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The Role of Masculinity in Macbeth

What makes a good man? A good king? These are not easy questions to answer. Macbeth presents us with two very different notions of manhood and explores the relationship of masculinity to the role of a king. We are asked to consider whether the best way to govern is with a soft touch, like Duncan, or a cold, unforgiving fist like Macbeth, the warrior. We are also asked to think in a larger sense about how men and women should behave in general – for the conflict between gentle Duncan and violent Macbeth is symbolic of a conflict between feminity and masculinity.

The notion that man should behave as a warrior is introduced in the first line of the second scene, where we first meet the King and the other male characters. A wounded sergeant has just returned from the battle in which Macbeth has been fighting heroically. The king asks, What bloody man is that? He can report, As seemeth by his plight, of the revolt The newest state. The phrase “bloody man” will represent for us an ongoing association between masculinity and violence, blood, and destruction. Much of the play concerns this “bloody man.” The warrior culture in which Macbeth is surrounded emphasizes certain qualities of manhood. It is expected that real men display no fear and show no mercy for the enemy. They are to be ruthless, cruel, strong, and violent.

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Our first introduction to Macbeth certainly supports this warrior definition of manhood. The bloody Sargeant speaks to the King of a ‘brave Macbeth” whose ‘brandished steel, which smoked with bloody execution’ killed the enemy and ‘unseamed him from the nave to the chops, and fixed his head upon our battlements. An image that perhaps disgusts more modern readers of the play overjoys the King. Nevertheless, he jumps up, proclaiming, “O valiant cousin! Worthy gentlemen!”. In this strange society, Macbeth is celebrated for such gory and unnecessary violence. Cutting up the fallen body of his enemy and severing his head makes him a “worthy gentleman”. However, we soon see that in Macbeth’s case, this strength is only skin deep. Macbeth is not without the feminine qualities of compassion and conscience – it’s just that he is surrounded by an environment that encourages him to cover them up.

External influences, first the witches and then his wife, will pressure him into doing things that internally he knows are very wrong. This creates in Macbeth an internal conflict and insecurity. The first evidence we have of this internal conflict comes when Macbeth and Banquo meet the three witches. Both men are surprised at these strange creatures who “look not like the inhabitants of the earth,” but it is Macbeth who feels the need to insult them. First, he calls them withered and then refers to their chapped fingers and “skinny lips.” This seems like a rude thing to say to three obviously unfortunate women found in the woods, but Macbeth can’t keep his comments to himself. Next, he questions their sexuality, saying, “You should be women, and yet your beards forbid me to interpret that you are so”.

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This statement seems so completely unnecessary that we start to wonder if maybe Macbeth is insecure about his own sexuality and manliness that, like so many insecure people, he finds it necessary to insult the femininity of a woman. One source of his insecurity is his wife. From the first moment she reads his letter detailing the witches’ prophecies, Lady Macbeth questions whether her husband has what it takes to fulfill them. She equates manliness not only with violence but also with determination and cruelty. He is too “full of the milk of human kindness” to kill the King. Again, interestingly, we are presented with the sexual metaphor – being “full of milk” compares Macbeth to a breastfeeding woman. This metaphor is also significant because breastmilk contains the nutrition that a baby needs to grow.

Just as Lady Macbeth wouldn’t be able to nurse a healthy baby without breastmilk, the Macbeths cannot keep a healthy kingdom without the “milk of human kindness.” Their lack of kindness and inability to trust anyone is what eventually leads to their downfall. Both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are obsessed with ridding themselves of feminine qualities. She, too, wants to be a man because she believes femininity stops her from acting on her violent and cruel thoughts. In a few very strange and intense lines, she calls upon supernatural spirits to take away her womanliness:

  • Unisex me here,
  • And fill me, from the crown to the toe, top-full
  • Of direst cruelty!
  • … Come to my woman’s breasts,
  • And take my milk for gall, you murdering ministers.

Again there is the breastmilk metaphor, this time asking it to be replaced with bile. By rejecting the feminine side, she hopes to become cruel and capable of murder. This is a very intense woman! It’s hard to blame Macbeth for feeling a bit insecure around her. In the next scene, she uses his insecurity to goad him into murdering the King by calling him a coward.

  • Art thou afeard
  • To be the same in thine own act and valour
  • As thou art in desire? Wouldst thou have that
  • Which thou esteem the ornament of life,
  • And live a coward in thine own esteem,
  • Letting “I dare not” wait upon “I would”,
  • Like the poor cat i’th’ adage? (I.7.39-44)

At first, Macbeth protests. It would be wrong for a ‘kinsman and a subject’ to kill his host. Moreover, the very idea goes against his sense of morals, making his “seated heart knock at my ribs, against the use of nature.” But Lady Macbeth keeps taunting him by calling his masculinity into question. She tells him she would dash the brains out of her own newborn baby if necessary, and she’s not even a man.

