Men dominated Elizabethan times. It was a patriarchal society. Women needed to conform to social expectations. They were not supposed to show off their bodies. Their dresses had high, choking necklines, a plate that flattened their bosom, and layers of cloth that made them appear larger than they really were on the hips. The ideal picture of beauty was fair-skinned, red hair, high foreheads and very thin eyebrows.
They spoke softly and did not express their opinions openly. Women were expected to be good wives and mothers, and they had to obey their fathers or husbands, because, in a patriarchal society, women were possessions, and were basically owned by males.
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In William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, however, Shakespeare constructs female characters that endorse this ideal and some that challenge it. The three types of female characters in this play are, the active female, Lady Macbeth, the passive female, Lady Macduff, and the we+rd sisters, who are those to be afraid of. All of them are very different from each other. In Shakespeare’s plays, especially, the audience familiarizes themselves with the representation of women by their own dialogues, and what other characters say about them.
The dramatic techniques Shakespeare uses to construct his female characters are the setting, the character’s dialogue, including asides, and what other people say about them, especially behind their backs. Lady Macbeth and Lady Macduff are two very different characters, and there is plenty of binary opposition between them. The weird sisters, on the other hand, are ‘things to be afraid of’. These characters give the audience an indication of how women were represented in Macbeth.
Lady Macbeth is Macbeth’s wife. There are many minor references to her beauty throughout the play. Outwardly, she conforms to the social expectations, but her true character is an active one. She is ambitious, manipulative, remorseful and ruthless. Lady Macbeth would do anything it takes to gain power.
Being the dominant and more assertive character behind Macbeth’s sordid activities, she is duplicitous as she can act the part of the good wife and the quiet well-behaved female in front of others. However, when she is alone, or only with Macbeth, she is an evil and conspiring lady.
Lady Macbeth’s dialogue shows aspects of her personality in different areas. Her greed and power make her ruthless, “Lady Macbeth: Fill me from the crown to the toe top-full of direst cruelty. (Act 1 Sc. 5 Ln 41)”These words are very powerful, and they say that she would want to be filled with cruelty just for her desire to be queen. She is also quick thinking. She knows what she wants, and knows Macbeth probably better than he knows himself, and hence knows how to ‘protect’ him.
“Lady Macbeth: Your hand, your tongue; look like the innocent
Flower, but be the serpent under’t.(Act 1 Sc. 5 Ln 63-64)”
She also is extremely manipulative, as she dares him to be a ‘man’ and not a coward by convincing him to kill Duncan. “Lady Macbeth: And live a coward in thine own esteem When you durst do it, then you were a man.
(Act 1 Sc. 7 Ln 43, 49)” Outwardly, she conforms to social expectations, and she takes her own advice to Macbeth: “Look like th’innocent flower, /But be the serpent under’t”. Duncan and Lady Macbeth exchange many compliments and much flattery when he visits but Lady Macbeth’s flattery, however, hides a sinister purpose.
Shakespeare uses what other people say about a character to construct them. At the end, when Lady Macbeth is sleepwalking, her waiting gentlewoman and the doctor talk about her. “Gentlewoman: She has spoke what she should not, I am sure of that. Heaven knows what she has known. (Act 5 Sc. 1 Ln 40-1)” When the doctor observes Lady Macbeth sleepwalking, he gets shocked and says,
“Doctor: Foul whisp’rings are abroad; unnatural deeds
Do breed unnatural troubles; infected minds
To their deaf pillows will discharge their secrets.
More needs she the divine than the physician.
God, God forgive us all. Look after her;
Remove from her the means of all annoyance,
And still keep eyes upon her. So, good night,
My mind she has mated, and amazed my sight.
I think, but dare not speak. (Act 5 Sc. 1 Ln 61-9)”
This works so well in constructing a character because it shows her subconscious speaking, and the gentlewoman and doctor observing her. The doctor says that terrible rumors are circulating and that an uneasy mind will not be able to rest peacefully.
He says she needs the help of a priest more than a physician, as it is her mind that is unwell. He would realize that she and Macbeth are probably behind the murders of Duncan, Lady Macduff and Banquo. He seems to be afraid of the fact that this might be true as he thinks but dares not speak. It constructs Lady Macbeth to posses a guilty conscience, and that she is not as bad as she seems.
The setting really shows Lady Macbeth’s duplicitous personality. In the privacy of her own home, she is the active character, who acts the opposite of the social expectations. In banqueting halls and other places where people might be around, she adheres beautifully to the social expectations of society. The setting clearly shows the two sides of her character.
Lady Macduff is Macduff, Thane of Fife’s wife. She conforms to the social expectations as she is the ‘good’ wife and mother, and acts like a ‘proper’ lady. She is a nurturing mother, and very protective of her children. She is the kind of woman, who expects loyalty and protection from her husband, as she feels vulnerable when her husband leaves to England. Lady Macduff is a passive character.
