Macbeth and Feminism

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Shakespeare's Macbeth is a tragedy that embodies the polarities of male and female power, a play which seems to dramatize the deep divisions that characterize male-female relationships in all his plays. As Janet Adelman writes, "In the figures of Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, and the witches, the play gives us images of a masculinity and a femininity that are terribly disturbed." At the same time, critics have tended to discuss the relationship between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth in a way that further highlights this division, viewing Macbeth as a victim of overpowering feminine influences that characterize the world around him, from the appearance of the bearded Witches at the beginning of the play, to the presence of Lady Macbeth throughout. Sigmund Freud writes of Lady Macbeth, that her sole purpose throughout the play is "that of overcoming the scruples of her ambitious and yet tender-minded husband...She is ready to sacrifice even her womanliness to her murderous intention...” For many feminist critics, however, the opinion of Freud and other critics that Macbeth is merely a victim of feminine plotting is an unsatisfactory response to this play. On the most basic level, it is Macbeth who actually murders the king while Lady Macbeth is the one who cleans up the mess.

A more fruitful approach would be a closer examination of the different types of women who are being represented throughout the play, rather than viewing the women en masse, as part of a dark and evil force "ganging up" on Macbeth. Indeed, feminist criticism can help to point the way towards a clearer understanding of the sort of society Shakespeare is portraying in this tragedy. Terry Eagleton points out his belief that "the witches are the heroines of the piece", As the most fertile force in the play, the witches inhabit an anarchic, richly ambiguous zone both in and out of official society; they live in their own world but intersect with Macbeth's. Theyare poets, prophetesses and devotees of female cult, radical separatists who scorn male power . For Eagleton, the witches, existing on the fringes of society, are not necessarily the "juggling fiends" (5.7.49) that Macbeth professes them to be at the end of the play. Instead, as feminist critics, we might well ask ourselves about the brutal nature of the society in which Macbeth is living and the effects that traditional labels of "masculinity" and "femininity" have on that society. The nature of gender roles in Macbeth--a play which is ostensibly about the exchange and usurpation of political authority amongst men--is brought to the fore at the very beginning of the play, in the figures of the three Witches in Act One, scene one: "Fair is foul, and foul is fair" (1.1.12) they tell us. Marilyn French points out the role of the Witches in establishing what she sees as the dynamic of ambiguity that will characterize gender relationships throughout the play. As she writes:

They are female, but have beards; they are aggressive and authoritative, but seem to have power only to create petty mischief. Their persons, their activities, and their song serve to link ambiguity about gender to moral ambiguity.

The witches challenge our assumptions about masculine and feminine attributes from the very start, with their beards and their prophecies. In juggling with the contradictory values of fair and foul, they call into question the moral systems and standards upon which this play will operate. Shakespeare's witches exist on the fringes of a society in which feminine attributes denote powerlessness and destruction (Duncan, Lady Macduff) and in which traditionally masculine values are equated with power.

Indeed, Macbeth's first appearance, covered with blood and receiving high praise for the slaughter of others, gives us our first idea about the acceptable patterns of behaviour, which govern the "masculine" side of this world:

For brave Macbeth--well he deserves that name!--
Disdaining fortune, with his brandished steel...
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