Lady Macbeth. […] 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!
(Macbeth, Act 1 Scene 5)
Macbeth is one of my favourite Shakespeare plays and particularly this soliloquy from Lady Macbeth. I have just dug out my old school copy and am reading my scrawled margin notes about her seeking to reject her ‘maternal’ and ‘feminine’ instincts to urge her husband to murder his rival to the throne, Banquo. Later in Act One, Scene Seven, when Macbeth is prevaricating about carrying out the fatal deed, Lady Macbeth taunts him that even she, a woman, could do it:
Lady Macbeth. 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 pluck’d my nipple from his boneless gums,
And dash’d the brains out, had I so sworn as you
Have done to this.
Macbeth. If we should fail?
Lady Macbeth. We fail!
But screw your courage to the sticking-place,
And we’ll not fail.
(Macbeth, Act 1 Scene 7)
These visceral images of the tainted breastmilk and pulling the vulnerable baby from the breast to murder it are both powerful and shocking.
Carol Smart (1976) argued that the gender expectations that women should be peaceable, maternal and home-loving mean that women who break these conventions by engaging in offending, particularly violent or sexual offending, are seen by the public and the criminal justice system as ‘doubly deviant’. Double because they offend by their crime, but also against their gender. We associate violent and sexual crime with masculinity, meaning that such offending by females appears to be an ‘exception’ or ‘aberration’ against nature.
Indeed, women who do offend or are associated with such offending – often with male perpetrators – are household names: Myra Hindley, Rose West, Joanna Dennehy, Beverly Allitt, Mary Ann Cotton, Vanessa George or Maxine Carr.
Women do commit violent and sexual offences, but on nowhere near the scale and impact of men – in terms of recorded offences, at least. In England and Wales, around 15% of those arrested are female and females represent around a quarter of prosecutions, convictions and sentences. However, a greater proportion of female offending comprises ‘summary’ offences which are dealt with at the magistrates’ court. These might include non-payment of TV license or shoplifting, for example. The campaigning charity Women in Prison report that most women entering prison serve sentences of less than 12 months: these accounted for 82% of all sentenced first receptions of women in the year ending September 2019. Ministry of Justice data also suggests that most women entering prison to serve a sentence (80%) have committed a non-violent offence. Only around 5% of the current adult prison population are female: there are no female young offenders institutions. Females under 18 who commit serious offences are usually placed in secure training centres.
While double deviance may be an important factor in media coverage, of more concern perhaps to campaigners is the potential for double punishment. There are 12 women’s prisons in England (none in Wales): this means that women may be imprisoned far from home, potentially reducing the number of visits by friends and family. Women are more likely to be carers, often sole parent for children, and may lose children to care if they go into prison. Male prisoners are more likely to know their children continue to be looked after by female partners while they are inside. A significant proportion of women in prison have histories of familial and intimate partner abuse and will engage disproportionately in self-harm while inside. Men and trans men and women face similar and different challenges.
Does it matter if we still assume violent and sexual criminals are male and feel additionally disturbed when the perpetrator turns out to be female? As Lady Macbeth waits tensely outside the chamber for Macbeth to commit the deed, worried that he may not have gone through with it,
Lady Macbeth. Alack, I am afraid they have awaked,
And ’tis not done. The attempt and not the deed
Confounds us. Hark! I laid their daggers ready;
He could not miss ’em.
Lady Macbeth. Had he [Banquo] not resembled
My father as he slept, I had done’t.
(Macbeth, Act 2 Scene 2)
Doctor. What is it she does now? Look how she rubs her hands.
Gentlewoman. It is an accustom’d action with her, to seem thus
washing her hands. I have known her continue in this a quarter of
Lady Macbeth: Yet here’s a spot.
Doctor: Hark, she speaks. I will set down what comes from her, to
satisfy my remembrance the more strongly.
Lady Macbeth: Out, damn’d spot! out, I say!—One; two: why, then
’tis time to do’t.—Hell is murky.—Fie, my lord, fie, a soldier, and
afeard? What need we fear who knows it, when none can call our
pow’r to accompt?—Yet who would have thought the old man to
have had so much blood in him?
(Macbeth, Act 5 Scene 1)
The greatness – and modernity – of this play is that while it plays on gender stereotypes in its opening imagery, as the story progresses we see that both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are complex, fragile and human characters, beyond their gender. They commit vile acts but also struggle to carry the horror of what they have done. Lady Macbeth is a deviant woman, but it is not clear her deviance is double Macbeth’s.
© Natasha Mulvihill and Criminology Tales, 2020.