Describing her role as the ambitious political wife Claire Underwood in the American TV series House of Cards, Robin Wright recognized she is “Lady Macbeth to [Francis] Underwood’s Macbeth.” At one point in the second series, Claire emboldens her wavering husband: “Trying’s not enough, Francis. I’ve done what I had to do. Now you do what you have to do.” It’s the equivalent, in the clipped dialogue of the genre, of Shakespeare’s most vehement and brutal image: Lady Macbeth offering to brain her suckling child “had I so sworn / As you have done to this” (1.7.55-9). The Underwoods rework Shakespeare’s ultimate power couple in a modern setting, but violent reactions in the American media to Claire’s characterization show that Lady Macbeth continues to challenge norms of femininity, 400 years after a young male actor first embodied her on the London stage. Those coordinates of sex, ambition, and evil plotted by Shakespeare still resonate. Lady Macbeth is a useful shorthand, as is seen in commentators on Michelle Obama, Hillary Clinton, and many other female public figures, to keep women in their place. “Here’s a question for you,” asked one recent tabloid headline, “what’s the difference between Lady Macbeth and Labour’s Yvette Cooper?” The article went on to suggest there was no difference at all; each would stop at nothing to get power for their husband. No male politician, however ruthlessly ambitious, is ever called a Macbeth.
But this popular – and culturally useful – image of Lady Macbeth caricatures the figure we meet in the play. Shakespeare himself does not portray her as a monster. She is, in many ways, the ideal wife: attentive to her husband’s needs and ambitious for him and for what is promised to him. She is a gracious hostess in the service of her husband’s career, welcoming Duncan to Dunsinane and the thanes to a banquet to consolidate the new reign. It’s Shakespeare’s most extended picture of a married couple (his plays tend focus on the flirtatious fun of courtship, or on the life experience of men, particularly widowers). The Macbeths spend more time together on stage as a couple than any other Shakespeare partners: more than Antony and Cleopatra, or Romeo and Juliet, or Beatrice and Benedick. They also enjoy the rarer intimacy of time alone on stage together (think how many Shakespearean lovers are effectively chaperoned by other characters). Theirs is a partnership unparalleled in the canon.
Shakespeare’s development of Lady Macbeth picks up the hints in his source, Holinshed’s history of Scotland, where the wife of Macbeth “lay sore upon him to attempt the thing, as she that was very ambitious, burning in unquenchable desire to bear the name of a queen.” Shakespeare has amplified and complicated this one-dimensional sketch. His Lady Macbeth is indeed ambitious, but less for herself than for her husband. His letter to her – it must be significant in the power dynamic of their relationship that her first words in the play are actually his, read from the letter – tells her “what greatness is promised thee” (1.5.12). Her response in soliloquy turns those benefits all back to him, as she vows to overcome “All that impedes thee from the golden round” (1.5.27). Never does Shakespeare give her any lines expressive of personal ambition. Unlike the figure in Holinshed, this Lady Macbeth never says she wants to be queen: she is focused on making her husband king.
The popular view of Lady Macbeth is as ruthless and power hungry. She is, as Dr Johnson put it, ‘merely detested’. But Shakespeare’s characterization, again, is more complex. As she tries to choreograph the messy business of murdering of the king, Lady Macbeth suddenly expresses her own vulnerability: “Had he not resembled / My father as he slept, I had done’t,” and her next line, “My husband?,” seems to catch her momentary defenselessness (2.2.13). She pulls herself together when she sees the state he is in, but the lapse is memorable – and unnecessary if she is simply the “fiendlike queen” of Malcolm’s final victory speech (5.11.35).
Again and again, Lady Macbeth seems to show the strain under which she operates. Even as her husband’s mental disintegration takes over the plot and separates the couple, she too reveals the cost of her actions. The sleep-walking scene, famously, shows her mind troubled by conscience as she spools through the events of that terrible night. How should we interpret Lady Macbeth’s descent into madness and death: as a punishment for her transgressive gender behaviour, or as the ultimate sign that she was not actually capable of that evil she attempted to inhabit? Does she sacrifice her own sanity for her husband? Unsurprisingly, modern actors who have played the part of Lady Macbeth have been keen to clarify her motives and to make her more sympathetic. Reviving an old question, ‘how many children had Lady Macbeth?’, has been a common interpretative manoeuvre in contemporary productions, as empty cradles and a child’s unworn bootees signify the internalized pain of stillbirth as motive. As Sinead Cusack put it, discussing her 1986 portrayal at Stratford: “If you’ve lost a child… you either leave the man or you become obsessive about the man and about his happiness and security. That’s the avenue I chose to go up as Lady Macbeth.”
At the time of writing, it remains to be seen whether in series 4 (or beyond) Claire Underwood will complete the Lady Macbeth trajectory hinted at so far in House of Cards. But what is clear is that the popular understanding of the Lady Macbeth character as the pitiless power-hungry political consort does a disservice to Shakespeare’s more nuanced presentation.