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Women, Agency, and Ambition
Episode 129th March 2021 • Defending Lady Macbeth • Tracy Oswald
00:00:00 00:32:18

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Hello my friends and welcome to the inaugural episode of Defending Lady Macbeth

This show is the culmination and celebration of the last 10 years of my life, the growth I’ve had, the discoveries I’ve made and the perspectives that have shifted for me. 

And I’ve had this Defending Lady Macbeth idea in different incantations - fist it was a book. Then it was an immersive theatre experience. Which i have zero knowledge about how to do...

And then I shifted it to a medium I am super comfortable with - podcasting. Now I’m not saying it might not evolve into both of those other forms. Because my mission, my life’s work is to share these ideas with as many people in this world as I can. 

But in all honesty I’ve been afraid to share this viewpoint this way of thinking about her. 

I want To create change at scale in how we think about women’s ambition, agency AND POWER.

Even when it feels scary. And it so often does.

This show, this experience that we are creating together will be so many things: expansive, deep, fun, hard, sad, universe-expanding, hilarious and most of it will connect us. And move us forward in a  way that changes the world.

I’m so glad you’re here and that you’re coming with me on this journey. We are going on an adventure! An unpaved road with lots of twists and turns. 

And along the way, we are going to have extremely timely and current conversations about women’s agency and ambition, using Lady Macbeth as our backdrop, our very unlikely heroine.  We’re going to go deep into the history of power, agency and ambition for women and understand how women lived in the Middle Ages - from the 11th-15th century, so we’re talking around 1,000 to 1600s AD. 

I will be interviewing women PHD in Medieval Studies, Shakespeare experts, women's and gender studies experts, women who have been shamed and punished for having too much ambition and activating their agency, I’ll be doing solo shows talking about xcv.

And I know some of you listening right now are like….um Lady Macbeth? Wasn’t she the one who convinced her husband to kill this king, and then everything went horribly wrong and everyone died? 

Yup, that’s her! And I promise I will explain the why to you in a way that will have you sit up and take notice. That will allow you to see things about our collective history from new perspectives, that illuminate why we are where we are today, as women. How much have things really changed for us?

So let’s take a left turn, down a windy path and I’ll take you on MY journey with Lady M over the last 10 years and we’ll create a shared narrative that will thread the needle through time and space, and through these episodes we’re going to spend together, with me in your ears and you on my heart.

I walked over the threshold and immediately felt the cool air on my neck. The dirt made crunching sounds under my feet as I tentatively snaked through the old garden, with it’s crumbling walls and lonely statues. I walked towards the glass doors, which were open, beckoning me to come inside. The room was expansive, with an elevated clawfoot bathtub right  in the middle, and handwritten letters laid all around it. I picked one up and while could make out a few words, the dim lighting obscured the messages for me.

In the far right corner was a bed, with a dark and sumptuous duvet. To my left was an old bureau, and some dressing items, things like a mirror, an old hairbrush. The room was a bit warmer than the walled garden and I felt the heat and moisture building on the inside of my mask. 

And then she whisked right past me. Lady Macbeth. My Lady M. This was the first time I met her. The first of many first meetings and of Many Lady Macbeth’s.

Her husband followed quickly after her - and it was obvious that they were getting ready for something. He was lovingly helping her to get dressed for the evening. He playfully helped her put on her shoes, in a romantic and even seductive way. And I sensed the love they had between them. The caring and the partnership.

But I also felt the undertones of fear, and courage and gravity, because they were getting ready for that fateful night, the ball, where King Duncan was both their guest and their victim. And table had been set my friends, for murder.

And even though I knew this, I mean I had read and seen the play, I felt a stirring inside myself, an affinity with this woman, who clearly was a co-conspirator to murder, and who also seemed to love her husband. She seemed smart, and resourceful and had a “knowing’ quality about her. She seemed like the kind of woman who did what needed to be done.

And feeling a connection to her scared me. But it also interested me. Because what did it mean about me that I kind of understood, at a deep level, why she did what she did. 

Of course, I’m talking about the immersive theatre experience in NYC, Sleep No More. I promise to bring you on more of my travels inside the McKittrick hotel, things I saw, feelings I felt, conspiracies I was party to. That will all unfold as we spend time together. 

My experience inside this immersive wonderland in the 9 years I’ve been exploring it, has changed my life in too many ways to count. And one of the top 3 things it has forced me to explore is how women’s agency and ambition have been treated over the decades and centuries. 

It’s seduced me down elaborate rabbit holes of medieval history and what life was typically like for a woman during those times.

How they lived and loved. How they survived and thrived during a time when a woman’s worth was predicated on her ability to advance a man’s standing through royal bloodlines or “good families”. ANd her ability to bear children.

I read about medieval queens and how they activated their agency and power. at a time when patriarchal government and societal constructs were absolute. 

I researched how women were often punished, drowned, beheaded and burned at the stake for being visible in their power, for being suspected of “knowing how to heal with herbs - which of course meant they were witches. 

