The Concept of Femininity in Shakespeare's Macbeth
Many Shakespearean scholars have differing opinions of Lady Macbeth. These opinions range from viewing Lady Macbeth as evil and malicious to others who see her as a victim of her devotion to her husband. Any of these opinions must be closely examined and dissected in order to discover the truth behind Lady Macbeth's character and her motivations. Lady Macbeth is the primary female character in the play, giving us insight into Shakespeare's intentions in his construction of the female gender. He imbues Lady Macbeth with not only feminine qualities but also with masculine qualities as well. Should we view her as a monster because she takes it upon herself to adopt a traditionally masculine role? Or should she be viewed as an exemplar of female agency by taking her, and her husband's, destiny into her own hands? These questions can be answered by closely evaluating Lady Macbeth's actions and statements.
Another way to understand Shakespeare's construction of femininity in the play is to look closely at the role of the witches and their relation to Lady Macbeth. These two powerful female forces influence, and at times control Macbeth's actions. Lady Macbeth "and the witches are indirectly identified with each other by their departures from prescribed female subordination, by their parallel role as catalysts to Macbeth's actions, and by the structure and symbolism of the play"(Neely 57). By adopting male personas(and even appearances in the case of the witches) the women escape their female roles while still remaining decidedly feminine, "still linked with [their] sex and with humanity"(Jameson 363). Without a thorough understanding of these women, we cannot fully comprehend the scope and intentions of the play. The central issue is how Shakespeare constructed these women and how he intended for them to be viewed and received not only by the audiences in his time but also for future generations.
Lady Macbeth has often been seen as evil, murderous or just a "species of female fury"(jameson 362). There are several scholars who argue for this interpretation of her and their reasoning can be justified. She can be seen in Act I, scene v saying:
Come you spirits
That tend on moral thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me from the cown to the toe top-full
Of direst cruelty! Make thick my blood;
Stop up th'access and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
Th'effect and it. Come to my woman's breasts
And take my milk for gall, you murd'ring ministers,
Wherever in you sightless substances
You wait on nature's mischief. (Macbeth I.v.38-48)
This speech by Lady Macbeth is startling and unnerving and the meaning of it is constantly debated. She asks for the spirits to "unsex" her. By asking this, Lady Macbeth is asking the spirits to rid her of her female frailty and imbue her with the masculine strength of will that is necessary to accomplish the deed that she has decided to push her husband into doing. She asks that no "visitings of nature" hinder her actions. In other words, she is hoping that she will not be burdened by her menstrual cycle and be prone to its devastating effects, such as making her too emotional to complete the task. We are given another glimpse into Lady Macbeth's tendency toward violence in scene vii, when she claims that she would have "dashed the brains out" of her own child if she had promised to do so(Macbeth I.vii.58). These two statements could perhaps cause the reader or viewer of the play to label Lady Macbeth as an evil woman who will murder anyone, even her own child, to get ahead. Stating, however, that Lady Macbeth "is nothing but a fierce, cruel woman exciting her husband to butcher a poor old king"(Jameson 360) is a misevaluation and understatement of this character.
Another view of Lady Macbeth is that of a woman who has gone completely insane upon realizing the amount of power that she could gain fro her husband and in turn for herself. Immediately after reading the letter, Lady Macbeth begins to be consumed by the needs to see her husband on the throne. She says:
Hie thee hither,
That I may pour my spirits in thine ear,
And chastise with the valor of my tongue
All that impedes thee from the golden round
Which fate and metaphysical aid doth seem
To have thee crowned withal.(Macbeth I.v.23-28)
She wishes that her husband would return quickly so that she can push him in the direction of power because she is immediately obsessed with it. She has a taste of power in dealing with her husband, as she can manipulate him to do whatever she asks of him. With this little taste of power, she is on the rampage for more. The quest for power then governs the rest of Lady Macbeth's actions throughout most of the play. As Anna Jameson states, "ambition is represented as the ruling motive, an intense overmastering passion, which is gratified at the expense of every just and generous principle, and every feminine feeling"(Jameson 363). This ambition for power causes her to speak and act in this manner. Eventually she loses any power that she may have begun with. She loses her intellectual control and the control she had over her husband. She has lost so much power that she takes her own life. This is not the only viewpoint of her quest for power. Other claim that she is so obsessed with seeing her husband on the throne because of her devotion to him. For example, Catherine Boyd suggests that, "Her violation is inspired by human love, intense passionate love for her husband"(Boyd 174). She believes that he wants to be king and therefore as a loving and devoted wife, she must do everything in her power to give him the power that he wants. In trying to attain this, she commits acts of cruelty to secure her husband's place on the throne.
