Despite the prevalent notion in Shakespeare’s era that women were inferior, he adeptly portrays them as powerful and influential individuals in his play Macbeth. The society of that time prescribed that women should focus on their domestic duties, taking care of their children, and conforming to a submissive and unintelligent role. Their only purpose was believed to be producing male heirs. On the other hand, men were expected to be warriors and the primary providers for their families. They had the responsibility, as Malcolm articulates it, of resolving conflicts through masculine methods such as engaging in duels with their adversaries. In relationships, men were always expected to assert dominance. However, Shakespeare challenges these conventions through certain characters in the play.
Lady Macbeth is a peculiar character who often transforms her gender identity to suit her needs. In Act 1 scene 5, she attempts to rid herself of her womanhood by calling on spirits to “unsex” her. This is because she sees being a woman as a defining and restricting category for humanity. Lady Macbeth implores the spirits to make her blood thick and block any remorseful feelings. She wants to eliminate all traces of femininity, including pity and compassion, so that nothing will hinder her from carrying out the murder of the king. Additionally, she tells the spirits to “Take my (breast) milk for gaul,” symbolizing her desire to trade femininity for bitterness, which sets the tone for her entire speech. This strategy seems successful as Lady Macbeth initially appears to be the driving force behind Macbeth’s murderous actions. The only moment of slight compassion she displays is when she states, “Had [Duncan] not resembled my father, then I had done’t” in Act 2 scene 2. However, in Act 1 scene 7, Lady Macbeth discovers that Macbeth has changed his mind about the murder of Duncan. Despite his hesitation, she chooses to ignore his decision and declares, “From this time, such I account thy love.”
The passage questions Macbeth’s strength and bravery. Lady Macbeth implies that if he truly loves her, he would be willing to kill Duncan. She further accuses Macbeth of being afraid to take action to fulfill his desires, implying that cowardice was not associated with masculinity in Shakespeare’s era. The passage also highlights how bravery and valor were linked to masculinity during that time, as evidenced by King Duncan’s praise of a wounded captain in Act 1 Scene 2. By calling Macbeth cowardly, Lady Macbeth challenges his masculinity and implicitly dares him to prove himself by committing the act. Additionally, the passage portrays Lady Macbeth as a strong and assertive character by disregarding Macbeth’s initial refusal to kill Duncan.
She employs the masculine side of her character in this particular moment because Macbeth is starting to hesitate, and she understands that the only approach to convince her husband to murder the king is by employing force, a masculine trait, instead of relying on seduction, a feminine trait. When she declares, “I would while it was smiling in my face.”
To remove my nipple from its soft and gum-like structure,
And if I had promised to you, I would have dashed your brains out.
By saying “Have done to this,” Lady Macbeth is demonstrating her willingness to do whatever it takes, while also challenging the audience’s perception of her femininity. This undermines Macbeth’s sense of masculinity, as he realizes that a woman may be more committed to their plan than he is. In Shakespeare’s time, being truthful was closely associated with honor and manliness. Ultimately, Lady Macbeth establishes herself as the stronger partner and defies conventional gender roles in the play.
To summarize, Lady Macbeth defies Macbeth’s plea for peace when discussing Duncan’s murder. Instead, she mocks Macbeth’s empathy by expressing her concern that he is too kind-hearted, thereby trying to associate femininity with Macbeth.
The three Witches in Macbeth challenge traditional gender roles in two ways. Firstly, witches were traditionally associated with evil, especially after the establishment of Christianity when they became linked to the devil. Secondly, Shakespeare tailored the play to King James, who had written a book about witchcraft. Macbeth incorporates many ideas from this book, such as predicting the future and having familiars. Additionally, the Witches and Lady Macbeth represent two female embodiments of evil in the play.
Similar to Lady Macbeth, the Witches also contribute significantly to the downfall of Macbeth. They accomplish this by initially planting the idea of becoming king in Macbeth’s mind. The portrayal of the Witches adheres to the stereotypical image of witches during that time and does not conform to any conventional ideas. When we examine the Witches’ association with the female gender, we notice a similarity. While Lady Macbeth rejects her female identity through her words, the Witches do so through their appearance, specifically by having beards, which is typically associated with males. Banquo mentions this attribute.
“You should be women,
But your beards prevent me from interpreting.
That you are so”
Lady Macduff’s role in the play is primarily in Act 4 scene 2, a crucial part where her murder, along with her child’s, fuels Macduff’s intense hatred for Macbeth. During her conversation with Ross, Lady Macduff laments her husband’s decision to flee to England, leaving behind his wife, children, house, and titles in Scotland. She paints him as a coward who lacks love for them (“all is the fear and nothing is the love”) because he fled alone without considering his family. However, we later discover in Act 4 scene 3 that Macduff is devastated when Ross delivers the news of his family’s brutal slaying. Additionally, gender plays a role in this scene when Malcolm instructs grieving Macduff to “Dispute it like a man,” reinforcing the stereotype of men as strong and fierce warriors. Macduff counters this notion by stating, “But I must also feel it like a man,” revealing his compassionate and less traditionally masculine side and demonstrating that he does indeed care for his family despite his wife’s initial claim.
Lady Macduff displays her love for Macduff by protecting their son when the killers enter Fife Castle. As a mother, it is expected that she would defend her child (“for the poor wren, The most diminutive of birds, will fight, Her young ones in her nest, against the owl.”). Despite societal expectations for women to be gentle and submissive, Lady Macduff demonstrates her bravery by insulting the murderers when they inquire about Macduff’s whereabouts (“I hope in no place unsanctified; where such as thou might find him”). By referring to the assassins as unholy, Lady Macduff displays her courage in Shakespearean times.
Lady Macduff initially appears to defy gender stereotypes, similar to Lady Macbeth. However, she only displays traditionally masculine qualities, like bravery, when it comes to protecting her child. This reaction is more typical of femininity and would be expected from any mother.
In Act 1 scene 7 of Macbeth, Lady Macbeth challenges her husband’s objections to their decision to abandon the plan to kill the king. This departure from societal norms in Shakespearean times is noteworthy. Lady Macbeth questions Macbeth’s manhood and doubts his love for her. Both characters employ masculinity as a rationale for their opposing viewpoints. Macbeth believes that a man should possess noble and honest qualities, which conflict with the act of murder. However, Lady Macbeth manipulates this belief, convincing him that killing King Duncan is what truly defines a man. She asserts “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.” Her argument aims to persuade Macbeth that his understanding of masculinity is flawed and he should proceed with the assassination.
Macbeth uses the same logic as Lady Macbeth did earlier in the play to persuade the murderers to kill the king. He asserts that anyone can be called a man, just like various types of dogs such as “hounds and greyhounds, mongrels, spaniels, curs, shoughs, water-rugs and demi-wolves” are all referred to as dogs. However, it is only by becoming murderers that they can truly be considered genuine men. This provokes the anger of the murderers and motivates them to carry out Banquo’s murder.
Both Lady Macbeth and Macbeth heavily rely on gender roles. They both link male gender with death and violence, while associating female gender with being non-violent and peaceful. To them, gender is not innate but rather a choice and a mindset. The Macbeths utilize concepts of masculinity and femininity to manipulate others into following their schemes and to rationalize their own behaviors.