And as I continued to visit the McKittrick and to see my Lady M play out her fateful story over and over,

I couldn’t help but to see her as our cautionary tale, a warning to women for years to come that bad things will happen if you want too much. If you stand in your power like a man does.

If you are visible in your power, you will lose everything and everyone will die.

Fast forward to 2021, and while so many things have changed, and evolved and gotten better there are still strong undercurrents of this feeling that women get when they are compelled to step into their power. It’s I really want to do this? 

It’s a different fear than, I’m not confident to do this thing…., it’s more primal, like this light is going to shine on me and THEN WHAT? 

Who is coming for me?

Who will have feelings about it?

What microaggressions or outright aggression will I suffer because of it?

What responsibility will I now carry BECAUSE I spoke up and attracted attention?

And If I’m a woman of color,  a trans woman, a queer woman an asian women, the stakes are even HIGHER.

Yes, we can vote, we can work, we can start businesses, we can stand alone without a man to validate our existence and worth, there are still so many ways women are punished for being women.

Being shut down at meetings

Being excluded from decisions

Being ostracized by other women

Being called a bitch

Being told we’re too aggressive, too direct, just TOO MUCH.

Being asked to be NICE.

So we’ve figured out how to soften our approach, to dial back our emotions, to contort ourselves into shapes and sizes we think will be “acceptable” and won’t upset anyone. ANd in doing this, the essence of who we are and what makes us unique and different and special gets silenced and erased. ANd we’ve become strangers to ourselves. 

I want us to have the kind of deep conversations that prevent that from happening. 

Before we talk about our Lady M, I want to set the stage with a quick recap of the actual story of Macbeth so that we have a shared understanding of her narrative.

Act I

On a bleak Scottish moorland, Macbeth and Banquo, two of King Duncan's generals, having just returned from a successful battle, discover three strange women (witches). 

The witches prophesy that Macbeth, Thane of Glamis, will be promoted twice: to Thane of Cawdor (a rank of the aristocracy bestowed by grateful kings) and King of Scotland. And the witches also say that Banquo's descendants will be kings, but Banquo isn't promised any kingdom himself. The generals want to hear more, but the "witches'' disappear. 

Macbeth and Banquo are like...whoa, that was weird. Should we believe any of this?

Soon afterwards, King Duncan names Macbeth Thane of Cawdor as a reward for his success in the recent battles. 

So he’s thinking-hmmmmnnn - this is what the witches said would happen, what if there;s more to this? 

King Duncan then sends word that he intends to make a brief visit that night to Macbeth's castle at Inverness. Lady Macbeth receives a letter from her husband about the what the witches told him  and that he got a new title. She vows to help him become king by whatever means are necessary (*ominous music*). 

Act II

Macbeth returns to his castle, followed almost immediately by King Duncan. The Macbeth's plot together to kill Duncan and wait until everyone is asleep. When the time comes, Lady Macbeth gives the guards drugged wine so Macbeth can enter and kill the King. 

He regrets this almost immediately, but his wife reassures him. She leaves the bloody daggers by the dead king just before Macduff, a nobleman, and Macbeth’s friend arrives. When Macduff discovers the murder, Macbeth kills the drunken guards in a show of rage and retribution. Duncan's sons, Malcolm and Donalbain, flee, fearing for their own lives; but they are, nevertheless, blamed for the murder. 


Macbeth becomes King of Scotland but is plagued by feelings of insecurity and paranoia.

He remembers the prophecy that Banquo's descendants will inherit the throne and arranges for Banquo and his son Fleance to be killed. In the darkness, Banquo is murdered, but his son escapes the assassins. 

At the state banquet that night, Macbeth sees the ghost of Banquo and worries the court with his mad response. Lady Macbeth dismisses the court and unsuccessfully tries to calm her husband. 

Act IV

Macbeth seeks out the witches who predicted all of this and they say that he will be safe until a local wood, Birnam Wood, marches into battle against him. He also need not fear anyone born of woman (that sounds secure, no loop-holes here). They also tell him that the Scottish succession will still come from Banquo's son. Macbeth embarks on a reign of terror, slaughtering many, including Macduff's family. Macduff had gone to seek Malcolm (one of Duncan's sons who fled)  and persuades him to lead an army against Macbeth. 

Act V

Macbeth feels safe in his remote castle at Dunsinane until he is told that Birnam Wood is moving towards him. Malcolm's army is carrying branches from the forest as camouflage for their assault on Macbeth's stronghold. Meanwhile, an overwrought and conscience-ridden Lady Macbeth walks in her sleep and tells her secrets to her doctor. She commits suicide.

Back to the battlefield, In the midst of a losing battle, Macduff challenges Macbeth. Macbeth learns Macduff is the child of a cesarean birth (loophole!), realizes he is doomed, and submits to his enemy. Macduff triumphs and brings the head of the traitor Macbeth to Malcolm. Malcolm declares peace and goes to Scone to be crowned king.

Now this story the synopsis, this feels like a very male centric sotry with kings and murder and battle and death ANd in this short description, she doesn’t seem to play that big  role, right? 

