A majority of Shakespeare’s plays include significant presence of female characters that reveal his views regarding woman’s role during the time period. Generally, women during the Shakespearean time period were obligated to suppress their opinions and were stripped from rights that women in the twenty-first century possess. They were expected to manage the household, as opposed to men, who were expected to be the decision makers. Additionally, the qualities of an ideal woman were mainly her virtue, beauty and youth.
With that said, many of the female characters in Shakespeare’s plays oppose the societal norms of that time period in some form or another. For example in Twelfth Night, we observe opposition to these cultural assumptions in an obvious manner through Olivia, as she controls the management of her estates, as well as in a more subtle manner through Viola, as she disguises herself as a male. However, one of the most interesting examples of gender out of traditional order is portrayed in the tragedy Macbeth.
Most of Shakespeare’s plays usually challenge women in terms of the cultural assumptions applied to them, however, Macbeth is a play that also challenges men in their traditional gender role of having autonomy and power. Macbeth is a perfect example of gender roles defying the assumed societal norms in both sexes, and this is depicted in the characters of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. Lady Macbeth serves as a masculine figure and takes up the role of a man by denouncing herself as female.
She also does this by using gender discrepancy to her utmost advantage to manipulate and control her husband, especially in a time period when societal norms about gender and sexuality were very unfavorable toward women portraying such behavior. Macbeth, a brave Scottish general, much to our surprise, falls under the presumed gender role of a feminine figure due the influence of his powerful and ambitious wife, Lady Macbeth.
Analyzing how these two characters can fall into gender roles that are opposite to their respective sexes reveals to us that women have the potential to have as much ambition and barbarism as men do. However, it is the patriarchal society that denies women from attaining these ambitions and achievements at their own account. O Lady Macbeth goes about certain tactics and strategies in order to achieve her role as the more masculine, an attribute that all males in the society have the privilege of being born with.
It would be apt to suggest that metaphorically, Lady Macbeth is a man confined within a woman’s body. However, literally speaking, she is a female confined within a man’s world. During the time period that Macbeth was written, women, especially wives of those withholding power, were expected to produce an heir and take care of their husbands and were not a dominant contributor in the relationship. But Lady Macbeth shows a contrasting view in behavior than that expected of females by taking on a more assertive and decisive standpoint as compared to Macbeth.
For example, in the situation where Macbeth is hesitant about Duncan visiting Inverness, it is Lady Macbeth that intervenes and dominates the scenario. She commands that Macbeth “Put this night’s great business into my dispatch” and takes over control from Macbeth, already establishing that she is taking charge. During Shakespeare’s time, a woman taking up a behavior such as this was very uncanny and rather frowned upon. Hence, it was more difficult to challenge these perceptions of gender roles back then than it is in the present day due to awareness.
In order to achieve control and fight for her ambitions, Lady Macbeth had to assert her dominance over her husband in order to take up the male gender role and thus, challenge male autonomy, which has always been a significant issue in the realm of gender and power. Lady Macbeth’s portrayal is unconventional according to the norm in Shakespeare’s time, yet so powerful and therefore, makes us think that perhaps society back then was perceived to be controlled only by men, but in actuality, females also contributed to controlling it to an extent.
Another interesting observation connecting gender and power is that even though Lady Macbeth is a female, her possessing the traditional manly attributes classifies her as being “masculine”. Masculinity itself is defined by attributes such as success, power and ambition and could be used as an adjective to describe a person possessing these characteristics. It seems as if that femininity cannot be defined by these values but instead, can be defined by values such as emotions, weakness and indecisiveness. Therefore, Macbeth being a male, is still classified as being feminine, not masculine.
When Lady Macbeth is wanting to lose her feminine qualities, she wants to abandon them completely and so she can adopt more masculine attributes in order to achieve what she desires, which is power. She feels the need to let go of her femininity completely because she thinks that anything remotely related to femininity would negatively impact her ambition. Since motherhood is such a significant part of femininity, Lady Macbeth also believes that children would have a similar impact on her plans as portrayed by her in “plucked my nipple from his boneless gums, and dashed the brains out, had I so sworn, as you have done to this”.
The first scene of the play portrays Lady Macbeth again in a battle with gender roles and shows her as wanting to abandon her humanity “unsex me here”, but since she is female, abandoning her humanity means abandoning her womanhood and the feelings it entails according to society, such as compassion and lack of strength. Masculinity is linked to characteristics like violence and ambition as observed after Duncan’s murder in Act two when Macbeth implies Lady Macbeth to be a masculine soul within a female body. I When females, such an Lady Macbeth, take up the assumed role of men in their society, they do so in many ways.
