Killer Ladies of Macbeth

When you watch a TV show or a movie where the main character kills someone, do you secretly hope they get away with it? Have you ever caught yourself trying to justify their reasoning in your own mind to make this secret hope not so horrible?

I know that when I watch Criminal Minds re-runs, I always find myself rooting for the unsub (unknown subject) who kills either because of an injustice done to them or because they are suffering from some form of psychosis that they have no control over.

Gotta love some Spencer Reid.

I recently watched the 2016 movie Lady Macbeth, which is actually based on a novel by Nikolai Leskov rather than Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth. Leskov did, however, title his 1865 novel Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District after the murderous Shakespearean creation. The story is set in England and is about a young woman named Katherine who has recently joined in a loveless marriage with a man twice her age who doesn’t even seem sexually interested in her for anything more than merely looking at her body.

Katherine is forced to follow strict rules of the house, including but not limited to never leaving the house without her husband. He leaves to go to work every day, but she is forced to stay indoors. I personally think that this movie did an excellent job emphasizing how boring and uneventful Katherine’s life is stuck indoors. The image above is one thing that she spent most of her time doing: sitting on the couch, staring at the fireplace, waiting on her husband to get home. I like solitude sometimes, but I would at least need a book or Netflix or something like that.

One day, however, Katherine gets a reprieve. Her husband and father-in-law (who lives with them) leave for a time on separate business trips and Katherine is free to go outside, explore, and spend her time as she pleases. She beings a passionate affair with a groom on the estate and life seems to be going well for her for a time. Soon, her father-in-law returns to resume being thoroughly disappointment with Katherines skills as a wife and proceeds to scold her for failing to bare her husband a son (even though as far as we know, Katherine and her husband have never had sex). He is soon informed of Katherine’s affair and beats the groom and locks him in the stable. Katherine is now fed up with her father-in-law hitting her into submission and keeping her lover locked away, so she poisons his food with mushrooms and listens to him die alone. The maid, Anna, is so terrified over what Katherine has done that she falls mute and cannot tell anyone.

Now that some time has passed without suspicion thrown Katherine’s way, her husband returns home, only to inform his wife that he is aware of her “whoring around”. A fight ensues between Alexander Lester (Katherine’s husband) and Sebastian (Katherine’s lover) and ends with Katherine bashing her husbands head in. Sebastian is now pretty shaken over what he just witnessed Katherine being capable of, and he worries about her getting caught. Later on, a woman arrives at the estate with a little boy and claims to be the mother of a woman that Alexander had an affair/child with. Katherine reluctantly allows the two to stay and will later kill the little boy in another attempt to live alone with Sebastian. Sebastian is guilt ridden and confesses to aiding Katherine in killing the boy in front of people, along with telling them that Katherine killed her husband and father-in-law. Katherine turns around and blames the murders on him and Anna, the maid, and the two are taken away.

After Katherine kills her father-in-law, I was pretty okay with rooting for her to get away with it. After all, he was a horrible man! Then she killed her husband… which seemed a little unnecessary as opposed to simply running away. But then she killed a child… and I was no longer rooting for her.

Leskov named his story after Lady Macbeth because of the murderous natures between the two female characters. Katherine, like Lady Macbeth, orchestrates the murders but is actually the one carrying them out. While the motives of these ladies seem vastly different, both are actually made in a want for power. I also found it interesting how in both of these stories, the men (Sebastian and Macbeth) seem to sit in the passenger seat throughout the story. Both men go along with their ladies’ murderous plans and it could be said that both share in the guilt just as much as their manipulators. Both women desired power: Lady Macbeth desired to be queen and Katherine desired to control the estate with Sebastian and continue to do as she pleased. It could be said that Katherine had the guts to do what Lady Macbeth could not.

Emily Temple actually argues, “Katherine, the protagonist of William Oldroyd’s excellent, harrowing new film Lady Macbeth has no desire to be unsexed. She constantly requires more sex, and also more femininity. She wants to love and be loved with fervor.” While this is true, Temple goes on to admit that she does, however, seem to be filled with the same direst cruelty as her namesake.

I think it could also be argued that both women are the reason for the demise of their loves. Macbeth is killed towards the end of a chain of events that began with Lady Macbeth convincing her husband to kill King Duncan to acquire the throne, while Sebastian is (probably) killed because he broke down under the deceitful pressure placed upon him by Katherine.

Jaclyn Buckman describes the character of Lady Macbeth from the 2017 film Macbeth as “the literary devil on a shoulder.” Buckman also writes how Lady Macbeth differs from her husband in the sense of “declaring her desire to become morally cold and remorseless” while he “mulls over the deed of taking Duncan’s life”. It seems to be that Katherine is Lady Macbeth 2.0, already possessing the characteristics of cold and remorseless towards the lives lost in the wake of her having what she desires.

I almost found the foreshadowing in Lady Macbeth comical when Boris, Katherine’s father-in-law, asks her, “do have any idea of the damage that you are capable of bringing upon this family?” Do you, Boris?

And there you have it; two unsubs you can’t help but (not) root for.


Works Cited

Temple, Emily. “Blood on the Big Screen: A Lady Macbeth Who Does the Killing.” Literary Hub, 10 Apr. 2019, Accessed 1 Oct. 2020.

Buckman, Jaclyn. “Lady Macbeth: The Literary Devil on a Shoulder.” Another Book on a Shelf, 16 Apr. 2018, Accessed 29 Sept. 2020.