But in the words Shakepeare gives Lady Macbeth and we’ll talk about some of her most infamous lines and verses, he paints a very different picture.  Lady M serves as the person, the WOMAN fanning the flames of Macbeth’s ambition. Almost taking over his “cause” to advance their family, their standing in court. ANd she does this by any means necessary - even BEIng his courage when he starts to have doubts about it all.

Now back in the middle ages, when this story was written, so very early 1600’s women were absolutely second-class citizens in every way. 

In life and in literature there were very specific roles or tropes for women, The Virgin, The mother, The Whore, The Witch and The Trickster we’re all familiar with because they haven’t really changed that much in the last several hundred years. Read any book, watch any movie and women can usually be categorized into one of these tropes. 

Another important thing to know about this time is that playwrights, like our dear Shakespeare, and yes I do really love him and we’ll talk about WHY, I promise, wrote their plays to please their patrons. 

The people who would pay and support them and their work. So in this case, King James 1..

The story of Macbeth was like a magic mirror for King James 1.

 It supported all of the things that were important to him - his hatred of witches, his deep paranoia that everyone was out to kill him (the king - and they were!) and reinforced the patriarchal structures that were in place which said that women were basically not good for much, couldn’t be trusted and women that DID try to exert their power or agency in ANY way were doomed. 

Now I offer dear jury and ask you to consider that This was the ONLY narrative Will could give our Lady. Because it was the only one that audiences and the King wanted and would accept. He HAD to paint Lady M as inhuman, a monster  IF he gave her any agency or show of strength.

Shakespeare gave Lady M lots of delicious words - provocative, violent, and visceral ...but one  of the less violent passages she was given was right after they decided to do the evil deed and before King Duncan arrived at Inverness. Macbeth is starting to get nervous and worried and our Lady says

Your face, my thane, is as a book where men

May read strange matters. To beguile the time,

Look like the time. Bear welcome in your eye,

Your hand, your tongue. Look like th’ innocent


But be the serpent under ’t.

So she’s basically saying, stop making that face! People are going to wonder what you;re up to. IN order to make them think everything is fine, you have to LOOK like everything is fine, even when you have murderous plans.

Which is one of the most beautiful passages. Yes it speaks of trickery and lying and deceit and look how Shakespeare formed those sentences.with pretty and soft words- to belie the message they are giving.

It's very much like how we as women have to contort ourselves our words so as not to upset people. To mask the directness of our intentions and desires. To soften our approach.

Let’s think about for a minute if Lady Macbeth was a real person who lived in 11th century Scotland where the play was set in. And let’s imagine she was smart. And ambitious. She wanted a seat at the table, just like so many of you do, I DO. But she had zero power. No ability to make her own decisions, choices. I like to imagine, if I was her in that time period, how would I FEEL.

And in 11th century Scotland - it was an extremely VIOLENT time to be alive. Life expectancies were short. Murder, death by infection or sicness was very common, women died in childbirth all the time, so life was much more temporary than how we experience it today.

And regicide, or the killing of kings was NOT uncommon at all.  If you were a MAN and wanted to become a King and weren’t in line for the throne, one way you could do it is to kill the current king. And that was like a normal thing to do.

Poison, stabbing, in battle- by whatever means necessary.  IN fact between the years 600 and 1800 AD 22% of royal deaths in Europe were bloody - accidents, battle deaths and murder. And even more interesting is that Regicide was particularly widespread in cold climates - 

In Scotland for example, between 889 and 1094 AD 15 out of 17 monarchs died in battle or were victims of regicide.  So in the context of the story and when it was set - killing a King , a pretty common thing.  NOw I’m not saying it was the “right” thing at all, I’m not condoning murdering the king, or your boss in order to get that promotion...I’m just saying that this was how life was during this time.

So the story of Macbeth killing the king- however frightening it was to King James, was not shocking to anyone back then. 

But making a WOMAN the center of the story, the axis on which everything turns WAS shocking. And the fact that Shakespeare allowed her to do this successfully - he HAD to write the ending he did, where Lady M went insane and killed herself and Macbeth died. (Shakespeare- agency and voice)

There was NO OTHER CHOICE than to end it that way. The scandal was not the killing of a king.That was a “norm” for that time and place. The scandal was that a WOMAN was exercising her AGENCY and being visible in her power.

And WHY THIS MATTERS for you, for us, is that I don't believe things have changed all that much. And unless we not only normalize talking about this OUT LOUD, but also doing something about it together to create change, it will be the same in 10 years, 50 years, 500 hundred years.

So let’s travel back in time, and consider our Lady with new eyes. And in doing this, we create new places from which we can create change.

And yes, I know it can be scary. To start to step fully into your power in a visible way. To take up more space in this world. To walk out onto the stage of your own LIFE and state simply and boldly HERE I AM and this is WHAT I WANT.

...and you might be thinking….but what if I fail? What if we fail?

Then we fail.

But screw your courage to the sticking place

And we’ll not fail.