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Gender Roles in “Macbeth” Essay Sample

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Gender Roles in “Macbeth” Essay Sample

Female and male can be biological categories, but “womanly” and “manly” express cultural ideas of gender, which may cut across and call in question normative lines of sexual difference. From the first scene, with its bearded witches, to the last, where we hear that a boy died “like a man,” the play invokes gendered words, images and metaphors. Characters frequently express their feelings about themselves and others, and give values to those feelings, in gendered terms. To what extent do you agree?

There are a number of differences between the male and female characters within Macbeth; some characters even seem to have a different ‘gender’ from their ‘sex’. ‘Sex’ is the chromosomes in the human cell that determine the sex. Females have two ‘X’, chromosomes and males have one ‘X’ and one ‘Y’ chromosome. ‘Gender’ is expressed in terms of masculinity and femininity. It is how people perceive themselves and how they expect others to behave. It is largely culturally determined. The difference between both is not evident, ‘sex’ refers to the biological category that we are placed into in accordance to the chromosomes we are created with and ‘gender’ refers to the characteristics and behaviours that different cultures attribute to the two sexes. In the Elizabethan times, men were expected to be strong, intelligent, courageous, and active, whilst women were seen as weak, ignorant, fearful, and passive. A man had to support his family, make all decisions and control his wife and children; in contrast a woman had to have her husband’s children, look after the home and serve her man. When Edward the VI died, he wrote in his will that he believed that women were not capable of governing the country. This shows that women were thought of as the weaker and less able ‘sex’.

Lady Macbeth is a character within the play Macbeth who offers an opportunity to explore the boundaries of a woman who possessed traditional manly attributes. She defies conventional and submissive female stereotyping in a number of ways. She is a determined, controlling and powerful character and she challenges the stereotypical characterisations a female. She wishes for the spirits to “unsex” her, so she can aid Macbeth more physically in his plan. Asking for the spirits to “make thick my blood / Stop up th’ access and passage to remorse,” implies that she wishes to be amenorrheic. In “A Strange Infirmity”: Lady Macbeth’s Amenorrhea, written by Jenijoy La Belle, she writes, “When Lady Macbeth commands the spirits of darkness to “unsex” her, it is not just a wish for a psychological movement away from the feminine. To free herself of the basic psychological characteristics of femininity, she is asking the spirits to eliminate the basic biological characteristics of femininity.” This means that since there is a bond between body and mind, the only way for Lady Macbeth to achieve a completely unfeminine consciousness, is to conquer an unfeminine physiology.

Her husband believes her to be his, “dearest partner of greatness,” therefore, representing the strong bond between husband and wife, which would have been customary in Elizabethan times; however, by Macbeth referring to his wife as his, “dearest partner”, equality is seen between these two people, which would not have occurred in the Elizabethan period. Lady Macbeth’s language is forthright and authoritative, even towards her husband, shown when she interrupts him “…Only look up clear; /…Leave all the rest to me.” By Lady Macbeth instructing Macbeth to ‘only look up clear’, she is ordering him to be more innocent and less involved, however she says “leave the rest to me”, which indicates that Lady Macbeth is taking control of this situation and overpowering her husband. This provides the image of a gender role exchange between husband and wife, which is also highlighted after Macbeth murders Duncan. Lady Macbeth communicates that “These deeds must not be though / After these ways; so, it will make us mad.” In actual fact this line can be taken as a soliloquy, as she is too speaking to herself, highlighting her insane condition which she will descend into.

In Shakespearean times, there were three paradigms for women: virgin, mother and whore. Lady Macbeth is not defined into any of these three categories, as she is not a virgin; as she has had a child; she is not a mother, as her child is dead; and she is not a whore, as she is married. She cannot be described as any group, which enables the character of Lady Macbeth to be so interesting. There are numerous words, actions, and images which Lady Macbeth’s words and actions create which allow her to be cast into the Elizabethan social rules for women. Despite overpowering Macbeth on a number of occasions, she herself is not a heroine. This is clearly portrayed when Macbeth withdraws his confidence in her, shown when Macbeth says, “Be innocent of the knowledge, dearest chuck, / Till thou applaud the deed.” Here Macbeth shows that he has made a major decision without his wife’s input, and he wants to protect her by making her morally innocent. He does not want her to be aware of this deed until it has been committed; he only wants her to congratulate him. This would be the actions of a stereotypical mother in Elizabethan times.

This isolation from his plan is an element which provokes the mental disintegration of Lady Macbeth, by being excluded from his plot; she collapses into a state of mental fragility. Her strength and determination derives from her wish to further her husband’s career. This is indicated in Lady Macbeth’s soliloquy after she receives Macbeth’s letter. “And chastise with the valour of my tongue / All that impedes thee from the golden round”. This suggests that Lady Macbeth is eager to assist Macbeth to become the next King; however, it does not mention any specific covetousness to be Queen. The murder of Duncan also exposes weakness within Lady Macbeth’s character, as she cannot murder Duncan because his appearance is similar to that of her father. “…Had he not resembled / My father as he slept, I had done’t.” In the Elizabethan age, a woman had to firstly obey her father, and then her husband, by being incapable of performing the murderous act due to similarity of appearance Lady Macbeth demonstrates vulnerability; a womanly virtue.

