Reversal of gender roles in Macbeth Essay
Generally, William Shakespeare’s plays are renowned for emotional appeal, humor, tragic elements and philosophical quality. Within this scenario, the play Macbeth is well-known for tragic elements originated from ambitiousness and greed. The play is in the form of a typical Shakespearean tragedy, based on the brutal slaughter of King Duncan and its consequences. In this play, Lady Macbeth is Macbeth’s partner and afterward the queen of Scotland. Her credulous character resulted in the King’s murder, her husband’s follies, and her suicide in the end. One can see that Lady Macbeth is feminine in outlook but masculine in character. Thesis statement: The gender role of Lady Macbeth is reversed because of her masculine character and conscious denial of femininity (special reference to the conceptions of gender in the early modern period and the play Macbeth by William Shakespeare).
Gender role of Lady Macbeth
The gender role of Lady Macbeth in the play is totally against the traditional conceptions on femininity and motherhood. For instance, femininity is generally regarded as tender natured and motherly affection. In the play, Lady Macbeth does not possess the qualities of femininity. She totally denies her gender role as a woman. Besides, Shakespeare did give equal focus to Macbeth and Lady Macbeth because he was aware of the fact that Macbeth does not possess masculine qualities. So, there must a powerful character (say, Lady Macbeth) to compensate the loss of masculinity in Macbeth.
In the play, Lady Macbeth is portrayed as an immoral character, without any moral consideration. She cunningly manipulates her husband to fulfill her selfish motive. She was aware of her husband’s strengths and weaknesses. But the element of ambitiousness was inherent in Macbeth; his wife ignited the same and corrupted him totally. Her ultimate aim was to become the queen of Scotland. So, she made use of her husband as an instrument/ medium to attain her aim. In addition, Macbeth’s masculine failure is exploited by his wife. Macbeth loved his wife so dearly but she made use of the same to influence him in a negative way. One can identify that the first half of the play is under Lady Macbeth’s control. So, Lady Macbeth’s gender role is totally against her femininity and she made use of the same to manipulate her husband and to fulfill her selfish motives.
Development of male character in Lady Macbeth
First of all, Lady Macbeth was ambitious like her husband. Her desire to be the queen of Scotland resulted in her ultimate doom. Lady Macbeth requests the spirits to unsex her because her femininity is the most important hindrance which hinders her from cruel deeds (Shakespeare, 38). In the initial stages, Lady Macbeth was not so ambitious. When she came to realize that Macbeth’s company with the witches and their prophecies about the future king of Scotland, she began to dream about the scope of usurping the kingdom from King Duncan. Alexander Leggatt states that Macbeth’s company with the supernatural elements, i.e. the witches is symbolic of Lady Macbeth’s failure in regaining her womanly characteristics, and her social and domestic roles (Leggatt 69). Then she began to motivate her husband to murder King Duncan. In the initial stages, Macbeth hesitated to do so. But Lady Macbeth was so cunning and pointed out the scope of prophesy by the witches. At last, Macbeth agreed to follow his wife’s instructions. Lady Macbeth insists her husband to kill the king by pointing out to do it without fear and to leave the rest to her (Shakespeare, 39). They invited the king to visit their palace. During the king’s visit, Lady Macbeth told her husband that it is the best possible chance to kill the king and to usurp his kingdom. But she further added that she will not kill the king because his face resembles her father. Lady Macbeth says her husband that she is unable to commit the murder because the king looks like her father (Shakespeare, 44). Later, Macbeth murdered the king and became the king of Scotland. From this moment, Lady Macbeth’s influence upon her husband was lost forever. One can easily identify that the first half of the play portrays the development of male character in Lady Macbeth, but the following parts portray her fall and doom.
