Born in Wales in 1755, Sarah Siddons was a famous tragedienne. In the late 1700s, Siddons played Lady Macbeth for the first time, captivating audiences with her emotional and intense performance. Indeed, she became famous for her Lady Macbeth — which she played at various times over the next four decades —, making the character her own. Siddons retired from the stage in 1812, after one last performance in Macbeth.
The great French stage and early film actress Sarah Bernhardt played the coveted role of Lady Macbeth in 1884. Her portrayal was different from previous versions. Bernhardt brought a dominant, femme fatale quality to the role, and she designed costumes that would hug her body, showing off her shape and enhancing her seductiveness. Not everyone liked her Lady Macbeth, because it was different and deemed too erotic. However, many theatergoers embraced it — it was a modern take on the character.
A leading Shakespearean actress of her time, Dame Ellen Terry played the role of Lady Macbeth in an 1888 production. Unlike previous, passionate portrayals of this character, Terry took a risk and played her as being ‘domestic and practical,’ typical of the Victorian ideal of what a wife should be. Upon seeing her performance on opening night, John Singer Sargent was inspired to paint a portrait of Terry in her stunning costume — a blue and green gown embellished with iridescent beetle wings — and did so in Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth.
Like Sarah Siddons, Dame Judith Anderson was known for her portrayal of Lady Macbeth. Australian-born, Anderson played the character several times throughout her career. She first took on the role in a 1937 London production; her second performance saw her playing the character in New York City in 1941. She also filmed two television versions, once in 1954 and again in 1960; she won an Emmy each time. Her portrayals of Lady Macbeth were, indeed, memorable ones.
While not an exact version, Throne of Blood is a 1957 Japanese film heavily inspired by Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Taking place in feudal Japan, Macbeth is known in the film as Taketoki Washizu and Lady Macbeth is Lady Asaji Washizu, played Isuzu Yamada. In the manner of Noh theatre, Yamada used her body movements to express her emotions in a riveting performance. Indeed, film critic Pauline Kael said of Yamada’s performance, ‘there may never be a more chilling Lady Macbeth.’
The year of 1976 saw one of the most ‘unforgettable’ productions of Macbeth. The Royal Shakespeare Company’s production, directed by Trevor Nunn, featured Sir Ian McKellen as Macbeth and Dame Judi Dench in a stripped-down production — there was minimal stage setting. This type of setting allowed Dench’s acting to shine, making her Lady Macbeth one of her most incredible performances ever, terrifying many who watched. Indeed, her portrayal of the character was deemed one of the best and earned Dench a Laurence Olivier Award in 1977.
A British actress, Jane Lapotaire played Lady Macbeth in 1983 when the BBC made a series called ‘The Shakespeare Plays,’ which set out to film all of Shakespeare’s works for television audiences. This particular production was another lean showing with no fancy frills or spins on the story, allowing it to stay truer to Shakespeare’s version of Macbeth. Lapotaire was described in The New York Times as an ‘edgy creature’ who performed her role with intensity.
Playing one half of the murderous Macbeths, with Sir Patrick Stewart in the title role, Kate Fleetwood was a bit intimidated when first given the role of Lady Macbeth in this Stalinist-inspired production. However, there was no need as she played this role — a ‘trophy wife’ in this incarnation — as ‘pure evil,’ captivating audiences wherever the play was performed, including London’s West End and New York City‘s Broadway. Indeed, Fleetwood was nominated for a Tony in 2008 for her stellar performance.
Alex Kingston, a British actress known for her roles on E.R. and Doctor Who, starred alongside Sir Kenneth Branagh in a visually stunning 2013 stage production of Macbeth, which was very well received. Kingston – who received rave reviews from critics and theatergoers alike for her believable performance – played Lady Macbeth as a strong, power-hungry, manipulative character. The Scottish Play proved so popular at the Manchester International Festival that a limited-run was produced in NYC as well.
In the most recent adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, with Michael Fassbender in the title role, French actress Marion Cotillard plays Lady Macbeth. Some critics called Cotillard’s casting a ‘bold’ and surprising choice, but after seeing the film, they say she is convincing in the role. While the film has not yet been released everywhere, great reviews are already being given to the Academy Award-winning actress for her portrayal of the scheming wife who, in this film, is grieving from the get-go.