  • When you durst do it, then you were a man;
  • And to be more than what you were, you would
  • Be so much more the man. Nor time nor place
  • Did then adhere, and yet you would make both.
  • They have made themselves, and that their fitness now
  • Does unmake you. I have given suck, and know
  • How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me.
  • I would, while it was smiling in my face,
  • Have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums
  • And dashed the brains out, had I so sworn
  • As you have done to this. (48-57)
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Being less of a man than his wife is too much for his pride to bear, and Macbeth is forced to assert himself through violence. Ironically, by allowing his wife to talk him into something so against his morals, Macbeth is only emphasizing his insecurity and weakness of character, which are not masculine qualities at all. This scene is very interesting in that an almost complete reversal of gender roles takes place. At the beginning of the scene, we see Macbeth as a brave warrior returning to his wife after winning a battle. At the end of the scene, Lady Macbeth is wearing pants. It is interesting that the four people responsible for drawing Macbeth to murder, the three witches and Lady Macbeth, are all women. Later on, Macbeth himself finds it necessary to goad someone into committing murder. When he is plotting the murder of Banquo and soliciting the help of two destitute men, he borrows his wife’s tactics and assaults their manhood.

  • Ay, in the catalogue ye go for men,
  • As hounds and greyhounds, mongrels, spaniels, curs,
  • Shoughs, water-rugs and demi-wolves are clept,
  • All by the name of dogs: the valued file
  • Distinguishes the swift, the slow, the subtle,
  • … Now, if you have a station in the file,
  • Not I’ th’ worst rank of manhood, say ‘t,
  • And I will put that business in your bosoms.

Perhaps they are men, but there are all different types of men, and they are the cowardly, womanly types. Not a very nice thing to say! These passages and the others serve to illustrate Macbeth’s obsession with masculinity the denial of feminine qualities. They believe that manliness is proven through violence, and a kingdom can be ruled through fear. Instead, Macbeth’s short-lived reign is neither happy nor successful. People begin to refer to him as “the tyrant,” and it is commented that “now does he feel his title/Hang loose about him like a giants robe/ upon a dwarfish thief” (V.2.20-1). They watch as the world crumbles around them, realizing that being King only has meaning if your subjects accept you as King. You cannot just murder your way to power – power must be gained by earning the trust of your peers.

The characters of Duncan, Macduff and Malcolm present an alternative version of manhood and kingship. When the Macbeths kill Duncan, they are killing compassion itself. Duncan is an embodiment of femininity – kind, gentle and trusting. He cares for his subjects like a mother would care for her children, as shown when he states, “I have begun to plant thee, and will labour to make thee full of growing”(I.4.28-9). The fault of the king is that he is too trusting and generous. He is na�ve to put so much faith in Macbeth and not read the treachery that was afoot. Macduff (who was not “of woman born”) is another character with feminine qualities. When he learns that Macbeth has slaughtered his wife and children, Macduff is filled with sorrow. When Malcolm tells him to take it like a man, Macduff replies, “But I must also feel it like a man. I cannot remember such things were That were most precious to me.”

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Even men must be able to grieve and cry – to be sensitive to what their heart tells them. Macduff’s fault is the same as the king – he is too naive. He leaves his wife and children unprotected when he travels to England because he cannot imagine someone would be so heartless as to murder them. Tragedy befalls both Macduff and Duncan because they have too much of a feminine side. They are overly trusting, generous and tend to listen to the emotion of their hearts rather than the reasoning of the mind. Malcolm represents the ideal King because he is a balance between the purely feminine and purely masculine sides. He has the feminine qualities of generosity and compassion, yet he is not so passionate that he can’t step back and make a shrewd analysis of a situation. Near the end of the play, Malcolm reveals for us the “king becoming graces” that make a good king and a good man.

  • As a justice, verity, temperance, stableness,
  • Bounty, perseverance, mercy, lowliness,
  • Devotion, patience, courage, fortitude,

Malcolm is the embodiment of these qualities. He has bravery and courage, tempered with mercy and generosity. His first act as king is to forgive all those who sided with Macbeth and relinquish some of his power to the nobles. In conclusion, Shakespeare uses this play to show us two very different ways for men to behave. One, based on getting your way through pure strength and violence, is doomed to failure. As Macbeth’s found out, you can rule over people by instilling fear in them for a short period of time, but eventually, they will rise against you. The proper role is to be strong, yes, but to temper that strength with compassion and trust in others. In human nature, there must be a balance between masculinity and femininity, between yin and yang.

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The Role of Masculinity in Macbeth. (2021, Aug 06). Retrieved August 15, 2022, from