Considering the character of Lady Macbeth, discuss the treatment of gender in Macbeth.
Throughout Shakespeare’s tragic play Macbeth (Norton, 815), the treatment of gender is explored through many characters. Lady Macbeth embodies masculine characteristics that starkly contrast the role of women during that time. Shakespeare’s deliberate and heavy use of imagery and a plethora or literary devices assist in underpinning critical themes in the play and create a sense of meaning for the play. Lady Macbeth’s disposition brings to the fore many themes concerning gender, including; the definition of manhood and alternatively femininity, the role of women in the play highlighted through the characters of Lady Macbeth and the Witches, and the synonymy between masculinity and cruelty. Through key scenes in Macbeth, particularly Act 1, Scene 5 (Norton), Lady Macbeth’s gender is explored as she indicates that she must compensate for her husbands lack of masculine characteristics and thus propel him to commit Duncan’s murder. Similarly, the ambiguity of the Witches gender is reiterated through their very own being- a violation of how women were expected to behave.
Act 1, Scene 5 introduces the audience to Lady Macbeth’s indifference to the feminine qualities not only of herself, but also those of which her husband possesses. Lady Macbeth decidedly usurps the dominant role because she feels her husband “is too full o’ the milk of human kindness” (i.v.16). The allusion to breast ‘milk’, a womanly attribute, further reiterates Lady Macbeth’s association between kindness and femininity, and how her husband is not masculine for having such qualities. She furthers this by highlighting that his ambition is not matched with cruelty in order to become king. Lady Macbeth’s soliloquy is paramount in blurring the traditional gender stereotypes and is significantly in contrasting Macbeth’s gentle tone in his letter. Lady Macbeth 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…
Stop up the access and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose…
Come to my woman’s breasts,
And take my milk for gall…” (i.v.39-47)
Lady Macbeth’s soliloquy is critical in underlining her desire to lose her womanhood, and all the qualities associated, and become masculine and filled with cruelty. The gender stereotypes are quite clear in this passage as she associates words such as ‘remorse’ and ‘nature’ with femininity, and alternatively harsh words like ‘direst cruelty’ and ‘gall’ are depicted as being masculine. They entire female entity is symbolized through two key statements in this soliloquy and are representative of not only her womanhood, but also in general. She says ‘Stop us the access and passage to remorse’ and ‘Come to my woman’s breasts and take my milk for gall’ emphasizing that she wishes to leave such womanly attributes as childbirth and breast-feeding and become unsexed so as to commit such an act as regicide without guilt (Morrow).
Whilst men are stereotypically recognised as being the source of violence, the play makes obvious that women can also be sources of evil and in this case Lady Macbeth is detrimental to the demise of her husband. Similarly, the role of the witches, although not physically violent, create chaos and initiate the prophecy that foreshadows the events of the play. The witches are representative of the disrupted gender roles in Macbeth through their violating nature and also the ambiguity of their gender. Act 1, Scene 2 introduces them as Banquo says “You should be women, /And yet your beards forbid me to interpret /That you are so” (i.ii.45-47). Their facial hair is symbolic of their influence on male-dominated affairs and is thus used to criticize the patriarchal culture in Scotland at the time (Shortridge). Act 4, Scene 1 shows the Witches calling upon the spirits alluding back to...
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