Lady Macbeth takes advantage of her femininity in order to attain masculinity. She uses manipulation through sexuality and control of her husband. Lady Macbeth is the more ambitious of the two in her marriage to Macbeth and the driving force behind his political success. As it was not very common and indeed frowned upon in a patriarchal society such as during the time Macbeth was written, Lady Macbeth verbally manipulates gender roles to fit her purpose. She accuses Macbeth of being too feminine as seen in Act 1 Scene 5 when she directs “too full o’th’ milk of human kindness” toward him.
Since being full of milk suggests breastfeeding, it is considered a female attribute. She is seen to very fiercely go about mocking Macbeth’s masculinity at a time where he was considered as one of the bravest fights, which is also a very highly ranked masculine trait. She challenges his masculinity by referring to him as a coward and uses the method of attacking his male ego. Macbeth, provoked by such attacks on his manhood, says he would go to higher bounds to prove his masculinity as observed in in his words “I dare do all that may become a man; Who dares do more is none”.
Lady Macbeth still does not stop ridiculing him as a man and Macbeth, being known as a courageous and strong fighter, is extremely affected by this as he agrees to plot the murder of Duncan. He is seen to be blinded by his want to prove his masculinity due to the ways of Lady Macbeth. This is an obvious example of manipulation of sexuality to achieve desired goals on Lady Macbeth’s part. Using cultural assumptions to her advantage, she pressurizes Macbeth to act according to “manly” values and live up to the idea of societies idea of men.
O However, gender roles can also be perceived to a disadvantage in society back then. Magic is a theme that Shakespeare emphasizes a lot in several of his plays as it was something very commonly believed in and practiced. Since magic was used in a negative light a lot of the times, in Macbeth we can observe a trend relating to power and gender in terms of supernatural ability. Transgressive behavior in females seemed to be linked to evil or supernatural activities. Lady Macbeth’s behavior and character did work to her advantage as well as her disadvantage.
Since she could be considered as transgressive back in the day, she is perceived multiple times as evil. Another example in Macbeth of nonconventional and transgressive female behavior is seen through the characters of the three witches. I The witches are referred to as “The Weird Sisters” which implies that they are female. Their gender role is not as emphasized as much as the supernatural and evil character in them however, we can see a link. The witches are also taking up a similar role as Lady Macbeth in terms of masculinity and power.
Shakespeare has further emphasized this by giving these “sisters” beards, which is an obvious male characteristic. Since masculinity is strongly linked to power and control, the witches can be portrayed in this way by looking at how their prophecies impacted the characters. They fed Lady Macbeth’s ambitions and challenge Macbeth’s fate. They can look into the future and reveal details about ones future, like they did for Macbeth, and through this, the idea of killing Duncan even came to birth. Having that level of power and masculine character, but being female shows the connection power and gender have within women sexuality.
Basically, a woman that has power and control was seen as monstrous but men were encouraged to attain power and ambition. ) However, the witches as well as Lady Macbeth are still perceived as negative and evil powerful characters, as opposed to the socially accepted perception of powerful male characters. Lady Macbeth as well as the witches, both are perceived negatively for their respective uncommon behaviors in the society. However, they all possess a significant masculine character which brings them power and control.
This further elaborates the point that any unconventional behaviors that challenge the traditional norms in society are labelled as evil or paranormal. An underlying reasoning of this could be that females bearing such behaviors brings fear within the society regarding women having more control than men. In such a patriarchal society, it is easier to overcome this fear by justifying it by magic. D In our world today, an ambitious powerful women is more or less part of our societal norm and our theatre and literature emphasizes very different values regarding gender and power as compared to the analysis of gender and power in Macbeth.
In a society such as the one in Scotland during the time Macbeth as written, where hierarchy of sexes is so prevalent, Shakespeare portrays females in way that deconstructs norms and cultural assumptions in a way that we realize their presence however, we can also notice how shallow they really are if we observe in more detail. The bard illustrates the power of gender roles, but in Macbeth, there is a special emphasis on power of females as the play could be assumed to be driven by females, for example the witches and Lady Macbeth.
Simultaneously, he also pays validation to the power the male gender possesses, which is what the norm is. In describing power females possess, he uses masculinity as an adjective, therefore implying that power is indeed a male characteristic however, females do possess it. Due to this intricate, unconventional portrayal of both genders and their connection to power, Shakespeare serves to enlighten modern society about how females have always been able to possess power, but the ways to express it have been different.