Macbeth: Masculinity and Femininity

Shakespeare's Macbeth is a brief but obscenely rich book. After its publication in the early 17th century, it has ignited various discussions and works of literature on a wide variety of topics: Political influence, witchcraft and faith, stagecraft, and other occult practices have all been mentioned. One such factor is masculinity and femininity. Others also researched and built on its rich artistic components, such as its imagery: Shakespeare is, without a doubt, a metaphorical symbolism sorcerer.In the reign of King Duncan of Scotland, Macbeth is depicted as a Thane and a fierce army general. It opens with a bloody fight between Macbeth's men and those of Macdonwald and the Norwegian Emperor. After a resounding victory, Macbeth heads home with his comrade Banquo. Their journey is interrupted by witches who claim that Macbeth would be the King, and eventually replaced by Banquo’s son, if he murders King Duncan. They offer him a quasi-prophecy that he would be made the Thane of Cawdor upon getting home; which is affirmed: This, together with the cajoling by his childless wife, Lady Macbeth, prompts him to murder the King. He then assumes the throne. He further continues to interact with the witches. Due to his desire to keep the power within his bloodline, he goes ahead to murder Banquo. In his quest to retain his power, he conducts more bloody murders. In the meantime, Lady Macbeth dies after numerous episodes of regret and sleepwalking. The play ends when Macbeth is overthrown. Throughout the play, there are numerous instances when Macbeth’s behavior is stimulated by his own perception of masculinity, as well as his wife’s guise of femininity.Arguably, Shakespeare successfully uses imagery in the play to correctly highlight constructs of masculinity and femininity in Macbeth’s society, with religion and superstition reinforcing these aspects.Overview of Masculinity and Femininity in MacbethAmong numerous other developments and themes in the play, Masculinity and Femininity is salient. Masculinity and feminism are just social constructs which have to do with the expectations of the male and the female genders respectively. There are numerous instances of characters being either limited by or perhaps hiding in the social dispositions of their gender. For instance, when Lady Macbeth says “…unsex me here…” (5:2:30), she implies that for her to indulge in any cruel act, she needs not do so as a woman. She utters these words in a context which is riddled with her selfish intentions to have the King murdered so that Macbeth can fulfill the witches’ prophecy. In this case, she knows what she wants done but ‘claims’ that she cannot do it unless she is made less of a woman. On the other hand, Macbeth is seen all over the play yielding to Lady Macbeth’s whims despite his ambivalence and sometimes disdain for some of her bizarre requests. However, being a man among royalty, he is expected to be ambitious; like gentlemen are. He says “That tears shall drown the wind. I have no spur to prick the sides of my intent, but only vaulting ambition, which o'erleaps itself and falls on th' other” (1:7:25). Brooks Cleanth observes that at this time, Macbeth could have been looking at the beginning of a bloodline of rulers; which could have later inspired him to kill Banquo to keep the kingdom in his genealogy (Brooks 41). Therefore, in this instance, Macbeth is strained by his role as a man to make the bold but unsavory decision to assassinate King Duncan and later Banquo, even when his conscience pulls him back.Additionally, the detriment inflicted by the main characters on their fate on account of masculine and feminine constructs is immense. The two forces being either the drivers or the guise of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s actions lead to catastrophic consequences. The symbolism in Shakespeare’s work largely reinforces these themes. For instance, there is plenty of reference to ‘a mother and a babe’, which emphasize the female nurturing role, as well as sporadic references of a ‘man’s wife and babes’ which assert the role of men as family heads. Eventually, Macbeth’s masculinity leads to messy episodes of bloodshed in the course of acquiring and retaining the kingdom, while Lady Macbeth’s feminism leads in an intricate manner to her demise. It is clear that some of the actions are not direct consequences of ‘masculinity’ or ‘femininity’; they are ramifications of idiosyncratic notorieties of the characters that hide behind the gender constructs.Dialogue between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth (Act 1, Scene 7, Page 2)After King Duncan leaves Macbeth’s residence, Lady Macbeth does not hold back her desire to convince her husband to move forward with ‘their’ plans to assassinate the king. Earlier in the play, Lady Macbeth is seen convincing Macbeth that being king would not only be possible but within their reach. Macbeth tells her that they would talk about it later (5:3:60).In this monologue (7:2: 49-55), Shakespeare uses metaphors spontaneously to exhibit masculine and feminine undertones. Lady Macbeth begins by asking Macbeth “What beast was ’t, then, that made you break this enterprise to me? When you durst do it, then you were a man;” (7:2: 49). This question suggests that Lady Macbeth thought that Macbeth would have gone through with the plan simply because he was a man. On reflecting deeper on it, it also reveals something in Lady Macbeth that reinforces an aforementioned claim that she hides in Macbeth’s masculinity to have Duncan killed. Masculinity, or femininity depending on the perspective, is therefore used here again as a disguise to push Macbeth towards the act, with only rhetorical participation on the part of the woman. In the same line, there is some symbolic mention of a beast which serves to reinforce Brooks’ claim that Shakespeare’s symbolism has some degree of spontaneity, and not necessarily following some poetic formula (Brooks 25). The metaphor alludes to Macbeth