Although at the time of Shakespeare, women were thought of as lesser beings, he still manages to portray them as strong, and influential people in his play Macbeth. The orthodox view of females when Shakespeare wrote the play is that they were homemakers, looked after their children, they were quiet, weak and unintelligent, and the only reason they existed is to have male children. Males however were the warriors and the money earners. They were expected to, in Malcolm’s words “settle things like men”, which meant to duel against their enemies. The men were always expected to be the dominant partner in a relationship. Shakespeare manages to defy conventions with some of his characters in this play.
Lady Macbeth is a very strange character, and often changes from masculine to feminine whenever it suits her. An example of this is Lady Macbeths attempts to lose her womanliness once and for all when she calls on the spirits to “unsex” her in Act 1 scene 5. She does this because she sees being a woman as a category that defines and limits human beings as such. She tells the spirits to “Make thick my blood, stop up the access and passage to remorse”. She wants all of her femininity to be taken away. She wants to feel no pity flowing through her veins, and she wants to feel no compassion so that nothing will stop her from carrying out the murder of the king. Lady Macbeth also says that the spirits must “Take my (breast) milk for Gaul ” which is symbolising swapping femininity for bitterness (the theme of the whole speech).
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This seems to work, as Lady Macbeth seems to be the force behind Macbeths murdering campaign to start with. The only slight compassion that she shows is when she says “Had [Duncan] not resembled my father, then I had done” in Act 2 scene 2. In Act 1 scene 7, she discovers that Macbeth has changed his mind about the murder of Duncan, and says, “We shall proceed no further in this business”. Lady Macbeth ignores this and says, “From this time, such I account thy love. Art thou afraid to be the same in thine own act and valour, As thou art desire”. This firstly asks Macbeth if he loves her, and says if he did love her, then he would kill Duncan. Secondly, Lady Macbeth is calling him a coward, and she says that Macbeth is scared to do what he needs to, to get what he wants. Cowardice was definitely not linked with masculinity in Shakespeare’s times, because it was the men that always went out to battle so that they could protect their country and family.
An example of this link is in Act 1 Scene 2 when the wounded captain is telling the king about his great victory. King Duncan says “O valiant cousin! Worthy gentleman!” Telling the sergeant that he is a worthy gentleman because he fought well in the battle shows the definition of manliness at the time. Calling a brave warrior like Macbeth cowardly would almost tempt him to do the deed, to prove his manliness. The final thing this statement does is show that Lady Macbeth is not the weaker partner in the relationship. She shows this by ignoring Macbeth’s first statement saying that he is not going to murder Duncan. She uses the masculine part of her personality in this scene, because Macbeth is beginning to waver, and she realises that the only way to persuade her husband to kill the king is to use force (a masculine ability), and not seductiveness (a female ability).
When she says” I would while it was smiling in my face To have plucked my nipple from its boneless gums, And dashed the brains out, had I sworn as to you Have done to this”, she is showing Macbeth that she is ready to do anything if she swears to it, but secondly and more importantly she smashes every ounce of femininity that the audience thought she had. This makes Macbeth feel less manly because if he does not carry out the deed now, a woman will be more true to her word than he is (truthfulness was also closely linked with honour and manliness in the time of Shakespeare). At the end of the scene, Lady Macbeth has proven herself as the stronger of the two partners, which is another convention-breaking moment in the play.
In conclusion, Lady Macbeth does not obey Macbeth’s injunction to “peace” in the discussion of Duncan’s murder. Her actions are quite the opposite, ridiculing Macbeth’s compassion with her assertion of her fear that his “nature” will prove “too full o’th’ milk of human kindness”-another attempt to relate womanliness with Macbeth. The next group of characters that try to break gender barriers are the three Witches. Witches were a good representative of evil in the play for two reasons. Firstly, once that Christianity was established, witches were associated with the devil. Secondly, Shakespeare wrote Macbeth with King James in mind, and the king wrote a book on the subject of witchcraft. Many of the ideas that King James put across to the public were included in Macbeth, such as predicting the future, and familiars. Also, witches were always seen as female (two embodiments of evil in the play are the Witches and Lady Macbeth).
