In Shakespeare, one of the most delicious curses ever uttered comes from the lips of a woman, not a man. Lady Macbeth readies to welcome King Duncan to Macbeth’s castle and to his death. She summons all the powers of heaven and hell to ‘unsex her’–that is, turn her into a man in order to make her cruel, and order to compensate for the lack of masculine strength and courage in her husband.
The raven himself is hoarse
That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan
Under my battlements. 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! make thick my blood;
Stop up the access and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
The effect and it! Come to my woman’s breasts,
And take my milk for gall, you murdering ministers,
Wherever in your sightless substances
You wait on nature’s mischief! Come, thick night,
And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell,
That my keen knife see not the wound it makes,
Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark,
To cry ‘Hold, hold!’
—Macbeth, Act I Scene v
In Shakespeare’s time, women were considered property, and not even allowed to act on stage. So when Macbeth premiered, this powerful and dangerous speech would be spoken by a boy actor. Considering the Elizabethan attitude toward women as weaker vessels, this is an extraordinary speech: beyond the searing poetic eloquence of its language, there are levels upon levels of subtext: what did Shakespeare think of women, and what did his audience think when they heard Lady Macbeth hurl such words, demanding the darkest spirits of the underworld to ‘unsex’ her–and dry up her mother’s milk into poison?
The image is of Kate Fleetwood, my favorite film Lady Macbeth, from the fantastic 2010 movie.