From a different angle of view, Lady Macbeth’s attempt or the development of male character is closely related to the indecisiveness of Macbeth’s character. If he is possible to take apt decisions at critical stages in life, his wife may not overcome him. But Lady Macbeth plots against the king and insists her husband to murder the king. She considers that king Duncan is the one and only obstacle between the husband and the throne of Scotland. So, it is her responsibility to help her husband to usurp the throne by any means. Lady Macbeth says that she is cruel enough to kill her own baby without any guilty consciousness (Shakespeare, 41). The first two acts of the play portrays Lady Macbeth as the most powerful character in the play with will power and dedication to attain her ultimate aim by any means. Lady Macbeth’s development of male character reveals that the way made use to attain aim is not important. But this proves to be false in the end. Christoph Clausen states that Lady Macbeth’s sleep-walk or somnambulism symbolizes her mental instability originating from her guilty consciousness (Clausen 134). So, one can easily identify the development of male character in Lady Macbeth was accidental, due to the inability of Macbeth to take decisions at critical situations. Both of them were ambitious, but Macbeth hesitated to be cruel, Lady Macbeth did not consider her deed as cruel or unlawful. Besides, the development of male character in Lady Macbeth affected her future life with nightmares, somnambulism and suicide in the end.
Conceptions of gender in the Early Modern period
The Early Modern conception of gender is connected to the family structure. For instance, duty towards one’s family was considered as most important. The family as a social institution was considered as an innovative means of production. Individual freedom of women was limited to an extent. The families were based on patriarchy and this limited the scope of gender equality. Besides, children were considered as economic liability. During this period, independent houses were rare due to the shortage of money. There basic problems limited the scope of women in the family. The importance given to patriarchal form of family structure provided immense power to the elder male members of the family. To escape from the worldly problems, people considered viewing a play as an easy way.
The Renaissance stage at the time of early modern period was totally different from the modern. For instance, the audience considered viewing a play as a temporary escape from the reality or the real world with full of problems. So, the theatre was considered as a world which was shared by the actors and the audience. The interaction between the actors and the audience was natural. The stage conventions to incorporate smooth interaction helped the audience. On the other side, the actors tried hard to create a make-belief world to entertain the audience.
Lady Macbeth’s challenge towards Early Modern conceptions of gender
The women in the Early Modern period were considered as inferior to men. The concept of gender equality was totally denied because of the patriarchal social structure. Lady Macbeth’s challenge was mainly towards male domination. For instance, she made use of her husband to assassinate King Duncan, the image of male domination. Lady Macbeth’s deeds can be considered as the challenge towards the Early Modern conceptions of gender because she was not under the control of her husband. At the same time, she used to deny his authority in domestic matters.
As pointed out, she was aware of her influence upon her husband. She very well knew that her husband is so weak to take decisions at critical stages in life. Her greed and ambitiousness was above her love and affection towards her husband. Her emotional outburst can be considered as the challenge towards male oriented social structure prevailed in the early modern period. Her cunningness, masculinity, and emotional detachment can be considered as the challenge towards Early Modern conceptions of gender.
Lady Macbeth and female villainy
Lady Macbeth consciously denies her femininity because she was aware of the fact that her femininity or womanhood is the most important obstacle which hinders her from acquiring masculine characteristics. So, she decided to ignore her feminine characteristics. Female villainy was rare at the time of Shakespeare. One can easily identify that Shakespeare’s tragedies were experimental. For instance, Shakespeare made use of different characteristics of human mind and behavior to unearth the scope of tragedy. So as to inculcate a different mode of villainy, Shakespeare made use of the character Lady Macbeth as the female villain. The character of Lady Macbeth as a female character with less femininity is helpful to consider her as equally important to other characters like Macbeth. So, Shakespeare proved that villainy is not limited to the sphere of male characters but it extends to female characters in the play.
Summing, Lady Macbeth’s gender role is reversed because of the inborn element of villainy and conscious denial of femininity and womanhood. At the same time, the conceptions of gender in the Early Modern period were totally against gender equality or individual freedom of women. The development of male character in Lady Macbeth initially helped her to be the queen of Scotland but ultimately affected her life. But Lady Macbeth tries to deny this discrimination and marginalization by manipulating the male authority, i.e. her husband. Lady Macbeth’s conscious denial of femininity helped her to acquire masculine characteristics and to attain her aim. But this did not help her to keep away from ultimate tragedy or fate. In short, the reversal of gender is the main reason behind the tragic fate of Lady Macbeth and Macbeth.