A prominent and permeating theme in Macbeth is the roles and characteristics of masculinity and femininity. Throughout the play Shakespeare presents the audience with strong and sometimes conflicting views of these gender roles. What exactly defines being a man or a woman? How does an individual’s grasp of these roles effect their actions? Shakespeare shows that a clear and accurate understanding of the concept of masculinity is of critical importance in the success of a ruler. In particular, he illustrates how Macbeth’s acceptance of a perverted, violent view of masculinity leads his kingdom into chaos and turmoil, and leads Macbeth to his inevitable demise. Moral order can only be restored when the kingdom is lead by a wiser king with a better understanding of what it is to be a man.
As the most prominent female character in the play Lady Macbeth might be expected to be representative of the ideal 11th century woman, but this is not the case. At times she seems even more “masculine” than her husband. Indeed, it is Lady Macbeth who most directly introduces and inspires the cruel and violent view of masculinity later adopted by Macbeth. She says, “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” (1.5.38-41). She quite literally asks that she lose her femininity and have it replaced by a masculinity she defines as being full of cruelty. She further emphasizes the point by saying, “Come to my woman’s breasts, and take my milk for gall” (1.5.45-46). This type of language directly referencing the gendered female body would be necessary because the player Lady Macbeth would be a man. By presenting us with a Lady Macbeth that clashes so strikingly with the popularly accepted view of ideal femininity, Shakespeare shows the audience that women are capable of being just as cruel and vicious as men even if society wants to define them...
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