Surviving at all Costs: the Female Abyss and the Domestic Elimination of Patriarchy in William Oldroyd’s ‘Lady Macbeth’

1865, women shall be kept comfortable at home, but the newlywed Katherine, now Mrs Lester is comfortable in her own untamed element namely rough cold winds and natural draughts howling through the house. An untouched wife, the daily smothering silence of the household and the deadness of the dull stiff air barely circulating make her dissolve into the stoic antique furniture, become an object herself, neglected, exposed and collected. She disintegrates amongst the softness of the divan and fades into oblivion as her role entails presence and silence, representation to be kept hidden in the domestic sphere. She is as rough as the natural terrain outside her house, but she remains confined by the shackles of marriage and composes herself, woman the mute accessory dosing off from boredom and passivity.

The actual interactions between Katherine and Anna, the servant, are striking. Anna meticulously obliges the rules of the household regime and complies with the established patriarchy. Taming Katherine’s hair with a firm hand, tightening Katherine’s corset, thereby confining her, maintaining her, the problematic sex which is the same as hers. Anna is Katherine’s silent observer with an accusatory gaze. I always thought, how can she be so rigorous with her own sex, misogynistic even?

After Katherine disrupts a violent, demeaning and volatile scenario in which Anna (forcefully stripped off her clothes) is treated like a sexualised animal by several groomsmen, freeing her, there is no need to explain what happened as both women are aware of their condition as females, across all ranks and how they are mistreated and abused as mere vessels for the continuation and maintenance of men and their bloodlines.

Anna sees Katherine as a threat, a disruptor of order, as everything that she feels must be corrected about womanhood, everything that cannot stand and mustn’t be. Katherine’s adulterous, outlived and shameless sexuality is something that must be washed off, scrubbed and rubbed off, the hot water boiling the unscrupulousness out of Katherine’s cold-skinned marrow. Katherine must conform to the patriarchal norms of the household. It is clear that the visit paid by the priest was originated by Anna and her fears, but failed to resonate with Katherine.

The reason why Anna is so threatened and restless by Katherine’s reckless behaviour is because for Anna the situation is life-threatening whereas it is a joke for Katherine; what is a comedy for Mrs Lester is a tragedy for Anna. This exact tension culminates in the scene in which Katherine’s father-in-law returns and has dinner with the wife of his son. He craves the Fleuris wine, Anna and Katherine are aware that there is none left because the lady of the house drank it all. Whilst this precise scenario is sheer amusement for the defying Katherine who got rid of social charades and niceties, it is blunt torture for Anna who anticipates the worst mistreatment of her master. This is what Anna has feared since Katherine loosened her behavioural codes and the reason for her observatory, pious, strict and ascetic personality. In this scene, the white and privileged patriarchy is clear. Katherine, a high-ranked white wife may openly ridicule and mock her father-in-law and is frowned upon, but the stakes are higher for Anna, the black servant who is innocent but cannot procure the wine because her supposed superior drank it all. Katherine lets her dither like a fish on a hook because she knows that Anna cannot accuse her, it would be her word against the lady of the house’s. Anna has no chance in this situation, she is guilty in Boris’ eyes because she needs to account for ‘all his property’ which is her responsibility. As Katherine is uncontrollable, Anna is doomed. Boris is the source of Anna’s fears, precautions, attentiveness, vigilance and dependency on the established order. Her life is in his hands and Katherine plays with it like a toy. For both women it is survival, Katherine is a suffocating prisoner in a deadening golden cage and for Anna survival couldn’t be more literal as she is trapped by a racist, oppressive, misogynistic and hierarchical class system.

Katherine has no regard for human life except her own. Katherine and Sebastian as lovers are equal to Zola’s Thérèse and Laurent, animalistic, feral, sexually voracious, brutal, and yet, Sebastian has a conscience. Katherine reacts to his ferocious violent sexual identity, in many ways she sees what Thérèse acknowledges in Laurent when she first sees him, a manhood equal to her womanhood, a way out, an ephemeral solution to an unbearable situation. Katherine blends out the man attached to this avid sexual being to whom she is so attracted, she speaks of love, but is truly obsessed with and possessive towards him. In many ways she wants to own him, all her passions are latched onto him and his body. He becomes the bearer of her vices and he is terrified by the bottomless abyss inside of her and the sheer lack of morality and overarching apathy. Katherine treats Sebastian like a puppet, a reactive sociopath who thinks she’s in love, instating her own order, inviting Anna to the table, dressing Sebastian ‘in borrowed robes’ as Shakespeare would say, a dead man’s robes, placing him in the master’s seat at the table letting him sleep in her husband Alexander’s bed beside her.

Both Katherine and Boris have the power to annihilate Anna’s existence and thus she is paralysed by them being authoritarian counterpoles and suffers in silence, her conscience, loyalty, servitude and clearheadedness torn apart. For Anna, the major difference between Boris and Katherine deciding with whom she can live with, is that Boris is a transparent product of a racist, misogynistic, patriarchal and malfunctioning society whereas Katherine is unfathomable and that makes her a force to be reckoned with.

