In Shakespeare’s plays King Lear and Macbeth, evil is represented in both women and men. It is significant to the plots of both plays and to their impact through theme and character that evil actions are performed by women. The construction of evil female characters also gives insight into Shakespeare’s view of women and their roles in society.
The plot of King Lear is set in motion by the conversation between Lear and his daughters. In return for their love and honour, he will give them land and power. The fact that they are daughters and not sons is significant because Lear demands their total love, trying to put them into a mother role: something he would not do if they were men. Goneril and Regan are neither noble nor truthful and they have no problem lying to their father for their own personal gain. While Regan claims “I am alone felicitate/ In your dear Highness’ love.” (I.i.75-76) and later treats her father in the most reprehensible manner, Cordelia denies Lear’s unnatural request saying, “Sure, I shall never marry like my sisters/ To love my father all” (I.i.103-104). Her truthful refusal to proclaim total love for her father proves her to be the actual loving daughter but results in her banishment. From this first scene, the characters’ alliances and allegiances are forged and all that follows is directly resultant.
In Macbeth, Lady Macbeth must be evil in order to advance the plot. The strong love and bond between herself and Macbeth enables her to influence him and spur him to action. They are separate embodiments of the same lust for power: her strong will and determination are the perfect match for his ability to perform horrible and bloody acts. Macbeth has the desire but not the decisiveness and it is his Lady who rallies him into action in a manner that only his wife could, relying upon their deep intimacy and love.
In Shakespeare’s time women were regarded as virtuous, the fairer sex, and generally associated with beauty, sexuality and family. The female evil characters’ violation of these attributes demonstrate a major theme in both plays: unnatural and weird behaviour, where “fair is foul, and foul is fair” (Macbeth, I.i.11).
One such violation is the female characters’ taking on of male characteristics. Whether masculine physically or temperamentally, the evil women emphasize the unnatural theme that runs through both plays. For instance, the witches in Macbeth have beards and Banquo is unable to interpret them as women. Also, Lady Macbeth asks the spirits to remove her feminine characteristics saying, “Unsex me here;/ And fill me, from crown to toe top-full/ Of direst cruelty!” (I.v.41-43) and “Come to my women’s breasts,/ And take my milk for gall, you murd’ring ministers” (I.v.47-48). In King Lear, Regan and Goneril are female physically, but they are void of what are considered womanly characteristics. They pretend to be loving and caring but are hard-hearted and cruel. Instead of offering shelter to their elderly father who has given them what they wanted, they leave him unprotected in the storm.
This rejection of their father is another type of violation of the standard view of women which renders their characters evil and reflects the theme of unnatural behaviour. Women, whatsoever their rank, were highly associated with the concept of family. However, the evil women in both plays defy this association. Regan and Goneril do so by their rejection and ill treatment of their own father, prompting his understandable outrage. Lear asks nature to “Dry up in her the organs of increase,/ And from her derogate body never spring/ A babe to honor her!” (I.iv.278-280). He goes on, asking that if she have a child:
Turn all her mother’s pains and benefits
To laughter and contempt, that she may feel
How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is
To have a thankless child! (I.iv.285-288).
Goneril’s treatment of him is considered so vile and unnatural that he wishes barrenness on her, depriving her of that which makes her female, the capacity to bear children.
Lady Macbeth violates her womanhood by her rejection of children. In an utterly horrific speech, she asserts her absolute and unnatural capacity for evil:
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. (I.vii.55-60).
What becomes apparent through this theme of unnaturalness is the concept that in order for an evil deed to be performed by a woman, she must be seen to be an unnatural creature with masculine characteristics. That is, an evil woman is not truly a woman. This is reflected in King Lear when Albany says to Goneril, “See thyself, devil!/ Proper deformity shows not in the fiend/ So horrid as in woman.” (IV.ii.60-62) and in Macbeth when Macbeth tells his wife “Bring forth men-children only!/ For thy undaunted mettle should compose/ Nothing but males.” (I.vii.73-75). Both men are saying that evilness in women is not natural.1.
While the masculine qualities of the evil women in the plays expand greatly on the theme of unnaturalness, the same is not true of the evil men. They could not possibly be portrayed as unnaturally feminine, as they would lack the ability to commit evil.
The concept of manliness is emphasized in both Macbeth and King Lear. Lear says “And let not women’s weapons, water drops,/ Stain my man’s cheeks” (II.iv.279-280) and indicates that he would rather go mad than cry. Lady Macbeth spurs Macbeth to action by accusing him of woman’s weaknesses, and of lacking what it takes to be a man and she says:
When you durst do it, then you were a man;
And, to be much more than you were, you would
Be so much more than a man. (I.vii.50-52).
The evil men are seen as being driven by greed and ambition. Macbeth continues his evil deeds out of fear and madness and his strength of will and decisiveness increase as he begins to rely on himself and Lady Macbeth descends into madness where she is incapable of action. Macbeth then gains those masculine qualities for which he was formerly dependent upon his wife. In her madness, she loses those qualities and therefore, loses her capacity for evil, and is left in a state of inaction until her death.
It is significant that evil actions in the plays are performed by both men and women and it is interesting to examine the link between women and men in these actions. The female evil characters are extremely important in their ability to shed light on and expand themes within the plays as well as to advance the plot lines.
1. It is interesting to note, however, that though the women in the plays are devious and evil, they do not actually perform any bloody deeds. Lady Macbeth comes closest by drugging and smearing the guards with blood but the women’s capacity for evil tends not toward violence but rather toward cruelty and inciting their men to commit terrible acts. In this way, they strongly parallel a common perception of Eve as the terrible temptress who brought about Adam’s downfall.
Shakespeare, William. “King Lear.” The Complete Works of Shakespeare. 4th ed. Ed. David Bevington. New York: Addison-Wesley, 1997. 1172-1218.
Shakespeare, William. “Macbeth.” The Complete Works of Shakespeare. 4th ed. Ed. David Bevington. New York: Addison-Wesley, 1997.1223-1255.