The image of blood upon her hands represents her guilty conscience, by portraying her fears in a somnambulistic state; the reader feels empathy towards her. “Out, damned spot! Out I say!” Lady Macbeth cannot remove the blood from her hands, which emphasises her emotionally unstable situation and her lack of ability to conduct herself correctly in her remorseful circumstance. Earlier in the play, when Macbeth killed Duncan, he believed his hand was irreversibly bloodstained earlier in the play and Lady Macbeth told him, “A little water clears us of this deed”. However now she sees blood on her hands, showing she is completely nullified by her guilt and descends into madness. It may be a reflection on her mental and emotional state that she is not speaking in verse during her soliloquies, only the witches stray from the iambic pentameter.

The blood on her hands is a representation of the guilt she feels. The two holes also relate to Jesus, as he was staked to the cross and had two holes in the centre of his palms, this illustrates the idea of a sacrifice; in Lady Macbeth’s situation she has sacrificed her sanity. The repetition of the word “out” emphasises her guilty conscience and how she desires to escape the guilty state that overpowers her during her somnambulistic state. Shakespeare writes the play in such a way as to provide conflicting and biased opinions of men and women in the play. One technique that distinctly portrays women as lower in hierarchy than men is that of how Lady Macbeth dies. The audience are simply informed, “The queen, my lord, is dead.” Her tangible death does not occur on stage, which evokes a sense of mystery within the audience; by not staging her death Shakespeare draws attention to the fact that women are supposed to be lesser characters than men in literature.

The witches are another community who are not classified by the three paradigms for women. They are a community of women who have been excluded from society, due to their lack of stereotypical characteristics. The Witches within Macbeth are the subject of much discussion in contemporary debates, the most popular and widely renowned question is that of the witches existence – are the witches real or not? This subject has interested a number of different people from all walks of life; York Notes for GCSE by James Sale writes, “there can be no definitive answer. Suffice to say, they embody a malign and demonic intelligence.” This indicates that Shakespeare has written the Witches parts in such a way as to provide an opportunity for the audience to formulate their own opinions. During the Elizabethan period witches were a community of women who did not comply with the expectations and appearances of a natural woman. As James I and 11 of Scotland was extremely interested in Witchcraft, he wrote a book on the subject, entitled ‘Daemonologie’. Being pronounced a witch would undeniably end with the death of that woman, during James I’s reign.

The Witches language is distinctive from all other verses spoken. The Witches use a trochaic tetrameter, which helps them to isolate themselves from the rest of the characters such as “GALL of GOAT, and SLIPS of YEW”. They also speak in riddles, which provide imagery, metaphors and similes. Imagery is seen consistently when the witches cast spells, “Fillet of a fenny snake, / In the cauldron boil and bake:”. Metaphors are utilised by the witches commonly to “Fair is foul, and foul is fair”. Similes are seen when the witches say, “And now about the cauldron sing / Like elves and fairies in a ring,”. The significant lines of which they say and repeat on a number of occasions is “Double, double toil and trouble, / Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.” These lines are commonly repeated, therefore portraying its relevance. These lines also have rhymes, which creates the illusion of mystery and the supernatural. There is a strong utilisation of imagery, to provide a clearer representation of the witches to the audience. The use of metaphors is another commonly utilised tool within Macbeth; it provides the audiences with occasions to interpret the speech how they wish to.

“When the battle’s lost, and won.” If a director were to stage a production of Macbeth, creating the Witches as part of Macbeth’s imagination, it would not be a difficult process, due to the fact that the Witches’ language is extremely descriptive and provides tangible imagery. As witches are not definitely known to exist or not Shakespeare provides extensive imagery within their speech to make the witches seem more real and believable to the audience. When Macbeth and Banquo first meet the witches, Banquo speaks about one witch saying “you should be women, / And yet your beards forbid me to interpret,” by giving the Witches beards, the gender of the Witches is uncertain, which can be identified in the line, “Fair is foul, and foul is fair,” which presents the idea that appearances are deceptive, a key theme within Macbeth. This line means that good is bad and bad is good.

Which represents the idea that the witches are violating God’s natural order and that there is a battle between God and the supernatural: highlighting the constant battle between good and evil. The Witches lack of appearance description created an opportunity for directors of Macbeth experiment with the Witches. The other characters are can be visualised and presented easily as they are humans; males and females; however, the witches are neither and both male and female. Therefore, the audience has to be guided on how they should be understood. The witches’ use of ridiculous language they were like caricatures of the supernatural. In the BBC drama adaptation of Macbeth, the Witches were three dustbin men and in a 2006 Australian version of Macbeth, the Witches were three schoolgirls. By demonstrating the witches as three dustbin men, the director portrays the idea of male dominance and of a lower social status, than the chef that Macbeth acted as. In the 2006 Australian film, three schoolgirls were used to present the idea of a community and of uncertainty. Shakespeare has created an air of mystery about the three we�rd sisters, and he questions what defines a typical witch.

