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Gender Roles in Macbeth and What It Means to Be a Man

The Man Himself

The Man Himself

Shakespeare did not have much faith in traditional gender roles. His constant subversion of these roles in the submission of men to dominant women illustrates Shakespeare’s feelings that much was amiss in society’s typical dictation of the “natural order.” Macbeth is a play in which nothing is as it seems with gender and sexuality at the forefront. Darkness pervades the play as blind ambition obscures the minds of its primary characters. But at the root of it all is the relationship between Macbeth and his Lady, whose lack of knowledge and faith in themselves drives them toward an inevitably horrific fate. Their relationship does not represent nature, but a grossly exaggerated hybrid hyper-masculinity.

"The Milk of Human Kindness" and Its Consequences

It is hard to say whether Shakespeare was certain of anything when he wrote Macbeth because many of his characters are so confused. His troubled relationship with women like his wife probably had a great impact on his writing. Yet Macbeth is a play about knowledge, and in writing it, Shakespeare in the very least explores the possibilities of what it means to be man or woman. His results are striking in the creation of a cast of characters who each represent something unique about humanity. The Macbeths are the focus though, and it is their relationship which probably deserves the most attention because together they create such a disturbing abomination of gender.

A great theme of the play is ambition, and it is what spurs on practically everything that takes place. Of course, the ambition is overzealous and fueled by greed, but nonetheless, it is what Shakespeare uses to examine gender roles in Macbeth. From the moment the Witches tell Macbeth that he is to be King, he cannot shake the idea from his head. Yet, he is frightened by what he must do in order to attain that title and knows it is wrong as he states “Let not light see my black and deep desires; / The eye wink at the hand; yet let that be” (Norton Ed. 2586). Macbeth knows what he must do, but he needs something more to spur him on because as Lady Macbeth notes, he is “too full o’th’ milk of human kindness” (Norton Ed. 2587). In uttering these words, Lady Macbeth accuses her husband of taking the feminine quality of holding milk. She sees him as too feminine and humane to kill the king which of course leads her to attempt to compensate for Macbeth by being “unsexed” and having her milk taken for gall. As the gender roles begin to subvert and the Macbeths’ overwhelming ambition blinds their morality, Shakespeare’s vision of the unnatural masculine figure becomes clearer.

Even though they are quite powerful already in society, the Macbeths believe they are still somehow inadequate. Their marriage itself is an obvious indication of this as neither seems content with the qualities of the other. Lady Macbeth especially chastises her husband for her wants in him. Even as Macbeth tries to logically argue against the murder plot by stating “We will proceed no further in this business. / He hath honoured me of late, and I have bought / Golden opinions from all sorts of people, / Which would be worn now in their newest gloss, / Not cast aside so soon” (Norton Ed. 2590), his wife remains unsatisfied. In fact, such a statement only brings about frustration and anger in Lady Macbeth who resorts to mocking her husband’s masculinity by suggesting he is a coward. Macbeth tries one last time to reason with her by offering “I dare do all that may become a man; / Who dares do more is none” (Norton Ed. 2590), yet even this powerful exclamation is not enough. Although Macbeth intends his words to assert that he represents the epitome of manhood, his wife takes them as more of a confession that he is no man at all. She proceeds to deliver her perverted and haunting idea of what it means to be a man.

The Macbeths

The Macbeths

Lady Macbeth Abandons the Feminine

In a very successful attempt at breaking free from any lingering ideas that she may still feel some “feminine” or “maternal” instincts, Lady Macbeth proclaims how if she had a baby she would have “plucked my nipple from his boneless gums / And dashed the brains out, had I so sworn / As you have done to this” (Norton Ed. 2590). It is a practically unbelievable thing for any woman to say, but goes to show how Lady Macbeth has removed herself from her femininity which she obviously believed was holding her back. As a man, she believes she could commit any act of horror to get what she wants. Still, she relies on Macbeth to commit the deed itself, for even with all her newfound might, there is some sensitivity in her that she cannot seem to shake. In a very revealing passage she states “Had he not resembled / My father as he slept, I had done’t” (Norton Ed. 2593), indicating some sort of connection with her father that continues to guide her. This line shows how Lady Macbeth may have once been at peace with gender identity, but since her father left, she may have lost her assuredness in the idea. The brutal phrases Shakespeare crafts for her before this line indicate the violence between the sexes that Lady Macbeth now feels is necessary.

Judi Dench and Ian McKellen are brilliant as the Macbeths. Experience their twisted psyches with this scene from the famous Royal Shakespeare Company's "Macbeth

War Within A Marriage

There is a tremendous battle taking place over the idea of masculinity at this point in the play, and a great fortune is at stake. It is a fitting reward for the winner of this battle to be King, for a King’s ability to rule others is unmatched by anyone but God in these times. The problem is that the battle is taking place between a husband and wife as they vie for dominance in their marriage. Their relationship should be about balance, but neither is satisfied with the way things are because they lack the knowledge to appreciate what they have.

