Gender Representations in Macbeth – William Shakespeare
The play Macbeth, written by William Shakespeare, explores an abundant of encounters to the rigid gender representation demonstrated in the play. The play revolves around the questioning of femininity and masculinity, allowing us to explore how certain characters equivocate the definition of gender to please their favour and how each gender identities are created for persuasion of the natural order that corresponds to the traditional order – Lady Macbeth and Macbeth exploit and redefine gender ideology, an unbalance is created when Lady Macbeth is displayed as the dominant character of the relationship, during the Jacobean era it is believed that it is proper to remain in your respected gender role and not to over rule your husband otherwise there would be consequences.
In the course of 1567-1625 it was the period of the Jacobean Era, it is named after the king of the time, James I. The audience of this time would of witnessed Shakespeare’s individual interpretation of gender representation, initially the society would frown upon the actions taken by Lady Macbeth and the choice of speech of Lady Macduff, as both of these outspoken women travel down the path of punishment through death, Shakespeare portrays their behaviour as a warning to the common society of the Jacobean Era, the message that is point at issue is not to act out of your respected gender role especially for women.
In the period of the Jacobean Era, females remained in the domestic sphere whilst the males were superior and worked. Women were seen as closer than men to animals in the Great Chain of Being, barely rational and dominated by passion and appetite. ’ (Roberts 1991:25), this suggest a vast imbalance of inequality during this period, Shakespeare challenges the thought of redefining the common ideology of gender, disregarding the conception of an undisturbed universe, aiming to identify with a particular gender, in the case of Macbeth the male gender, discarding the other is unusually at odds with this style of Renaissance judgement.
Despite hierarchy inequity the co-existence of the male and the female was regarded as crucial as in a way it was thought that it balanced one another therefore keeping the natural system in order. However in the play, Shakespeare shifts the control of the balance to the feminine margin, where Lady Macbeth abuses her active personality to master Macbeth’s decisions.
Lady Macbeth plays a predominant active character, after news of her husbands encounter with the witches predictions that he will become king she is driven by pure ambition to gain the power, with this thought she plans to persuade Macbeth to kill Duncan although she knows she is not capable in the mind to do such damage thus she demands the evil spirits to take away her femininity, this is conveyed through, “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.
Make thick my blood, Stop up th’access and passage to remorse, That no compunctious visitings of nature” this extract from Lady Macbeth’s soliloquy from Act 1 Scene 5 she states that she is willing to call upon the dark side of nature to give her the power and masculine traits to kill king Duncan so that Macbeth would reign and she would become queen. The society of the Jacobean Era would judge her harshly as she chooses to corrupt the natural order and dispute against Macbeth’s masculinity, constantly questioning him, “Are you a man? , not only is her way of speech highly critical but it is also disrespectful, her ambition and determination goes as far as regarded not appropriate for women. However, a modern society, would encourage the confidence that Lady Macbeth stimulates nonetheless most of us would discourage the manipulation of a husband to motivate him to commit improper actions.
Lady Macbeth’s persistent direct expression of belittling her husband and her inviting in the impure spirits that eventually control Lady Macbeth, ultimately Lady Macbeth results into tumbling into an abyss of cryptic madness and begins to sleep walk (this is her punishment), particularly in the Jacobean Era it is thought to be a sign of insanity, in this point it shows that her feminine and feeble boundary are battling their way out of her demented approach. Furthermore this suggests that she is not as tough as she thought.
A character similar to Lady Macbeth is Lady Macduff, clearly she plays a much less prominent role yet she still impacts upon the play developing contrastive approach to gender. Lady Macduff differs from Lady Macbeth, in ways that she is more of a discourteous outspoken character rather than an ambitious active character – in contrast to Lady Macbeth, she does not strive to rid herself to female qualities an example supporting this statement is when Lady Macduff says, Is often laudable, to do good sometime Accounted dangerous folly: why then, alas, Do I put up that womanly defence, To say, I have done no harm? ” – this quote corresponds to traditional ideas about female gender, she herself does acknowledge her femininity, Lady Macduff, does question her gender place however she does not consider alternatives to it, although she does continue to argue upon the natural order, this is conveyed through, “From whence himself does fly?
He loves us not: He wants the natural touch; for the poor wren, The most diminutive of birds, will fight,” Lady Macduff criticizes her husband’s manhood by suggesting he lacks the ‘natural touch’, which implies that he should stand by his wife, this advocates to traditional ideology of gender roles, as in the period of the Jacobean Era it was proper that women were the ones to stand by their husbands, nevertheless this present day disregards this variation, as men and women in this modern society are more equal.
Originally, Macbeth is illustrated as a honorable, valiant soldier however he is succumbed into persuasion from his influential wife, Lady Macbeth resulting in him living as a passive character. This is significantly shown through Act 1 Scene 7 when the audience encounters a conflict where Macbeth struggles between his belligerent conscience and his overwhelming ambition.
Macbeth is conflicted on the idea of what it is to be a man and the construction of his manhood, he questions whether is it manly to chase your ambition or to act with nobility, this can be seen through, “Hath borne his faculties so meek, hath been So clear in his great office, that his virtues Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued, against The deep damnation of his taking-off… ”.
His soliloquy at the start of the scene explores the disturbance of gender (how he is conflicted between proving his masculinity to his wife or remaining noble to his king) and how Macbeth’s loyal qualities are silhouetted by drunk ambition, Macbeth is constantly torn between madness and proving himself as a man. The Jacobean Era would sympathize with Macbeth as he is targeted by Lady Macbeth as she torments him, taunting him with lack of masculinity however she results into suicide whereas he still stands, still proving his masculinity, he becomes an active character determined to keep his power as king.
An interesting fact, Macbeth was not initially pronounced king after the murder of Duncan, the society of the time would greatly disfavour this act as it unbalances the divine law, a modern society would suppose masculinity is the blame for conception and contradicts the killing. The three witches represent the grotesque image of women, they are presented as deformed, not how women should look like – fair and clean – they look like vile beasts.
When we examine the relationship between Lady Macbeth and the witches combining female gender, while Lady Macbeth rejects the female relation mainly in what she says displaying her as a person more in favour of the masculine characteristics, the witches are portrayed manly by what they do and how they look, especially with beard, commonly a male attribute, this is presented through Banquo’s reaction, “… you should be women, And yet your beards forbid me to interpret That you are so.
Banquo’s inceptive reaction is shock, as he does not accept that these ‘women’ appear as such distorted figures. The witches are incorporated to frighten the Jacobean Era, suggesting that if one should side with the malicious they will suffer a grotesque appearance. Shakespeare explores the rigid stereotypical ideology of gender roles, the play Macbeth rotates around the questioning of masculinity and the challenging of femininity that consists with the traditional order.
Lady Macbeth compares slightly to the vulgar witches, as Lady Macbeth speaks and thinks in a masculine manner the witches appear in conventional masculine traits, Macbeth is displayed as a passive, easily persuaded character and when he becomes king he is an inadequate excuse for a ruler, in contrast the previous king, Duncan is seen as a generous, noble king. The Jacobean Era would regard this as an action to please the current king, however a modern society would not accept this contrast as appreciably as the Jacobean Era.
The differentiation of Lady Macbeth and Macbeth include two separate attitudes towards the natural and social order. Whether they see gender as an offered category or something they can redefine in relation to their own desires which is securely linked to their association to rank and power which is their initial struggle to maintain their sanity, which in the end destroyed. A female character plays a predominant part in the confrontation to order in the category of gender nonetheless, the object of the ideological battle is male, Shakespeare searches a balance between the questioning of masculinity and abrupt femininity.