I, like most people, first studied Shakespeare in high school. Unlike many, I’m a big fan of Shakespeare’s works and have since sought them out to read on my own. But that first experience was in school; in freshman year we studied Romeo and Juliet, in sophomore year we did Julius Caesar, in junior year we did Macbeth, and in senior year we did Hamlet. During sophomore year, my English teacher suggested I audition for in internship with Shakespearience, a branch of Shakespeare in Delaware Park. For my audition, I performed Lady Macbeth’s monologue, the infamous “screw your courage to the sticking place” scene. And spending so much time trying to get into her mind gave me a new perspective on her character.
When we did Macbeth in class, when my teacher was able to draw a few reluctant answers from my classmates, the general consensus was that Lady Macbeth was “crazy”, “bitchy”, and even “emasculating”. I think I tend to see her more sympathetically, though. God knows she’s ambitious – she wants more than she has and she pushes her husband to see that they deserve more. I think ambition tends to get a bad rap as an inherently villainous trait (just look at Slytherin House), but I feel like that’s a misconception. Ambition isn’t about being good or bad or evil; most often it’s about surviving. It’s about valuing yourself to know that you deserve everything that life can give you.
Ambition is most frequently a villainous characteristic for women, and not for men. An ambitious man is the hero; an ambitious woman is a villain, or a trial to be overcome. Look at Cersei in Game of Thrones. I’m not going to argue that her actions are justifiable or that she isn’t an antagonist of the piece. But all she has ever tried to do is ensure her own safety and happiness, and that of the people she loves (basically only her brother and her children). She wants power, and feels that society has denied her power that should rightfully be hers due to her gender (and she’s not exactly wrong).
It’s always felt, to me, that there’s an element of “look at this uppity woman, getting out of her place, let’s show her who’s really boss”. It’s a narrative way of discouraging women from pushing and striving to get what they deserve, specifically to get some measure of equality with male counterparts. I can’t exactly uphold Cersei as a feminist character, so to speak (at least not in the sense that she’s a feminist), but look at some of the others that fall into this archetype – look at some of the other Game of Thrones characters like Selyse Florent and Melisandre for Stannis; think about Scarlett O’Hara from Gone With the Wind, Bellatrix Lestrange from Harry Potter, even Azula from Avatar: The Last Airbender (although admittedly her role is in relation to her father and brother and not her husband). None of these women are nice, or good, or heroic characters. But they are well-defined characters, they have multiple dimensions, they have a large amount of agency in their stories. And they are narratively punished for having the audacity to want more.
There’s also the idea of a woman who pushes her husband (not necessarily, but usually) to greatness, when he himself perhaps doesn’t want it. Lady Macbeth pushes her husband to take the throne, Melisandre tries to do the same to would-be King Stannis. It’s this idea that she can nag him into doing what she wants and that if he gives in, he’s weak and her machinations will only bring misery. Even the word “nagging” bothers me, because 1) it is almost always used exclusively to refer to women, 2) it implies that anything referred to as “nagging” is stupid or useless or harmful or just wrong. I don’t think that nagging is actually what these characters do. I think that reinforcement and encouragement and assistance, when it comes from women (particularly wives) all ends up in a category with a negative connotation, even with the world’s best intentions. It’s worth noting that Lady Macbeth and Cersei’s core ambition is either “become the queen” or “stay the queen”, because the queen is the most powerful woman, and is also so often automatically regarded as an evil character.
I can’t help but feel like men are supposed to relate to these poor, beleaguered husbands, no matter that they are always willing conspirators. Macbeth wanted to be king; it was only when he got scared and started to back down that his wife stepped up to remind him of his resolve. Stannis is the same; he wants to be king just as badly as Melisandre wants him to be, he just uses her highly questionable methods because he thinks that’s what will work best. It’s also important to remember that when Macbeth went off the rails and started hallucinating, plotting other murders, and just generally losing his mind, Lady Macbeth is not part of that. She does her best to temper him, to reign him in, but eventually she herself starts to feel guilt over their actions. At times, Cersei feels guilt or remorse for her infidelity and her incest, but she does not back down and this leads to a lot of her problems in the books – she doesn’t know how to bend, she can only break.
Of course, ambition is stereotypically considered a “masculine” trait, and many of these types of characters are shown as trying to suppress or deny their own femininity. Lady Macbeth is quoted as asking to be “unsexed”, to thicken her blood and “stop up th’ access and passage to remorse”, widely considered to be her rejection of her menstruation and association of “feminine” or weak emotions with the fact that she has female sex organs. Cersei does the same thing, styling her clothing in such a way as to evoke armor and takes her husband’s slap across the face as a badge of honor, that he would treat her as he would another man. It’s very much a common literary convention and real-life stereotype that for a woman to have the power of a man, she must reject her femininity.
It’s also important to consider these characters’ relationship with their motherhood. The Macbeth children are basically non-entities in that play, but Lady Macbeth does say that she has breastfed, and she knows how it feels to love one’s own children. Of course, this is in the same scene where she says that she would be willing to kill that child herself if it meant keeping her promise. Wikipedia has a whole section on Lady Macbeth as an “anti-mother”, regarding her ability to bear children as a weak spot for her ambitions, as a way that others can hurt her. As such, she cuts off all emotional connection to her motherhood as a way of reclaiming power. Cersei, on the other hand, could be said to have done all of these terrible things for her children’s sake. She tells Sansa that the only people she loves should be her children, as a mother has no choice about that (admittedly that does sound a little.. begrudging). Cersei adores her children, even the monstrous Joffrey, but she’s definitely a toxic influence on them. She tells Joffrey that “everyone who is not us is an enemy”, and it’s a priority for some of the more heroic characters to focus on getting the younger children, Myrcella and Tommen, away from her before she can turn them into psychopaths like Joffrey.
Historically, femininity has been polarized into extremes of goodness and evilness, and I feel like this character archetype is about women who say “Fine. If you’re going to treat me like I’m evil, then I might as well act like it, and get the power that comes with it.” God alone knows that I can empathize with that on a bad day, no matter if these characters are supposed to be villains, misleading the good male protagonists to whom we’re actually supposed to relate. I just can’t automatically cast off a woman who wants agency and power in her life when I want the same things. And if simple-minded men want to but me in the box labeled “villain” as well, I can live with that.