They do not understand that the battle they wage is futile because they both hold warped senses of gender identity. Both characters want the title of King as evidenced by their actions, but neither is capable of reaching that point on their own. If they combine powers then it may be so, yet the atrocity of their marriage in which love seems wholly absent makes working together as one fully formed “man” a doomed endeavor. Furthermore, a man can not reproduce on his own, and the Macbeths’ sterility illustrates this. Nothing good can come from them. With the murder of Duncan, Macbeth may become King, but too much damage is done by that point to he and his wife’s identities for any level of future success. Someone more assured of his purpose must intrude.

Banquo, Macduff, and What It Really Means to be a Man

Both Banquo and Macduff are fathers whose minds are not clouded with misguided ambitions to be King. They are the noble characters of the play who Shakespeare grants good fortune to in different ways. Banquo is murdered, but his name lives on in nobility with his legend and his son. Macduff suffers the great loss of his wife and son, but in a pivotal moment of the play, he demonstrates tremendous fortitude, compassion, and self-assuredness as he is told to take the news of their murders “like a man.” He retorts, “I shall do so, / But I must also feel it as a man” (Norton Ed. 2623). This line serves somewhat as an indictment of the Macbeths for believing that sensitivity is unbecoming of a man. Macduff is obviously a powerful character, yet he does not lack feelings. The Macbeths serve as foils to this mentality, and they are no match for it in the end. Macbeth’s death at the hands of Macduff is the ultimate victory of true morality and masculinity.

In analyzing masculinity in Macbeth, Macduff’s aforementioned lines are critical. Shakespeare gives Macduff such lines to demonstrate how misguided Macbeth is, yet to show that there is hope in masculinity as well. Macduff may be Shakespeare’s ideal vision of a man, or at least, one ideal vision of a man. There probably is not just one ideal because, as the play indicates, it is more important for a person to know himself and what makes him happy than to try to live up to an ideal set forth by anyone else. Macduff knows himself and he performs his duties as he knows he must. Banquo similarly did not attempt to overstep his boundaries, even though he may feel tempted at certain points such as when he exclaims “Merciful powers, / Restrain me in the cursed thoughts that nature / Gives way to in repose” (Norton Ed. 2591). Such a line may indicate a violent inclination in Banquo, but by giving his sword to Fleance, he resists these thoughts in a mature manner. He only takes it back moments later as a paternal instinct to protect his son when he hears someone approaching from the shadows.

The Sound and the Fury and the End

The characters of Macbeth inhabit a world of darkness and uncertainty. The Macbeths represent the epitome of humanity’s identity crisis in the battle of sex. Without sex there is no humanity, so this struggle is of momentous importance. Through his creation of the Macbeths, Shakespeare destabilizes the foundations or roots of what was thought to be human nature. Lady Macbeth’s fiery desires to “unsex” herself reveal some of the problems with the traditional female identity. Her words and actions are the result of her frustrations with her supposed natural limits. Macbeth becomes impotent because he cannot please such an unsatisfied woman, and he feels too confused and torn to produce anything good on his own. Together, they become nothing but a vehicle for destruction. In the end, Shakespeare rightly leads the Macbeths to the brink of insanity and despair for it is not possible for the creature their relationship becomes to function successfully. The ultra-masculine hybrid that is Macbeth and his wife proves to be an unruly beast that does nothing but fight and destroy until its death.

By the time Macbeth realizes that all of his stabs at glory were in vain, it is too late. Following his wife’s death he submits that life is “a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing” (Norton Ed. 2628), and perhaps this is true for an individual like Macbeth who is so pathetic and confused. He has no awareness of himself, and he squanders his potential in an attempt to prove something which he thinks will satisfy him but obviously does not. His lack of knowledge brings about his death and many more. Yet, it does not have to be this way for all, and Shakespeare does provide some light in the darkness in characters like Macduff whose slaying of Macbeth should be seen as an optimistic comment on humanity.

What do you think it means to be a man?


Heshan2106 on August 02, 2020:

I don't really believe that 'being a man' is based on your gender identity, it doesn't matter if you're identified as a male, a female or whatever it is. You're actions decide if you're 'a man'. Thus, a woman cannot say that they cannot relate because they are not identified as a 'man'.

Times have changed.


neegro on October 15, 2019:

i'm a guy, so i'm expert. but i've always considered the dual qualities of sexy and cute to be desirable in a chick. the difference between a man and a boy is the taking on of responsibility. my wife, though, is more gentle than strong, and we have a terrible relationship. we're both plenty unresponsible.

Jordan Peters on May 08, 2017:

Mikesweetwater- I want to cite this article for a Paper im writing so can you tell me from real name

mikesweetwater (author) from FL, USA on July 14, 2011:

Cathy - I wholeheartedly agree that being a man means accepting responsibility in life. Unfortunately, that is not enough for Lady Macbeth, but I think most women would take your side over hers :) Also, I think the best relationships are all about balance and maturity, and it sounds like you certainly have that! Thanks for reading!

cathylynn99 from northeastern US on July 13, 2011:

i'm not a guy, so i'm no expert. but i've always considered the dual qualities of strength and gentleness to be desirable in a guy. the difference between a man and a boy is the taking on of responsibility. my husband, though, is more gentle than strong, and we have a terrific relationship. we're both plenty responsible.