Lady Macbeth is probably a very interesting role to play, as it exists in two “sections” (basically, pre- and post-killing the King). Both parts are extremely dramatic, but shockingly different; according to Garry Wills in his learned book Witches and Jesuits: Shakespeare’s Macbeth (The New York Public Library: Oxford University Press, 1995), both are based upon Jacobean ideas about Witches that would have influenced the original 17th century audience’s perception in ways that escape our cultural eye today.
Whereas in the first part of the show, the Lady is seen as an indomitable and domineering Witch-Queen: in the latter, we see a much reduced, more pitiful woman- a woman almost suffering the fate of a Heretic-Witch. SOME BACK-STORY: while the medieval church had attempted forcibly to convert European Pagans to Christianity in the Dark Ages, and when that failed, sought to sermonize, ridicule, and spirituality-shame European Pagans since at least the tenth century- it was not really until the Heresy Persecutions of the 1300s that the church latched onto the idea of forcibly convicting someone of the religious crime of Devil-Worship (a charge enabled by the unleashing of torture upon the accused). Confessions thus got engaged what is called a “Feedback Loop,” reinforcing the notion that wholesale demonic abominations were being conducted by religious “Heretics”: meaning, those whose religious ideas veered too far from the True Orthodoxy of the One Church.
This becomes significant to Witches in the 1400s, when the church shifts the accusation of “Devil-Worshipping Religious Criminal” from Heretics against the Catholic Faith- and directs it against Witches. With Witches now pegged as the demonic criminal subversives of the medieval period, the 300-year Burning Times was upon the land.
For this reason, early Witch-Punishments of the 1400s could resemble very much those of religious Heretics of the 1300s- as in the case of Eleanor, Duchess of Gloucester, a powerful woman married to the Regent of England (ruling whilst the young King Henry VI was in his minority). As Magick-Use seems to have been widely practiced during the 15th century, it is likely that the Witch-Duchess and her cohorts genuinely practiced Magick-Ritual: but to what end, being the pertinent question. Eleanor’s husband’s enemies charged her and her associates with attempting to end the King’s youthful life through use of the Dark Arts- a treasonable offense in the Middle Ages. Eleanor’s associates were tortured and horribly killed; the Duchess herself was forced to undergo the Heretic’s Walk of Shame through the streets of London. Trudging from church to church, carrying a Penitent’s candle, suffering the humility of bare feet in the wastes of the thoroughfares, Eleanor was a very visible figure of punishment, clad in the conspicuous white shift of the convicted Heretic.
At some point, the English abandoned this excessively-Catholic ordeal of the Heretic’s Humiliation (I would imagine around when Henry VIII splits from the church in the 1500s, and the newly-Protestant English start to jettison anything that smacked of “Popery”). Shakespeare’s audience presumably remembered the Witch-Duchess, forced to walk bare-footed in her white cloth with her candle of penance; almost 150 years later, Eleanor’s story becomes a significant sub-plot in the Bard’s History Play Henry VI, Part 2. And as Mr. Wills notes: every detail of Lady Macbeth’s legendary Sleep-Walking Scene (Act V, scene i)- the bare feet, the white nightgown, the carried candle, even the reference to the “damned spot” on her hand that recalls the theory that Witches nursed their Familiars with their own blood- every nuance of this guilt-plaugued, restless, tormented scene of madness and recrimination, subliminally suggests the Heretic-Witch Duchess of Gloucester.