William Shakespeare’s Macbeth has been recognised as one of the most important tragedies in world literature which deals with the protagonist’s noxious and unchecked ambition for the crown of the nation and the heroine’s desire for power and position. Whereas the great tragedy by Shakespeare engages several essential concepts and themes, critics have often been stimulated by the playwright’s representation of gender and power in the play. In the representation or construction of gender in the play Macbeth, Shakespeare was greatly influenced by the Elizabethan culture, and both the characters and plot of the play illustrate the immensity of this influence. A careful reader recognises that the attitudes, values and beliefs of Shakespeare shaped by the influence of the Elizabethan culture are reflected in the various characters and the plot of the tragedy. Thus, there are spectacular evidences all through the characterisation and the plot of the play which suggest the importance of the Elizabethan culture in the representation of ‘gender’ in Macbeth. Therefore, a paradox of sexual confusion and gender roles is evident at the heart of the play. “…Macbeth, a virile warrior-hero, is at the same time an ‘unfinished man’ who murders because he has been convinced by his wife that only through violence will he achieve a state of heroism. His manhood, displayed in the utterly ‘masculine’ form of bloodshed, is not self-determined or innate, but rather infused into him by Lady Macbeth.” (Schörkhuber, 2007, p. 75). Therefore, this paper analyses Shakespeare’s representation of ‘gender’ in Macbeth and compares it with the representation of ‘gender’ in the 21st Century referring to current literature, media, and poetry.
The representation of feminism and masculinity in Macbeth
One of the central concerns of the critics of the play Macbeth has been the author’s representation of feminism in the play which is noted for the reversal of gender roles. Thus, one finds that the playwright has been interested in representing females as dominating their counterparts and the major characters and themes of the play depict the difference in the sexual representation of males and females. Whereas both Lady Macbeth and Macbeth are obsessed by the same passion of ambition, the playwright represents its effect differently in males and females. Lady Macbeth, the chief representative of females in the play, evidently violates the natural law concerning gender roles and the character of Macbeth enhances the reversal of gender roles in the play. “Both Lady Macbeth and Macbeth are fired by the same passion of ambition. However, while Macbeth is presented as violating moral law, Lady Macbeth seems to violate natural law: she is unfeminine. By eliminating in herself and her husband tenderness, pity and vulnerability to feeling – human qualities her culture tends to associate with women – Lady Macbeth becomes half man herself. Through his efforts to be supreme among all men, Macbeth re-enacts the ambivalence of his sexual identity: the more he tries to prove his masculinity, the greater his fusion with Lady Macbeth.” (Schörkhuber, 2007, p. 75). Therefore, it is palpable to a careful reader of the tragedy that Lady Macbeth makes an essential attempt to assume masculine characteristics which can make herself a stronger person. In addition, she also disparages her male counterpart, Macbeth, by attacking his own masculinity. “Macbeth shows a reversal in gender roles. The play questions what constitutes masculinity and femininity. It is important to Macbeth to be seen as a strong, powerful man. Lady Macbeth taunts him and mocks his sexuality to force him to get the courage to kill Duncan.” (Thacker, 2008).
In a careful analysis of the representation of feminism and masculinity in the play, one recognises that there is an evident reversal of gender roles by the playwright which can be comprehended as an attempt to identify with the contemporary Elizabethan culture. In the play, the male character loses his identity due to the reversal in gender roles and the female character represents an urge for change in the sexual stereotyping. Therefore, one of the major influences on Macbeth’s loss of manhood is his wife’s desire of male characteristics for herself. In short, the representation of felinity in the tragedy illustrates a reversal of gender and sexual identity. In fact, Shakespeare displaces the onus of Macbeth’s sin onto his ‘evil’ wife and the witches in the play represent evil and disorder in a zone of sexual ambiguity. In the representation of the female characters in the play, including Lady Macbeth and the three witches, one identifies the dramatist’s attempt to protect the patriarchal institutions which was along the lines of the existing Elizabethan culture. Therefore, Shakespeare protected the patriarchal institutions by enlisting the Lady Macbeth along with the three ‘sisters’ as agents or provocateurs in the regicide. In fact, Macbeth implied that it was women, not men, who were to blame for nurturing men’s disparaging ambitions. “It is also suggested that Macbeth’s depiction of witchcraft is complicit in a larger early modern (male) project to demystify witch-lore, thus eroding belief in a hitherto credible form of female agency… Possibly Macbeth suggested in 1606 that male rulers could, and should, absorb the virtues of the feminine. On the other hand, perhaps it advocated a total purgation of the female from the political domain. Either way, it may have pleased those English subjects who had looked askance at several decades of ‘womanly’ rule under Queen Elizabeth I, and who, after 1603, could feel relieved to see England again governed by a man.” (Moshovakis, 2009, p. 45-46). Therefore, it is obvious that the playwright was greatly concerned about depicting the existing Elizabethan culture through the representation of males and females in the play Macbeth and the defence of the patriarchal institutions.
