’ / Stuck in my throat" (Mac. 30-2). Shakespeare was clearly playing off of Medea’s anti-
Christian incantations to give his audience a dose of popular culture.
Ebarb 4

As mentioned, Lady Macbeth is on a mission for power. One of the most important
similarities between the women is their motive. Seneca’s Medea desires a selfish outcome when
she kills Creon, Jason’s wife, and her children. When describing Medea’s motives, Hines writes,
“A component of [her] motivation in Seneca is her desire to equal and surpass her past misdeeds:
she has a reputation for crime and must live up to it, or even enhance it” (23). She must not allow
others’ views of her to be weakened. Status is a very important aspect for her. She says, “I have
decided on this form of punishment, / and decided rightly; I must plan the ultimate crime / with
courageous heart” (Med. 5.922-25). She has determined her course of actions, and as a woman
who wants to be taken seriously, she must not waver.
Shakespeare uses this selfish model and portrays Lady Macbeth as a woman driven by a
thirst for power. Author Agnes Mure Mackenzie writes, “[Lady Macbeth] is ambitious – it is the
passion of her life…She thinks of greatness only in terms of its externals…Her mind is material”
(316-17). Lady Macbeth desires to be the wife of a king. With that new ranking, her status in
society will increase, and she will assume the title of all titles. In his introduction to Macbeth,
Carrol explains, “With the Reformation in the sixteenth century came new ideas about the nature
of marriage…By law, married women had no legal right to own property, and were in effect
legally subsumed into their husbands: man and woman become one flesh in marriage…and that
flesh was the male” (16). This is Lady Macbeth’s only recourse. If she wants power for herself,
she must lose concern for morals and ethics. Shakespeare’s audience would understand Lady
Macbeth’s desire for power because it understood the plight of married women.
To get what they want, both women must manipulate the men around them. Lady
Macbeth and Medea are master manipulators of their murder scenes. Medea manipulates Creon
into giving her more time to plot her revenge. Medea’s name in Greek means “the woman who
plans or plots” (Ahl 107). Medea plays the pity card. She says, “As a suppliant, I make this final
plea as I depart: / let their mother’s guilt not drag the innocent children down” (Med. 2.282-3).
By subordinating herself as a weak and needy woman, Medea tricks the man in charge, the
mighty Creon, into giving her more time.
Shakespeare also portrays Lady Macbeth as a master manipulator. Courtney Crump
Wright writes, “Relentlessly, Lady Macbeth continues to state her plan for the assassination of
Duncan over Macbeth’s objections. In her well formulated plan the king and his guards will be
given sleeping potions in their wine at dinner…Reluctantly, Macbeth agrees to the plan” (95-6).
Lady Macbeth assumes a powerful role and brings into question her husband’s masculinity.
Unlike Medea, who subordinates herself, Lady Macbeth takes a stand and points a finger. Again,
we see Shakespeare’s portrayal of a powerful woman bring into question the relationship
between man and woman. Lady Macbeth wisely strikes on the right tune to make her husband
carry through with the plan she wants. She says:
What beast was’t then
That made you break this enterprise to me?
When you durst do it, then you were a man;
And to be more than what you were, you would
Be so much more the man. (Mac. 1.7.47-51)
Like Medea, she skillfully knows which buttons to push and how hard to push them, but
Shakespeare depicts her as a much more authoritative figure.
While both women have clear motives and goals, we see a disparity between their actual
successes. In the beginning of the play, Medea is purely wicked; throughout the play, right up
until the end when she escapes triumphant, she remains wicked. Medea does not succumb to her
conscience. Although it is evident for a brief moment as she wavers on the idea of murdering her
children, she seems to overcome it easily. She convinces herself that the murder of her sons will
Ebarb 5