When the husband comes home, a while after his father’s secret murder, he confronts his adulterous wife in their bedroom where so far, between them, only humiliation, degradation, mockery and masturbation has happened. When he abandoned her rather early in the marriage, he left her a virgin and upon his comeback she apparently crossed the fine line to a whore, is that what happens if the husband is absent and himself seeking extramarital liaisons? In this long overdue conversation, which for the first time sounds authentic and uncensored, he comments on her looks in a depreciative manner, then he shames her for her sexuality, her disobedience, her ruthlessness, her unworthiness, calls her a stinking rotten whore who has gotten fat with pleasure and exuberance, reminding her that she is a bought product and ought to behave as such because he does not like ‘owning a whore’. After Alexander patronises her by repeating his old dogma that wives should be kept indoors, or in other words in captivity, as if that’s a solution, she exposes Sebastian as her lover, and attempts to have sex with him in full disclosure in front of her husband. With no regard whatsoever for Sebastian’s life, she drags him out of the closet and of course after Alexander slaps her face, he attacks the man threatening his reputation and polluting his private sphere and property. After Alexander bites out a piece of Sebastian’s flesh, (just like Zola’s Camille bit off some of Laurent’s flesh as he was murdered), Katherine regains control of the situation and beats her husband to death without batting an eye. Now indeed her hands have committed the bloody deed. After she killed her husband, she has no inhibitions to affectedly kiss her shocked lover, whilst her father-in-law was choking on the poisonous mushrooms she fed him she was drinking tea listening to his life-extinguishing sounds, but when she feels compelled to kill her husband’s horse she whimpers and cries.

Katherine pardons no hostility towards her, a proud woman, she will not tolerate betrayal. She makes both Sebastian and Anna sick to their stomachs. Anna has seen such unspeakable things in and committed by Katherine that she became a mute whose wholesome and innocent company is now sought by Sebastian. Everything Sebastian craved was to be acknowledged as a human being, but he reached his very temporary taste of a good life through the murdering hand of his lover whom he abhors and fears more than anything. The newly established order by Katherine has no right of existence outside of her household and is dismantled as soon as Agnes arrives with the ward and son of Katherine’s slaughtered husband.

The already broken idyll has reached its end when Agnes imposes six-year-old Teddy’s presence, male dominance and right on Katherine’s household, even chasing her out of her own room that now belongs to Teddy because ‘why would a woman need all that space’? I think Virginia Woolf would have had one or two things to say about that. Again, patriarchy is reinstated by a woman who should know better, educating him as an alpha male who is ranked above the female sex and whose own sex legitimises bad behaviour.

There is a striking twin-shot, shown back to back and as a metaphor: the first one being the two lovers entangled in their own post-coital flesh and the second one being the rotting unburied horse of her husband, their love is rotten, their passion extinguished, they are themselves an unburied secret that holds on to life by all means possible, gangrenous to the bone, unable to recover.

The child is an intruder to Katherine’s sphere, an insult to her as an unloved, uncherished and untouched wife, and to her own unborn child. Teddy is innocent and he reaches out to Katherine, but as they interact there is no way back to innocence, it is too late, too much happened, maybe Teddy came into her life too late and the circumstances could never have been right. This is a mother in the making with more infanticidal than maternal instincts. And this is where Katherine may be opposed to Marion Cotillard’s Lady Macbeth. Cotillard’s Lady M has a conscience, she has a wound, a trauma of losing her child, she reacts like a human being, emotionally, she was never successful in overcoming her human, her female nature, in shedding that skin and that is why she becomes a somnambulist plagued by guilt-ridden visions, seeing those bloody reminding hands that won’t be cleansed, robbed of her motherhood, her innocence, not recovering from her loss, her irrational actions, her family steeped in blood and crime, she commits suicide because she can’t bear herself. There is none of that in Florence Pugh’s Lady Macbeth who is divorced from Shakespeare’s Lady M. Pugh’s Lady Macbeth is one of the most abysmal heroines with sociopathic depths that make the viewer speechless.

Teddy, weakened by the rough weather which is Katherine’s element in whose waters she washed her hands clean very easily, lies on the ochre divan where she has languished for hours in her life. Again here is a twin-shot. The first one is Katherine hovering authoritatively over her father-in-law’s coffin and the second one anticipating Teddy’s cruel end is Katherine hovering in the exact same way over the little boy lying helplessly on the ottoman. As Sebastian confides in Katherine that he had an instinct to kill the boy but failed to do so, he plants the idea in her distorting head that the assassination of the young heir would salvage their already rotten relationship. As the boy embodies an obstacle to Katherine, she smothers him mercilessly with a pillow. Sebastian is unable to stomach their crimes for the sake of their relationship and betrays her by belting out all the murders she has committed to local authorities, Katherine and Anna.

This is the moment in which Katherine takes advantage not only of her societal position but also abuses the racial injustices incorporated in the already rotten and racially-abusive system they all live in. Sebastian’s voice, that of honesty, goes unacknowledged once more, and the white woman’s word is overruling his as the master narrative. ‘She’s a disease’, he exclaims, yet she is the one who survives. Ironically enough, this is the first time Sebastian tells her how he really feels about her, their love falls apart as an illusion, and his initial reference to Katherine, ‘a bitch gets restless if she’s tied up too long’, resonates with the viewer. Whereas he has a cathartic outburst, she maintains her stoicism and cold rationale, thereby discrediting him by stating that he’s lying, throwing not only him but also Anna under the bus with an elaborate certainly pre-patterned tale and thus saving herself. Betrayed he stands, staring into the abyss that is society in 1865.

Florence Pugh, who described her character as a ‘corseted killer who would do anything to keep her happiness’ also sees Katherine as a feminist heroine, which is a study per se for another day.

young lady sitting on window sill in hall
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on


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