Lady Macduff qualifies as a stereotypical mother of the Elizabethan period, which all other women are compared to. She is a devoted mother and wife, with her main concern is for her “babes,” and she is therefore the ideal woman. Despite her husband’s key importance within the play, Lady Macduff and her children are only in one scene, portraying a clear lack of importance. Lady Macduff’s femininity appears in her complete dependence on her husband and in her belief that she and their children require his constant protection. She relies on her husband hugely and she shows that she is irate due to his lack of consideration towards her and their children. When she says, “Wisdom? To leave his wife, to leave his babes / His mansion, and his titles in a place / From whence himself does fly? …” this portrays her anger and vulnerability. By showing Lady Macbeth to have vulnerability, the idea of a stereotypical woman is underlined. However, anger is not specifically a womanly characteristic, although she is irritated at her husband for a womanly reason. Fearfulness and dependence are two stereotypical characteristics of an Elizabethan woman.

Lady Macduff is not exceptionally intelligent, as her own son can overcome her intelligence with a few teasing remarks, “If he were dead, you’d weep for him; if you would not, it were a good sign that I should quickly have a new father.” This shows the son to be intellectual, however when his mother speaks of “a traitor”, he asks, “What is a traitor?” Which provides the illusion that the son is either younger than expected or that he is more feminine than a boy of his age should be. This intelligence or lack thereof could in fact be deliberate to provide the image of the son’s lack of what his father was supposed to teach to him. It is possible that he is an adolescent boy and that due to the fact that his father has been absent for most of his life, he has developed a somewhat feminine nature. This idea is debateable, as the reader is not informed of the son in great detail. The portrayal of male importance is re-emphasised due to the son being slaughtered on stage, however, Lady Macduff flees from the stage crying ‘Murder’. Similarly to Lady Macbeth’s death, the audience is not certain if the wife has been murdered, until the next scene, illustrating a lack of importance regarding both women. However the reaction to the deaths of each man’s wife is taken in a different way from the other.

Within Macbeth, the character of Macbeth alters greatly as the play progresses. When the play begins the audience is notified by the Witches that Macbeth has been in a battle, “When the battles lost, and won. / … There to meet Macbeth.” Despite not personally appearing in the play until scene three, Macbeth gains a number of typical male attributes; he is “brave”, “valiant”, a “worthy gentleman” and “noble”. The audience understands that he is a war hero, and is to be rewarded greatly for his achievements. It is believed in Renaissance literature that men are the main character in all literary works, so the traditional gender roles comply with this, as the play is named after the male protagonist. When he meets the Witches and he hears of the prophecy, he shows a passive nature, resolving to allow fate to act where the we�rd sisters said it would, saying, “If chance will have me king, why chance may crown me / Without my stir”. This quotation shows that Macbeth was hesitant in killing Duncan, he did not want to immediately resort to violence, which would have been the stereotypical male reaction.

He seems to be opposing the traditional gender characterisation. He lacks ambition a key component of a man as he allows the Witches prophecy and Lady Macbeth’s ambitions to undermine his integrity. He is too easily influenced in the direction which he secretly desires to go. Shakespeare challenges the traditional depiction of men in Renaissance literature, through the character of Macbeth. However, as the play progresses Macbeth transforms and falters continuously. By murdering Duncan and having Banquo killed Macbeth is showing a more active and manly part in the play. After having Banquo murdered, Macbeth can see Banquo’s ghost, which indicates that he has a guilty conscience, this is a more feminine quality as men are described as unfeeling. More sensitive parts of Macbeth are revealed through his recurrent soliloquies which lead him to moments of weakness.

After he murders Duncan and sees Banquo’s ghost, he has a moment of defencelessness, when the strength of his realisation threatens to emasculate him. Macduff and Macbeth are the two rival characters within Macbeth. Their wives are opposites from one another, as are the husbands; this creates the illusion of contradictions and the battles between good and evil. On receiving the news of their wives deaths, the two men act extremely differently, Macbeth simply broods on life’s futility, “Creeps in this petty pace from day to day / To the last syllable of recorded time;” Macduff however, is distraught and continues to declare his grief throughout the rest of the scene, he says, “Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak, / Whispers the o’erfraught heart and bids it break.” Shakespeare uses this contrast to create empathy towards Macduff, and more dislike towards Macbeth. On the other hand, in the sense of masculinity and femininity, Macbeth is the more masculine as he does not portray any real emotion over his wife’s death and Macduff is hysterically emotional, a characteristic of a female.

Shakespeare has created Macbeth in such a way as to allow the surface reader to think that he was trying to challenge the gender roles in Renaissance literature, however, a closer study of the play would indicate differently. He in truth, abided by all the social hierarchy of sex and gender placements, adhering to all those conventional positions. Shakespeare gave the play the name ‘Macbeth’ to enable the reader to think that there were two protagonists; Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. Shakespeare uses the female and male characters to perpetuate to the established gender characters, however to create a more interesting and authentic play, so he has bartered certain qualities.

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