Gender roles set a standard for how every person is supposed to behave according to their sex. These expectations are based on stereotypical traits and there are often consequences for not following the norms. Shakespeare’s Macbeth gives evidence of how men and women were perceived during the Elizabethan era and what would happen if they did not conform to those roles. Most of the characters’ actions in the play are influenced by how strict the expectations are.
Society’s definitions of masculinity and femininity force the characters to conform to certain behaviors based on their gender, which leads some to reject or criticize their given role. Women in Macbeth are perceived as weak and in constant need of protection. Lady Macbeth is not as fragile as the men around her seem to believe, which is shown when they escort her from the room after Duncan is found dead. At the end of the play she is even referred to as a “fiendlike queen,” which is quite the opposite of a weak, delicate woman.
Shakespeare v. viii. 82). Lady Macbeth takes control of situations and gets what she wants. On the other hand, Lady Macduff “represents everything feminine and passive that Lady Macbeth is not. ” (Klett 1). She has motherly qualities and may be considered weak based on how helpless she is once her husband leaves. Women are protected by men because they are seen as being helpless. The men in the play are always trying to shield women from things they think are too intense for them to be aware of.
Macduff fails to tell his wife why he is fleeing Scotland in an attempt to protect someone whom he believes shows “weakness, passivity, and vulnerability” (Schiffer 4). Macduff leaves with the intent of saving Scotland, but doesn’t think to bring his family away from the chaos brought on by Macbeth. Lady Macduff says “All is the fear and nothing is the love” because he ran away out of fear. (Shakespeare iv. ii. 14). Macduff knew there was something to be afraid of, yet he still didn’t tell his wife about his plans to overthrow Macbeth’s tyranny and save the country or decide to take them somewhere safer.
This seems to show that Macduff doesn’t think his wife needs to know the details of his plan because it is too much for just a woman to handle. Lady Macbeth is also someone that Macduff feels he needs to protect. After Duncan is found dead in the castle, Macduff tells only the men what had happened. “O gentle lady, ’tis not for you to hear what I can speak: the repetition in a woman’s ear would murder as it fell. ” (Shakespeare ii. iii. 96-99). Macduff thinks Lady Macbeth would die if she heard the details of the murder, but she actually organized the whole plan and does not need to be protected from the truth.
He doesn’t think she could have had anything to do with Duncan’s murder, which shows that women weren’t seen as being capable of doing something so horrible. By having knowledge of things only men are supposed to know about, Lady Macbeth is going against society’s gender roles. All of the women that appear in Macbeth are unnatural in some way because of how they go against the standards for women in that time period. Lady Macbeth is especially unnatural because she calls on the spirits to “unsex” her and remove her feminine qualities to become more masculine. (Shakespeare i. v. 8).
She wants to become capable of committing murder so she can gain power, which is something only men were able to have. She also manipulates her husband and therefore “acquires a power over Macbeth” (Adelman 7). Because Lady Macbeth has gone against the natural order by rebelling against her femininity, the only solution is for her to end her life. This seems to be the only acceptable way for her to pay for stepping so far out of the boundaries of her assigned feminine identity. Lady Macduff is also unnatural because of her “straightforward criticism of patriarchy” (Klett 2).
She comments on the fact that it is such a womanly defense to say that she should not be killed because she couldn’t possibly have done anything wrong. Much like Lady Macbeth, Lady Macduff ends up dead after she says something negative about her society’s gender roles. Even the witches can be characterized as unnatural forces. “While clearly women, the witches display androgynous characteristics, leading Macbeth and Banquo to question their gender” (Thompson and Ancona 5). The men assume that the witches should be women because they believe that they must fall into just one of the gender categories.
This gender restriction seems to be the motivating factor behind the women’s rebellion of their specific roles. Macduff and Duncan are both male characters who display both masculine and feminine traits at some point in the play. Macduff “exemplifies the often conflicting characteristics of physical strength and emotional depth” (Thompson and Ancona 6). After his family is killed, he expresses sadness and doesn’t try to hide this emotion, but he is then advised to take his anger out on Macbeth.
Macduff quickly returns to being violent as a way to avenge his family’s death instead of just mourning. In their society, violence is seen as the most effective way to get revenge. Duncan consistently shows qualities of both genders in the way he “exercises authority but also nourishes his kingdom” (Rosenblum 4). His leadership was ideal because of his balance of male and female qualities. Duncan’s death was due to the fact that Macbeth had to satisfy his desire for power by murdering the current king. He destroys an ideal leadership and ends up promoting violence in his leadership.
Masculinity in Macbeth is defined by violence. Being violent helps to assert dominance and gain power. In the beginning of the play, Macbeth was described by his wife as being “too full o’th’ milk of human kindness. ” (Shakespeare i. v. 17). He was too kind and unfit to really do what it would take to become king. After Lady Macbeth’s convincing, he finally decides to kill Duncan and embrace his masculinity through violent actions. “Macbeth becomes cold, remorseless, and emotionally dead, a caricature of the violent warrior-king” (Klett 1).
He has developed this new sense of manhood and quickly learns to play the part by asserting dominance in any way possible. The men in the play end up destroying families because of their use of violence as a way to solve problems and show who is in control. Rosenblum says that “women are associated with destruction of the family,” but they actually have little involvement with the families being torn apart (3). When Macbeth kills Duncan, his sons were both forced to leave Scotland and go to different countries.
Their family, which was supposed to continue holding the throne, is torn apart by the selfish greed of a man, not a woman. Lady Macbeth may have encouraged Macbeth’s decision to kill him, but he ultimately had the final say and chose to give in to society’s definition of masculinity. Macbeth also leaves Fleance on his own after he has his father murdered, and this time, his wife is not involved. Macduff decides to leave his wife and child alone in an unsafe environment. “Wisdom!… He loves us not; he wants the natural touch… ” (Shakespeare iv. ii. 8-10).
Lady Macduff is upset and angry that her husband left them in such a dangerous situation and thinks that it had to be because he doesn’t love them. He has truly destroyed his family because his departure is the reason that Macbeth had them killed. By conforming to society’s definition of masculinity, the men in the play make irrational decisions that lead to violent actions. Society stereotypes each gender and sets boundaries for what they can and cannot do. In Shakespeare’s play, Macbeth, he makes it clear that men are supposed to be violent and powerful in order to be masculine while women have to be passive and weak.
The concept of masculinity being embraced through violence leads characters, like Macbeth, to make irrational decisions which can hurt other people. Because women are perceived as sensitive and weak, there isn’t much they can do, which is why people like Lady Macbeth try to challenge these roles. She ultimately fails because she disturbs the natural order and needs to be punished for doing so. The strict definitions of what it means to be either a man or a woman in Macbeth help to show why some characters felt it was necessary to perform certain actions in order to reject or conform to their gender.