The other female force in the play is that of the witches. They may be hard to recognize as such, because as Banquo says, "You should be women,/And yet your beards forbid me to interpret/That you are so."(Macbeth I.iii.46-48) The witches don a somewhat male appearance, which is more important for a viewer of the play than for a reader. They not only predict Macbeth's future, they also lure him into doing what they want by telling him several equivocal truths. The witches embody both masculine and feminine traits, not only in their appearance but in their actions as well. They are a clear authority figure in Macbeth's life. They warn him about everything that will happen in his life but they do it in a way that causes him to think he will never be harmed and that all of his goals will be achieved. In this way, the witches dominate and control Macbeth as if her were a liegeman. The fact that this relationship of women having complete control over a man is unnatural is somehow alleviated for the audience by making the witches themselves unnatural. Their supernatural powers allow them to have all of this power and still be women as the original audience of the play would not have appreciated the sight of ordinary women controlling the actions of a man even if it is in a manipulative way.
Lady Macbeth and the witches are very similar in this respect. They both control the actions of Macbeth and both carry with them a certain power that is usually reserved for men. These two female forces are standing on either side of Macbeth, one pulling while the other is pushing. They force Macbeth in the direction that they want. The only difference between them is that Lady Macbeth's actions are based on her belief that it will make Macbeth a better man, while the witches are pushing him in that direction simply because they know how it will end. The witches and Lady Macbeth are represented as unnatural so as to take away their femininity and make their masculine traits more acceptable. The nature of the witches is inherently unnatural. Lady Macbeth is constructed as unnatural in a more subtle way. When she says that she would kill her own child if need be, she is represented as the epitome of an unnatural creature. What mother would willingly kill the child that she was nursing just a moment before? This is a device that Shakespeare uses to make Lady Macbeth's ambition more unnatural and therefore more acceptable.
Shakespeare uses these female figures to show the duality of woman: she can be feminine and loving but also vicious and wicked. Given the differing opinions of how we should view Lady Macbeth, what is the right way? All of these viewpoints are correct. Shakespeare wanted us to see every facet of Lady Macbeth's character. These viewpoints are not opposing, they work together. At one point, we sympathize with Lady Macbeth, at another, we despise her. Her character causes a tumultuous mixture of responses to her actions. While viewing or reading the play, one's sense of understanding Lady Macbeth and her motives is never quite fulfilled. She can be decidedly wicked, while at other times she is just pitiable and the audience can empathize with her. As Jameson states, "The crime of Lady Macbeth terrifies us in proportion as we sympathize with her; and that this sympathy is in proportion to the degree of pride, passion, and intellect we may ourselves possess. It is good to behold and to tremble at the possible result of the noblest faculties uncontrolled or perverted"(Jameson 360). Lady Macbeth's character is constructed to elicit a multitude of emotional responses from the audience and to cause them to question the traditional boundaries of female and male roles. This play could be taken as somewhat of a feminist work. Both major female figures achieved their own personal goals by using masculine behaviors and by using the men around them. However, Lady Macbeth could not handle the masculine role as she eventually goes insane and kills herself. The witches have no problem using their male personas to achieve their goals and are never punished for it. Shakespeare is showing both sides of the argument. First, it is not acceptable for women to take on masculine roles, and second, it is acceptable for women to act this way and get away with it. He leaves the decision up to the audience and actually to the individual so that this play will never become stale, as we continuously attempt to sort out its ambiguous statement about women.
Boyd, Catherine Bradshaw. "The Isolation of Antigone and Lady Macbeth." The Classical Journal: February 1952, 174-177, 203.
Jameson, Anna. Characteristics of Women: Moral, Political and Historical. New York: Craighead & Allen printers, 1836.
Shakespeare, William, and Robert S. Miola. Macbeth. New York: W.W. Norton, 2003. Print.
Carol Thomas. Distracted Subject: Madness and Gender in Shakespeare and Early Modern Culture. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2004.