The Jacobean play Macbeth by William Shakespeare is notorious for its inversion of traditional gender roles. This particular play discusses the main theme of gender in a variety of forms including that of the distinct societal expectations about the roles of men and women. Gender refers to the social attributes and opportunities associated with being male or female; therefore the expectations portrayed in the play Macbeth are somewhat abstract to society’s understanding of the phrase gender. Shakespeare challenges these distinctions through the characters of Lady Macbeth and Macbeth who subvert representations of gender. The feminine personality traits of compassion and mild acceptance are shown throughout the play through the character Macbeth, rather than his wife Lady Macbeth. In the Elizabethan era it was expected that the man was somewhat heroic and brave, someone who was an active participant with a lack of compassion. Shakespeare shows these qualities in Macbeth but not in the characters the audience expects. Shakespeare challenges these distinctions between man and woman. From the very beginning of the play, Shakespeare questions Macbeth’s masculine qualities. He is a man who has a heart, something which is not seen to the Elizabethan audience as being a masculine trait.
He is one of Duncan’s most courageous generals; his eager ambition to become King of Scotland corrupts him and the driving force of his wife leads him to the murder of King Duncan. Lady Macbeth perceives Macbeth as a man with compassion and understanding. She believes he has too much goodness to get the crown by the quickest way possible. Macbeth is a character of ambition without the evil driving ambition to complete the deed. Seen in his soliloquy, the audience understands how he is trying to convince himself that the murder is the right thing to do. “To prick the sides of my intent but only/Vaulting ambition which o’erleaps itself” This quote shows the intense feminine characteristic of moral nature in Elizabethan times. Macbeth admits to himself that his ambition does in fact override his moral reasoning and belief. King Duncan has done nothing wrong; Macbeth has no reason to murder him besides his own ambitions to later become king. He is showing compassion, a quality perceived as being of feminine nature. Here Shakespeare uses the technique of emotive language to create a sense of empathy with the audience.
They can understand the confusion of emotions Macbeth is faced with when contemplating the decision to kill the King of Scotland. The audience learns that Macbeth questions his actions, results and ambitions. He questions the murder, questioning his own ambitions and masculine characteristics. This soliloquy helps to develop Macbeth’s mental capacity and courage, he second guesses himself changing him from a moral man full of compassion to a malevolent phantom. “If the assassination/ could trammel up the consequence, and catch, / with his surcease, success; that but this blow/ Might be the be-all and the end-all…” Macbeth shows compassion which lowers his masculinity. This specific quote from Macbeth’s soliloquy shows how Macbeth considers not doing the deed due to the consequences he believes could embark after the murder. Shakespeare employs the literary device of euphemism in Macbeth’s soliloquy to show to the audience how Macbeth does not care for the murder so much but for his appearance to society.
The technique helps to hide and disguise the serious nature of the murder. Men are seen as characters who never think about the after effects, how it could affect someone else. It is all about being someone masculine who shows no remorse or guilt for a violent deed that in their eyes had to be done. This is not the case with Macbeth. He believes that he would do the deed if there were no consequences involved, that the deed would be done if it would not have an effect on his appearance and if he would feel no guilt. The ideas of masculinity and femininity are frequently explored through the character of Lady Macbeth. She displays and explores many masculine characteristics. She controls and manipulates both Duncan and Macbeth which is a personality trait of masculine qualities. Characters in Macbeth frequently dwell on issues of gender. Lady Macbeth manipulates her husband by questioning his manhood, wishes that she herself could be “unsexed,” and does not contradict Macbeth when he says that a woman like her should give birth only to boys.
In the same manner that Lady Macbeth goads her husband on to murder, Macbeth provokes the murderers he hires to kill Banquo by questioning their manhood. Such acts show that both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth equate masculinity with naked aggression, and whenever they converse about manhood, violence soon follows. Their understanding of manhood allows the political order depicted in the play to descend into chaos. Lady Macbeth’s character suggests that she desires cruelty in her life; she wants to be stripped of her feminine qualities and transformed into someone who does not feel any guilt or pain. She is not a passive and mild character who lets her husband tell her what to do and hides in the background, she is much the opposite. Lady Macbeth shows a lack of compassion, with no remorse or regret in her life. She is willing to plan and be the driving force behind all the plots. This character is a perfect example of Shakespeare challenging the distinctions between man and women. The play shows a sense of role reversal.
“Look like the innocent flower, but be the serpent under’t.” This quote identifies to the audience that Lady Macbeth is taking control of the situation. She understands that Macbeth is weak and shows compassion, so in order for him to complete the murder she must coach him in the way to act. The soliloquy helps to show that she is no longer a passive character; she is an active participant in the murder of King Duncan. The language device of metaphor helps to compare the “innocent flower” to the “serpent.” The flower being something pure, that cannot do any harm, in comparison to the serpent that is a violent animal with dangerous and poisonous characteristics. It helps to show how Lady Macbeth is coaching Macbeth through the course of the murder. Teaching him how to act is not considered very feminine. The Elizabethan time period is a time where women sat in the background and stayed quiet, they did not coach their husbands. This whole idea of the women taking control of the situation challenges the gender judgement of society.
The character of Lady Macbeth portrays a character of masculine qualities. She has total control over her man; this is not something that was seen during the Elizabethan time period. This helps the audience to connect with the character as she is displaying the total opposite of what she indeed should be acting like. It is only after the deed of the murder of King Duncan, that the audience can truly understand just how masculine she is acting as. Macbeth is a character that shows remorse and guilt. Lady Macbeth has been stripped of these feminie qualities and so is able to pull her husband into line and show him how he should potentially be acting.
“Consider it not so deeply… These deeds must not be thought/ After these
ways; so, it will make us mad.” This quote displays to the audience just how gender is explored in the play Macbeth. Lady Macbeth attempts to convince her husband that he is not to feel guilty of the situation and much forget about it and not think of it in too much detail. The language technique of irony is used as it helps to explore that Lady Macbeth is merely joking around saying that thinking about the murder will potentially make them mad when in fact it does. It gives the audience an insight into what will actually happen later on in the play. These little scenes in the play help to develop individual characters which in turn help the audience to explore and understand the representations of gender. William Shakespeare discusses the idea of gender reversal and the use of stereotypical characteristics in the play Macbeth. It is in this play that the characters of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth defy the societal expectations placed upon them. The play Macbeth is known for its inversion of traditional gender roles; Shakespeare challenges these distinctions through the characters of Lady Macbeth and Macbeth who in turn help to deliver un-certain ideas on the representations of gender.