To hear Lady Macbeth tell it, all she needs is a little more testosterone to become a bile-breasted, baby-bashing, king killer. “Unsex me,” she cries, appealing to magical spirits to fill her with cruelty so that she does not waver on her murderous mission to turn King Duncan’s overnight visit into a horror show (Mac. 1.5.40). Lady Macbeth believes that an infusion of maleness is necessary to vault the ambitious Macbeths over Duncan’s deathbed and onto the Scottish throne because her warrior husband is lily-livered when it comes to regicide.
With the “unsex me” speech and Lady Macbeth’s resulting aggressive needling of her husband, Shakespeare suggests that Lady Macbeth can and does inhabit liminal space between the male and female genders. However, despite her bravado, I argue that Lady Macbeth’s behavior as described by the Bard mimics that of the three female witches and also comports with archetypal female tropes, positioning her squarely in the role of sorceress, manipulator, and fragile underling to her husband.
Lady Macbeth’s gender is represented differently in two contemporary film versions of Macbeth. I argue that the directors neither unsex/re-sex Lady Macbeth nor do they simply leave her femaleness intact. Instead, they super-sex her: Roman Polanski inflates her fearful and tearful side to turn her into the consummate weepy wife; Rupert Goold focuses on her manipulative and scheming traits to fashion her as the emblematic witchy wife. The directors present competing viewpoints that converge at the same place—Lady Macbeth is a modern-day version of that most troublesome woman: Eve.