Lady Macduff’s dialogue shows the audience how insecure she really is without her husband. She interprets Macduff’s flight to England as madness, fear and lack of love for his family.
“Lady Macduff: Wisdom? To leave his wife, to leave his babes,
His mansion, and his titles in a place
From whence himself does fly? He loves us not
He wants the natural touch, for the poor wren
The most diminutive of birds, will fight,
Her young ones in her nest, against the owl.
All is the fear, and nothing is the love;
All little is the wisdom, where the flight
So runs against all reason. (Act 4 Sc. 2 Ln 6-14)”
These lines say that Macduff lacks feeling for his own family. There is a lot of bird imagery, about how the smallest of birds would protect its young, and that her husband has just left her. The dialogue represents her as a weak woman who is a very passive character. Shakespeare constructs her to be like so as she obeys her husband, but also expects him to be there for her.
The only place the audience sees Lady Macduff is her room. She does not leave it, as she does everything in it. It represents the fact that she has no escape from the closed room, or is ‘inexperienced’ with the world outside the room. Shakespeare constructs Lady Macduff to be the ‘trapped’ woman, who only attends to family matters.
The weird sisters endorse dominant ideas on how older more powerful women were in Elizabethan times. Their age and wisdom have taken a negative turn on them. They are evil characters and are associated with the supernatural and the darkside. They are referred to as being ugly old hags numerous times in the play, and they are things to be afraid of. They like meddling with people’s lives and are not to be trusted. Everything about them seems to be negative, as they play the role of the negative characters in the play.
The weird sister’s dialogue consists of very powerful, yet negative imagery. When they prepare to meet Macbeth, they chant as they circle the cauldron, throwing in the horrible ingredients to make a sickening brew.
Third Witch:Scale of dragon, tooth of wolf,
Witches’ mummy, maw and gulf
Of the ravined salt-sea shark,
Root of hemlock, digged i’th’dark;
Liver of a blaspheming Jew,
Gall of goat, and slips of yew,
Slivered in the moon’s eclipse;
Nose of Turk, and Tartar’s lips,
Finger of a birth-strangled babe,
Ditch-delivered by a drab,
Make the gruel think and slab.
Add thereto a tiger’s chawdron
For th’ingredience of our cauldron. (Act 4 Sc. 1 Ln 22- 34)”
All the ingredients mentioned are horrible and sickening. The imagery is very negative, portraying them as disgusting creatures. They are represented as mean, evil characters that have nothing better to do than to meddle with people’s lives and cause havoc.
The weird sisters use riddles when they tell people their predestination. These riddles are ambiguous and are usually interpreted in the way the person whose fortune in being told wants to see it.
“Third Apparition:Be bloody, be bold, and resolute; laugh to scorn
The power of man, for none of woman born
Shall harm Macbeth. (Act 4 Sc. 1 Ln 78-80)”
When Macbeth hears this, he thinks he is invincible. Little does he know that it means someone who was not born naturally will harm him, and that Macduff will as he was born of a cesarean section. By doing this Shakespeare constructs the we+rd sisters as being cunning, crafty hags.
The weird sisters are talked about many times in this play. After the weird sister’s first prediction comes true of Macbeth becoming Thane of Cawdor, Banquo warns that their predictions might lead to evil.
Banquo: That trusted home, might yet enkindle you unto the crown,
Besides the Thane of Cawdor. But ’tis strange,
And oftentimes, to win us to our harm,
The instruments of darkness tell us truths;
Win us with honest trifles, to betray’s
In deepest consequence.
Cousins, a word, I pray you. (Act 1 Sc. 3 Ln 119-126)”
He does not trust the weird sisters and this shows that other characters do not think that they are very good people. Shakespeare constructs them very well in this way.
The weird sisters are always in dark areas. Shakespeare has used this dramatic technique to construct weird sisters as dark, incomprehensible people. They always meet on a heath or a desolate place, and there is always thunder, lightning or rain to add to the atmosphere. It is always outdoors when it is dark, cold and misty. This suggests the savage, natural and uncivilized world.
In Macbeth, women are represented as the weaker sex, and if they do possess any kind of power, they are evil and not to be trusted. Some of the female characters endorse the ideals of how a woman should be and act, and others challenge it, like Lady Macbeth. But in the end, Lady Macbeth is ‘punished’ for challenging the ideals, as she goes insane.
The dramatic techniques Shakespeare uses are dialogues by the characters themselves, dialogues by other characters about them, and the setting. The three different female characters clearly give the audience an idea of how women like in Macbeth, and Elizabethan times.
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