be justified because they are not actually her children any longer; they are now the children of
Jason’s new wife. She says, “Then let them die to Jason since they are lost to me” (Med. 5.823).
She is able to defeat her conscience and to achieve everything she has planned. She seems to
have no feelings of remorse for her victims.
Unlike Medea, though, Lady Macbeth can never quite overcome her guilt and
conscience. In the early scenes, Lady Macbeth is portrayed as evil and conniving, but as the play
progresses she becomes more and more regretful and guilty as her conscience gets the best of
her. The earliest example of Lady Macbeth’s conscience evident is when she cannot murder
Duncan. She is unable to kill him because her conscience overcomes her. Another, and probably
most significant, display of her feelings of guilt is her delusions and ultimately her death. She is
tormented in her sleep by dreams of the crime she and her husband committed. She walks in her
sleep and makes many statements about the blood she imagines on her hands. She says, “Out,
damned spot! Out I say!” and “What, will these hands ne’er be clean?” (Mac. 5.1.28-9,35). Lady
Macbeth dies an abrupt death shortly after these hallucinations begin. Her conscience ultimately
Although Medea has a moment of hesitation as she realizes she must kill her own
children to truly punish her ex-husband, Jason, she competently completes the task. Hines writes,
“After Jason arrives, [Medea] does waver for a moment, feeling a pang of remorse, but that soon
passes” (24). Her dedication overcomes her conscience. She convinces herself that killing her
sons is fine by saying, “Hate conquers love, and love puts impious hate to flight” (Med. 3.523).
Medea does not want to murder her children, but she is able to convince herself that it is
necessary and she is able to commit the murder. This is something Lady Macbeth cannot
Lady Macbeth’s incompetence is necessary if Shakespeare is to stay true to Holinshed’s
plot. Lady Macbeth has planned to stab Duncan in his sleep, but when she makes an attempt she
cannot do it. After Macbeth says he does not want to carry through with the plan, she says:
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. (Mac. 2.2.56-61)
Before this, she says, “Had he not resembled my father as he slept, I had done’t” (Mac. 2.2.12-
13). Lady Macbeth allows her conscience to prevail over her will and is unable to complete her
evil plans. Irene G. Dash says, “Murder is more difficult than she had thought. The moral code
halts her from committing murder” (170). In Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and
Ireland, Lady Macbeth has no major role. For Shakespeare to model Holinshed, Lady Macbeth
cannot commit such a drastic action without the audience interpreting her as the play’s main
Ultimately, Medea and Lady Macbeth share very different fates. Seneca’s Medea is a
woman who has regained power by killing her children and leaving her husband. For her, justice
has been served. Miola says, “Medea’s progress of the soul provides an instructive counterpoint
to the dwindling, peaking, and pining of Lady Macbeth, her downward spiral from passionate
protagonist to broken insomniac” (104). Medea is alive and in control over her husband who is
crushed and prostrate to her. As she is flying away in a chariot, Medea tells Jason, “Now take
your sons back, parent; / I shall ride on my winged chariot among the winds” (Med. 5.1024-5).
Unfortunately, Lady Macbeth, who throughout the play is in control, does not survive. In
fact, historically she cannot survive. We are told in Act five, Scene five that Lady Macbeth is
Ebarb 6

dead, and it is not until the closing lines of the play that we learn her death was a suicide:
“[Macbeth’s] fiend-like queen, / Who, as 'tis thought, by self and violent hands / Took off her
life (Mac. V.VII. 100-2). Shakespeare takes his basic plot line from Holinshed’s work, and in
that version, there is no mention of her living past the plot. Cook writes, “Lady Macbeth is
troubled with thick coming fancies. She is haunted by the horror of the murder. It preys on her
mind and saps her physical strength. She dies of remorse” (128). The woman who whispered in
ears, who commanded her husband to adjust his mindset, who urged the man she loved to taint
his own soul, is nowhere to be found by the story’s end. Unlike Medea, who will fly away and
live, Lady Macbeth will be sent into a grave, thus establishing for Shakespeare the truly tragic
character that forever “intrigue[s] and puzzle[s].”
Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth is presented as a very powerful and manipulative woman.
Shakespeare was a master of taking contemporary works and adjusting the plots to create his
own stories. We find many similarities between his plot and that of his contemporary, Holinshed.
But Shakespeare decided to adjust the role of Lady Macbeth. This tweaking and revising was
vital if Shakespeare desired to create a deep and substantial character in Lady Macbeth. By
comparing Lady Macbeth to the classical character of Medea, Shakespeare not only exposes his
audience to a popular use of classical characters but also highlights the power of a woman in a
society that does give much of it to women. Because Shakespeare masterfully uses a
contemporary source and a classical one to create a memorable character, Lady Macbeth, as
Cook writes, “has and will continue to intrigue and puzzle…over the centuries.”

Works Cited
Carroll, William C., ed. Macbeth: Texts and Contexts. New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1999.
Cleasby, Harold Loomis. “The Medea of Seneca.” Harvard Studies in Classical Philology. 18

(1907): 39-71. JSTOR. 30 April 2008 <>.

Cook, Judith. Women in Shakespeare. London: Harrap & Co., 1980.

Dash, Irene G. Women’s Worlds in Shakespeare’s Plays. Newark: University of Delaware

Press, 1997.
Ebarb 7

Gundersheimer, Werner. Foreword. Shakespeare’s Unruly Women. By Georgiana Ziegler, et al.
Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1997.
Heavey, Katherine. “Translating Medea into the Sixteenth Century.” Online posting. Feb. 2008.
Appositions. 27 April 2008 <
Jameson, Anna. Shakespeare's Heroines. London: George Bell & Sons, 1897.
Jones, Emrys. The Origins of Shakespeare. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977.
Lanyer, Amelia. “The Description of Cooke-ham.” A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Texts and
Comments. Eds. Gail Kern Paster and Skiles Howard. New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s,
1999. 241-51.
Mackenzie, Agnes Mure. The Women in Shakespeare’s Plays. New York: Doubleday, Page &
Company, 1924.
Miola, Robert S. Shakespeare and Classical Tragedy: The Influence of Seneca. Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 1992.
Muir, Kenneth. Shakespeare’s Sources: Comedies and Tragedies. London: Methuen & Co Ltd.,
Rees, B. R. “English Seneca: A Preamble.” Greece & Rome (Second Series). 16.2 (Oct., 1969):
119-133. JSTOR. <>.
Seneca. Introduction. Three Tragedies: Trojan Women, Medea, Phaedra. Trans. Frederick Ahl.
London: Cornell University Press, 1986. 9-32.
Seneca. Medea. Trans. H.M. Hine. Warminster, England: Aris & Phillips Ltd., 2000.
Wright, Courtni Crump. The Women of Shakespeare’s Plays. New York: University Press
of America, 1993.