How is Macbeth a play exploring the female identity? What representations of femininity does the play put forward? What is Shakespeare attempting to express concerning the female identity?
William Shakespeare’s Macbeth widely examines the female identity through the use of different characters and themes. Lady Macbeth is at the center of Shakespeare’s exploration of the female identity. In Lady Macbeth’s character, the audience is introduced to a woman who exercises her control over men. Shakespeare depicts a female character whose power and domination over the male characters contrasts popular beliefs among the audience he was writing for. Shakespeare’s Macbeth challenges women’s stereotypical position in society by putting them in a position of influence and power, dominance and control over the male characters in their lives.
Shakespeare attempts to present a solid female identity to his audience by using the three witches to show the strength of the female gender. The encounter between Macbeth and the three witches shows the strong element in Shakespeare’s female characters. The witches portray both female and male characteristics. In this case, the male gender is assumed to be strong; therefore, when female characters are portrayed as strong, they are depicted as depicting male characteristics.
Lady Macbeth is the strength that supports the throne. She takes on roles that were traditionally male roles and constantly pushed her husband to the throne. In Act 1 Scene 5, Lady Macbeth says, “Lay it to thy heart, and farewell.’ Glamis thou art, and Cawdor, and shalt be what thou art promised. Yet do I fear thy nature. It is too full of the milk of human kindness to catch the nearest way” (Shakespeare 14). She pushes her husband into actions that he was shying away from. Being gentle is a weak trait for a king, which is why Lady Macbeth proves to be the true power behind the throne by displaying strong and decisive characteristics.
Lady Macbeth uses her influence to question her husband on his influence as a man. After learning about her husband’s fate, she is overwhelmed by the urge to be powerful. She is too impatient to wait for the entire process to take its course. She cannot wait to have the power in her hands and even pushes her husband to kill the king so that he can get to the throne. Shakespeare depicts a cunning and merciless aspect of the female gender. She questions her husband’s masculinity if he does not kill the king. She says, “What beast was it, then, that made you break this enterprise to me? When you durst* do it, then you were a man. I have given suck, and know-how tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me” (Shakespeare Act 1 Scene 7, page 16). Shakespeare depicts the woman as a strong and ambitious character who will go to any limits to achieve her ambitions and desires.
Overall, the depiction of strong female roles such as the three witches and Macbeth shows Shakespeare’s intention to change gender roles. Traditionally, the female gender was depicted as weak and subservient to the male gender. However, the twist in Macbeth shows that times were changing, and women were taking a more active role in society. The domineering role given to the female identity shows changes in attitudes on women’s status in society. Although they achieve power through cunning tactics, they assert dominance over the male gender, partly seen as weak and gentle. The author brings out a vital aspect of the female gender, which was not popular in the society of the period when the play was written.
- Shakespeare, William. The tragedy of Macbeth. Vol. 2. Classic Books Company, 2001.