The Roles of Masculinity and Femininity in “Macbeth”

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Throughout the play Shakespeare presents the audience with strong and sometimes conflicting views of these gender roles. What exactly defines being a man or a woman? How does an individual’s grasp of these roles effect their actions? Shakespeare shows that a clear and accurate understanding of the concept of masculinity is of critical importance in the success of a ruler.

In particular, he illustrates how Macbeth’s acceptance of a perverted, violent view of masculinity leads his kingdom into chaos and turmoil, and leads Macbeth to his inevitable demise. Moral order can only be restored when the kingdom is lead by a wiser king with a better understanding of what it is to be a man. As the most prominent female character in the play Lady Macbeth might be expected to be representative of the ideal 11th century woman, but this is not the case. At times she seems even more “masculine” than her husband.

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Indeed, it is Lady Macbeth who most directly introduces and inspires the cruel and violent view of masculinity later adopted by Macbeth. She says, “Come, you spirits that tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here, and fill me from the crown to the toe top-full of direst cruelty” (1. 5. 38-41). She quite literally asks that she lose her femininity and have it replaced by a masculinity she defines as being full of cruelty. She further emphasizes the point by saying, “Come to my woman’s breasts, and take my milk for gall” (1. 5. 45-46).

This type of language directly referencing the gendered female body would be necessary because the player Lady Macbeth would be a man. By presenting us with a Lady Macbeth that clashes so strikingly with the popularly accepted view of ideal femininity, Shakespeare shows the audience that women are capable of being just as cruel and vicious as men even if society wants to define them differently. The play goes on to demonstrate that women are also equally susceptible to the consequences of such behavior. The guilt over being a party to murder drives Lady Macbeth to madness and eventually suicide.

Furthermore, the use of Lady Macbeth in this way may be a reference to the Book of Genesis and the story of Adam and Eve. Macbeth is inspired to murder by his wife in the same way Eve convinced Adam to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Including the three witches and the goddess Hecate all the figures in the play who manipulate Macbeth are female. Perhaps this is reference to femininity as the origin of sin. Macbeth’s primary sin is his inability to successfully come to terms with his masculinity.

When he expresses his doubts about killing Duncan, Lady Macbeth is able to convince him by challenging his manhood. “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” (1. 7. 49-51).

In this passage she plays on his masculine sense of ambition. Ironically, at this point she as the “feminine” character seems to be more in touch with her ambition than he is. Lady Macbeth even goes so far as to compare his willingness to kill Duncan with his ability to perform sexually. “From this time such I account thy love. Art thou afeard to be the same in thine own act and valour as thou art in desire? ” (1. 7. 38-41).

By emasculating her husband in this way she is able to manipulate him into killing Duncan as a way to prove his manhood. While Macbeth’s doubts about killing his King foreshadow the error of his path he eventually begins to embody his cruel and violent view of masculinity. However, embracing this new role only increases his problems. He fears that, “Upon my head they have placed a fruitless crown, and put a barren scepter in my grip, thence to be wrenched with an unlineal hand, no son of mine succeeding” (3. . 62-65).

Fearing that according to the prophesy Banquo’s heirs will seize his throne; Macbeth hires murderers to kill Banquo and his son. When Macbeth first heard the witches prophesize his rule he expressed misgivings at the possibility of having to kill to achieve it. At this point he has associated his masculinity with cruelty and violence to such an extent that he thinks nothing of ordering the murder of his best friend and his son. Ironically, he convinces the murderers to kill Banquo by asking if they are manly enough to take revenge upon him. 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, whose execution takes your enemy off” (3. 1. 103-106).

The conspicuous similarity in the way he manipulates these men and the way he was manipulated by his wife earlier emphasize his acceptance of a cruel view of what it is to be a man. With the murder of Banquo, Macbeth’s concept of masculinity begins to tear apart his personal life and his kingdom. Macbeth held a banquet with all the nobles that should have been the high point of his new reign.

Instead, the ghost of the murdered Banquo appeared and sat at his place at the head of the table. Shakespeare does not make clear whether this is actually Banquo’s ghost or just a hallucination brought on by guilt over the murder. Either way the event had a significant impact on Macbeth and what the nobles thought of him. Speaking to the ghost, “Thou canst not say I did it. Never shake thy gory locks at me” (3. 4. 50), Macbeth appeared mad in eyes of his guests. Macbeth’s action brought on by a faulty view of his masculinity undercut him in what should have been a moment of great triumph.

On a less personal level, Macbeth’s rash murder of Banquo began to spread dissention throughout his kingdom. Lennox and another lord call Macbeth a tyrant and discuss their suspicions of his involvement in the murders of Duncan and Banquo. The murder even incites Macduff to join Malcolm in England in asking for King Edward’s help fighting Macbeth. This signals the beginning of the end for Macbeth. As Macbeth’s world falls apart around him he resorts more and more upon his convoluted view of masculinity and what type of action it takes to be a man.

Macbeth orders the murder of Macduff’s wife and children while he is away in England. This cruel manifestation of his concept of manhood indirectly leads to his death and the restoration of order in Scotland. In a test of Macduff’s loyalty Malcolm began to list off his own faults and suggested that he would be no better a king than Macbeth was. Upon hearing this Macduff said that Malcolm should not be king and should not even be fit to live. With such a response Malcolm knew Macduff was loyal to Scotland and retracted his statements about his vices.

Performing such a witty test of loyalty shows that Malcolm thought of himself as a wise and clever man. However, he did have one character flaw that would have lead him down the same path as Macbeth. He shared Macbeth’s cruel and violent view of the nature of masculinity. Ironically, it is the brutal murder of Macduff’s family perpetrated by Macbeth that allows Malcolm to avoid this fortune. When news reaches England about the fate of Macduff’s family, Malcolm responds by saying, “Dispute it like a man” (5. 1. 221).

He reacts automatically and immediately by turning to violence to remedy the situation, and associates that kind of solution with being a man. Macduff responds to this, “I shall do so, but I must also feel it as a man” (5. 1. 222-223). The effects of this remark are two-fold. The first part of this reply marks Macduff as the man who will kill Macbeth. Macbeth’s tainted view of masculinity spiraled out of control and created the enemy that would destroy him. Indeed, even when all the signs portending his doom came to pass Macbeth spared no time for thought.

He still clung to his violent masculine role, and died fighting with reckless abandon. In addition to identifying Macbeth’s killer, this dialogue shows how Macduff is not just an ally to Malcolm but also a teacher. He advises him that feeling and thinking are a necessary component to masculinity in addition to action. Learning this lesson means that Malcolm will be able to become the kind of wise, compassionate ruler that Duncan was, rather than the tyrant that Macbeth became.

Malcolm proves he has taken this lesson to heart in the last scene. After the battle is largely won Malcolm learns of the death of Siward’s son. Rather than trying to inspire him to fight as he had previously done with Macduff, Malcolm declares, “He’s worth more sorrow, and that I’ll spend for him” (5. 11. 17). This statement shows that Malcolm has come to a complete understanding of the concept of masculinity and what it means to a ruler. He can now be the man to restore order to Scotland and lead the country benevolently.

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The Roles of Masculinity and Femininity in “Macbeth”. (2018, Feb 18). Retrieved from

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