In a careful analysis of the representation of males and females in Macbeth, it becomes lucid that Shakespeare is effective in keeping the balance between masculinity and femininity and representing the gender split within the Elizabethan society. Although Shakespeare suggests the existence of patriarchy in the renaissance society, his Macbeth is noted for the question of gender roles and boundaries. The main characters Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, who represent markedly unbalanced gender roles, also illustrate the unequal gender split in the society of the writer. “Shakespeare’s Macbeth is a play centred on the balance between masculinity and femininity, taking on the characteristics of the gender split within his own hypocritical society… Shakespeare appears to believe that the ideal being balances both what are assumed common gender-suited characteristics; females the more submissive, compassionate, weak, emotional beings, and males more prevailing, ambitious, reasonable, and physically powerful.” (Gender Roles and Boundaries in Shakespeare’s Macbeth). Therefore, the play by Shakespeare celebrates the gender split within the hypocritical society of the playwright.
Shakespeare’s Representation of Gender in Macbeth: The Contemporary Implications
Shakespeare wrote his plays for all the ages and his Macbeth has an overriding significance to the 21st century audience as the concept of gender in the play helps them in realizing the true meaning of feminism. It has been noted by several Shakespearean critics that his plays have succeeded the test of time, managing to maintain a universal appeal, and every generation takes a different understanding to apply to the lives of the people in that period. The social and cultural changes over the years have resulted in different interpretations of the themes and concepts in the plays by Shakespeare. One of the foremost themes with such an everlasting relevance has been gender and sexuality and the issue of gender representation was viewed differently by the traditional critics of Shakespeare’s time from that of the modern critics. “These gender questions can query what constitutes masculine and feminine virtues and how a character is portrayed if they show characteristics of the opposite sex, as seen in plays such as Macbeth… Traditional critics would believe that the plays show life’s struggles for the individual, not necessarily because of sexual problems or gender oppression, whereas feminist critics believed it was entirely based around female subordination.” (Thacker, 2008). Therefore, the traditional, historical critics comprehended the theme of gender in Macbeth in the context of the Elizabethan times which is noted for the dominance of male power and rule. Although the power and dominance of men over women was a widely accepted fact, the women at the time of the play were not as subjugated as feminist critics in the modern period tend to believe. That is to say, the representation of feminism in Macbeth needs to be comprehended differently from its presentation in the 21st Century including the current literature, media, and poetry. In the modern context, feminist critics perceive the representation of feminism in the play in a prejudiced way which is different from the facts. “For example, although it is true that women had little freedom, at the time Shakespeare was writing, an adult single woman was allowed rights such as possessing property and signing contracts without any male involvement. Yet once a woman was married, all power was assigned to her husband and she was not allowed the freedom of a single woman.” (Thacker, 2008).
In a profound analysis of the play Macbeth by Shakespeare reveals that the prevailing Elizabethan culture influenced Shakespeare’s construction of ‘Gender’ as found in the characters and plot of Macbeth. The representation of feminism and masculinity in the play has been along the lines of the established norms and concepts of the patriarchal society of the time and the playwright suggests a reversal of gender roles in the play. It also corresponds to the gender split within the Elizabethan society which determined the gender identity of the males and females. However, there is a vital difference between the actual depiction of female role in the play and the understanding of it by the modern feminists. While the power and dominance of men over women was largely accepted in the contemporary society of Shakespeare, women were not subjugated by men as perceived by the modern feminists. Therefore, the play Macbeth demands an unerring understanding of the gender roles in the Shakespearean society.
- “Gender Roles and Boundaries in Shakespeare’s Macbeth.” Book Rags. Retrieved May 20, 2009, from http://www.bookrags.com/essay-2004/7/15/215026/892
- Moshovakis, Nicholas. (2009). Macbeth New Critical Essays. London: Routledge. p. 45-46.
- Schörkhuber, Verena. (2007). The Representation of Gender in Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’ and ‘Antony and Cleopatra’. GRIN Verlag. p. 75.
- Thacker, Holly. (2008). “Gender and Sexuality in Shakespeare’s Macbeth: A Reversal in Gender Roles.” Suite101.com. Retrieved May 20, 2009, from http://shakespeareantheatre.suite101.com/article.cfm/gender_and_sexuality_in_shakespeares_macbeth
- Thacker, Holly. (2008). “Shakespeare and Gender Representation: An Introduction to Opposing Views of the Portrayal of the Sexes.” Suite101.com. Retrieved May 20, 2009, from http://shakespeareantheatre.suite101.com/article.cfm/shakespeare_and_gender_representation