The Corset of Marriage: Lady Macbeth (2016)
Post by Jessica Parant
The 2016 film Lady Macbeth, though not strictly a horror film but a British drama directed by William Oldroyd, is based loosely on the novella by Nikolai Leskvo called Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. While both the story and film look at the themes of the subordinate role placed upon women in European society and adultery, it also addresses themes that are often presented in horror films through the lens of the monstrous feminine. Lady Macbeth deals with the idea of a woman turned monstrous from the lack of agency denied to her by a society that views her as first an object, and then a woman. It shows how the institutionalization of marriage as property forced countless women into unhappy marriages for the sake of power and privilege for the cis-white heteronormative patriarchy of the 19th century.
Mrs. Katherine Lester (Florence Pugh) is forced into a loveless marriage with an older upper class man Alexander (Paul Hilton) as part of a property contract. When she arrives at her new estate she is treated coldly by her new husband and progressively broken down by him. He refuses to touch her sexually, only masturbating to her naked body while she is turned away from him. Alexander acts like the sight of her nudity repulses him. He controls her appearance by forcing her to wear restricting corsets to make her appear thin, has her hair brushed roughly to make it shine and she is restricted from ever leaving the house. Katherine is treated like she is weak and fragile, which was common for women in the Victorian era. She must speak only when spoken to and sleep only when her husband sleeps. With every step her husband dehumanizes her, to not only break her spirit, but to keep her under his control. And if it is not her husband slowly denying her existence, her father-in-law Boris Lester (Christopher Fairbank) reminds her of her failures as a wife because she has not yet produced an heir. Katherine’s worth is based solely on her ability to reproduce, but when her husband won’t even touch her, how can she be expected to have children? She doesn’t have allies as the servants of the estate regularly report on her actions thus furthering her alienation and isolation. She is literally treated as an object, as window dressing for the whole of proper society, like a lamp that can be turned off and on whenever the men who own her deem it appropriate.
Katherine despises her new life and she attempts small acts of rebellion to exert herself, such as leaving the dinner table without her husband's permission, but she is punished with violence, ridicule, and scorn. It is not until both her husband and father-in-law leave the estate for business that she is able to find herself and her humanity again. She dresses] for comfort, leaving the corset behind, wears her hair down, goes for long daily walks alone and invites the attention of the estates groomsman, Sebastian (actor). On the first night that Katherine and Sebastian have sex, she comes alive again. The moment their flesh connects for the first time - she feels what it is like to be desired. To not be seen as inhuman but acknowledged as a woman full of blood and passion. From this act of passion, she begins to turn her life around. In taking a lover in Sebastian, she has taken back her agency. She takes control over the estate’s affairs and stands up for herself against those who would continue to oppress her even while it is short lived.
When her father-in-law returns and learns of her affair and “disreputable” behavior, he forces her back into her corset, the cage that kept her from feeling alive. She is to go numb again and return to the life of solitude and reflection. In resistance, she kills him and releases Sebastian, who had been beaten and locked up. She is free again. And when her husband inevitably returns, and after hearing word of his “property’s dalliances' ', she kills him while protecting Sebastian. She has donned the role of the Femme Fatale, killing for freedom, becoming a woman not to be toyed with. She makes both murders look like accidents and when Sebastian begins to buckle under the guilt of playing a part in her husband’s murder, she says she would do anything for love. However, this speech should be understood as her stating that she would do anything to protect her independence. It is not about killing for her love of Sebastian, but for herself. Through her affair with him, she was able to open up sexually and feel empowered in her womanhood and youth - everything she lost when she was forced into a marriage that was strictly a contract for capitalist gain. She will fight for herself, her freedom, and to never wear the corset again. To not lose the pleasure and passion that has grown as part of her backbone. To never be oppressed by men.
When Katherine thinks she is finally free from her husband’s tyranny, she becomes shackled with his ward, Teddy. Her ability to live her life to her pleasure and openly with Sebastian is rudely ripped away from her yet again. The independence she had killed for was gone and taken over by a young boy from one of Alexander’s previous affairs, unbeknownst to her. She is forced into a new role, one of motherhood, a role that she didn’t ask for. She is no longer Master of the Estate, as she must give up the bigger room to the boy and cater to his every whim. At first she herself to her fate and grows a fondness for Teddy, until she discovers that she is pregnant with Sebastian’s child. And like a mother who wants only the best for her child and protect her status, she commits the ultimate act of the “anti-mother” - infanticide. She will do whatever she needs to do to protect her power and freedom. And while she also did it for love, she does not bat an eye to deny all the murders that her lover Sebastian accuses her of when he can no longer handle the burden of guilt. Knowing that the societal rules that oppressed her for so long would also protect her, she accuses Sebastian of conspiring murder with her maid servant Anna and they are both taken away.
It is not a coincidence that this film is titled Lady Macbeth; while it is not a modern take on the Shakespearean character Lady Macbeth, it is referring to the idea of Lady Macbeth as the “anti-mother”. In the play, when Lady Macbeth talks about dashing the brains of the babe that suckles at her breast, she represents a fear the early English society had about mother’s hurting their babies (Chamberlain). While this has been argued to have been her stating a desire to be a man as it would be easier to commit murder, it can also be seen as her struggling with the condemnation with being a bad mother. But ultimately, what this references is the accusation of infanticide and the reasons as to why a woman would murder a child, often accused of doing so to gain power.
There is no happy ending for this film as with everyone gone, Katherine is left in isolation with her unborn child. With her husband, father-in-law, and ward dead (and with her lover banished), she is the inheritor of the estate. But she is still considered her husband's property as a widow is unable to remarry in the 19th century, without it being considered scandalous. And while we are working to reclaim the concept of spinsterhood in the 21 century as a chosen lifestyle, this would have been considered essentially a death sentence for a woman of Katherine’s time. This isn’t a time of reclamation as she is now considered a burden to the family and will be forced further into isolation. Like the restricting structure of a corset, Katherine has returned to a cage. Even in death, the systematic contract of patriarchal marriage continues to deny her agency, even after everything she did to reclaim and protect it. This is an example of how the institution of marriage was just another way in which the patriarchy oppressed women and forced them to resort to monstrous means to exert themselves as human beings.
Stephanie Chamberlain "Fantasizing Infanticide: Lady Macbeth and the Murdering Mother in Early Modern England" College Literature Vol. 32, No. 3 (Summer, 2005), pp. 72-91 (20 pages)
"Marriage and Divorce 19th Century Style", article by Margaret Wood https://blogs.loc.gov/law/2018/02/marriage-and-divorce-19th-century-style/