December 15, 2015

Two Roman queens may have inspired Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth


"The Sleepwalking Lady Macbeth" by Johann Heinrich Füssli

“The Sleepwalking Lady Macbeth” by Johann Heinrich Füssli

William Shakespeare has been credited with no less than inventing the human, but fresh research from Dr. John-Mark Philo of East Anglia University suggests that the bard’s Lady Macbeth might not, in fact, be the OG of dangerously ambitious wives who whip their husbands into political power.

For The Guardian, Vanessa Thorpe reports that Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth shares striking similarities with “two steely Roman queens”—Tanaquil and Tullia—whom Shakespeare would have come across in his readings of the English writer William Painter.

“Painter is obsessed with women who step outside what’s expected of them,” Philo writes. “It’s not a coincidence that this is the first decade of the reign of Elizabeth I. He hones in on these two Roman queens, and I think that’s where Shakespeare gets his Lady Macbeth.”

Further, while Macbeth was obviously inspired by Scottish lore—itself influenced by Roman history—much of the language Shakespeare used in his great tragedy “suggests to Philo that he made direct use of Painter’s translation of Livy’s History of Rome in his Two Romane Queenes to paint the character of Lady Macbeth. Philo now believes ‘significant chunks’ of the play were lifted from Livy via Painter.”

Significant chunks!



Taylor Sperry is an editor at Melville House.