They, like Lady Macbeth, play a large part in the downfall of Macbeth. They do this by putting the initial idea of becoming king into Macbeth’s head. The Witches were portrayed as stereotypical witches for the time, and their image broke no conventional ideas. When we look at the Witches relationship to the female gender, we can find something similar, because while Lady Macbeth rejects female gender by what she says, the witches do so by what they are, namely by having beards, a typical male attribute, as Banquo, mentions: “…You should be women, And yet your beards forbid me to interpret That you are so”
Lady Macduff is only mentioned in Act 4 scene 2, but this is a very important part of the play as this is when Lady Macduff and her child are murdered, which is one of the factors contributing to Macduff’s hatred for Macbeth. She is talking to Ross about how her husband, Macduff, has fled to England and left his wife, his children, his house and his titles in Scotland. She says that he is cowardly and that he does not love them (“all is the fear and nothing is the love”) as he fled by himself, and did not think about his family. We know that this is not a true statement, because we see in Act 4:scene 3 Macduff’s horror as Ross tells him that his family have been “savagely slaughtered”. There is also a mention of gender in this scene when Malcolm tells the mourning Macduff to “Dispute it like a man”, as the stereotypical caricature of the time for men were strong, fierce soldiers. Settling it “like a man” would mean killing Macbeth, or at least battling against him.
Macduff’s response to this is “But I must also feel it like a man” which shows the compassionate, less masculine side of Macduff, and also proves that he does care for his family, no matter what his wife says. Although she condemns her husband to her son, Lady Macduff shows her love to Macduff when the murderers enter Fife Castle. Macduff’s wife protects her son, which is expected from a mother (she says “for the poor wren, The most diminutive of birds, will fight, Her young ones in her nest, against the owl.”). Although the female convention of the time was to be a quiet, gentle being when the Murderers ask where Macduff is, she shows her bravery when she insults them saying, “I hope in no place unsanctified; where such as thou might find him”. Lady Macduff is calling the assassins unholy, which was an offensive comment in Shakespearean times. This shows the courageousness of Macduff’s wife.
At first, it would seem that Lady Macduff is breaking the stereotypes like Lady Macbeth, however, these bursts of the Shakespearean definition of masculinity, such as bravery, are only used when she needs to protect her child, which is a very feminine reaction and would be expected of any mother. In Act 1 scene 7, Macbeth being ignored many times by his wife when she is told that “We will proceed no longer in this business”, which generally did not happen in Shakespearean times. When Macbeth decides that he is not going to kill the king, Lady Macbeth argues against him, saying that he is not a man, and accuses him of not loving her. Both sides use the male gender as an argument to support their cause e.g. ” I dare do all that may become a man, who dares do more is none.” This statement suggests that Macbeth’s definition of a man is a noble, honest person, and definitely an idea that contradicts killing. His wife, however, distorts this view, and persuades Macbeth that a ‘real’ man would kill Duncan in the phrase “When you durst do it, then you were a man; and to be more than what you were, you would be so much more a man.” This goes towards persuading Macbeth that his image of a man is wrong and that he should kill the King.
Likewise, when Macbeth persuades the murderers to kill the king, he uses the same argument that Lady Macbeth used against him earlier on in the play, saying that anyone can be described as a man, “As hounds and greyhounds, mongrels, spaniels, curs, shoughs, water-rugs and demi-wolves, are slept all by the name of dogs” but when they become assassins they can then be described as real men. This fuels the murderer’s anger and encourages them to kill Banquo. The two people that use gender roles most are Lady Macbeth and Macbeth. Both associate the male gender with killing and death and the female gender with doing no harm and being peaceful. Gender is not a biological aspect for them; it is a decision and attitude adopted by the two Macbeths. They use the idea of masculinity and femininity for their own purposes, to persuade others to obey their plans and to justify their own actions.