as an animal which is quite uncharacteristic of the rest of the metaphors in the play that refer to ‘babes, angels, milk, perfumes, and blood’. In order to understand the departure, in the last lines of the monologue, Lady Macbeth switches to describe how she would dash a babe’s brains after plucking her nipple out of her mouth (7:2:55). The metaphor becomes quite lengthy and largely reflective, unlike the brief spontaneous reference of Macbeth as an animal. In this metaphor, Lady Macbeth once more highlights femininity by transposing the challenge into a feminist one. Normally, she would have said that ‘were it her prerogative to murder the king’. Instead she says that ‘if it was upon her to murder a babe’. This twist of circumstance from the real ‘masculine’ expectation to murder a king, to a ‘feminine’ metaphor is used by Lady Macbeth to strain Macbeth into thinking that she is not expected to perform the king’s murder because her domain is a suckling babe, and not a king.In the same monologue, Lady Macbeth emphasizes the masculine position and its relevance in what society describes as one ‘being true to their word’; since men are believed to be the species that do what they say. She tells Macbeth that he became a man by deciding to murder the king and taking the throne. She adds that by fulfilling his words by the act, he would become more than a man (7:2:55).In Lady Macbeth’s monologue above, Shakespeare ingeniously uses symbolism to amplify Lady Macbeth’s tendency to hide behind her femininity and to invoke Macbeth’s masculinity for selfish reasons.Analysis of scene and act 2The scene features King Duncan, the Thane of Fife, Malcolm, and the army captain. It entails the narration of the war with Macdonwald and eventually Swedo the Norwegian King. Macbeth successfully leads the men to victory with the support of Banquo, his fellow commander. The King discovers that the Thane of Cawdor has betrayed him to the Norwegians.This is a scene that richly utilizes symbolism and satire to reinforce or spite masculinity and femininity. Shakespeare for once in the tragedy borders on sensual application of language. There is also a twist of religion and divinity, with its reflection being portrayed with a twist of masculine taunting of the female gender. For instance, Captain says, “And fortune, on his damnèd quarrel smiling, showed like a rebel’s whore. But all’s too weak, for brave Macbeth—well”, in describing how Lady Luck favored Macdonwald at first (1:2:15). The description of Lady Luck smiling at Macdonwald as if his whore is a sensual simile degrading the feminine character to that of betrayal, while it exhorts the masculine character to one of bravery. This feminine mortal portrayal of luck underscores the subversion of the female gender in Macbeth’s community. Another symbolic twist that subjugates the female gender is where Ross claims that Macbeth fought the enemies as though she was the husband of the Goddess of War’s husband (1:2:55). The simile implies that only husbands can fight; even the Goddess of war cannot. Therefore, this explores another spontaneous use of symbolism by Shakespeare in the middle of the play, where he shifts from his common use of metaphors to sudden use of similes, with a twist of religion and superstition. In the above two cases, the mention of Lady Luck, and Goddess of War, highlight a unique style of symbolism that combines masculinity, femininity, and superstition in an ingenious amalgam.Lastly, Shakespeare exhibits yet another aspect that largely impacts masculinity in the work. Malcolm says in describing Macbeth’s manly courage, “So they doubly redoubled strokes upon the foe. Except they meant to bathe in reeking wounds, or memorize another Golgotha, I cannot tell—” (1:2:55). There is an almost a tinge of satire in Malcolm’s words; in likening bloodletting in battlefield of mortals to the death of Jesus at Golgotha. Rather absurd is the sudden shift of Shakespeare to the symbolism with Christian religious undertones is profoundly in great contrast with his featuring of witches in the play. In earlier and later scenes, there is substantial feature of witches who in traditional England were predominantly feminine, which now presents a dissonance in scene 2 where Jesus, a male Christian deity is seen as occupying a part of the same community. This contrast between the world of witches and one of Christian religion is also saliently observed and highlighted by Garry Wills (Wills 74) where he observes a contrast in Macready’s reading of Paradise Lost (features Christian text) while performing Macbeth; (perceived by many as diabolical due to featuring witches).Therefore Act 1, scene 2, is entirely a scene that exhorts manliness at the expense of the female gender, with featuring characters being all male and taunting female deities. It also introduces an unusual twist of imagery in which Christianity is slightly subverted in some satire, and luck, and goddesses feminized.Imagery in Macbeth- The use of metaphors and similesQuite outstanding in Macbeth is the imagery of some symbols of humanity; milk, blood, childbearing, religion, and superstition. These are used wittily in bringing out numerous feminine and masculine undertones. The use of similes and metaphors that encompass birth, life, death, and after-death beliefs, interwoven with gender roles symbolizes the firm position that humans have affirmed for gender in their society.Milk in particular has been largely used by Shakespeare to symbolize compassion. It is no coincidence that it is used twice by Lady Macbeth herself for the purpose of raising enthusiasm for murdering the King. She says, “Yet do I fear thy nature; It is too full o' th' milk of human kindness To catch the nearest way: thou wouldst be great, Art not without ambition, but without The illness should attend it.”(1:5:5). In her words, she is taunting her husband for his hesitance to murder Duncan: The milk of human kindness is deterring him. The metaphor likens milk to kindness. She says later, “And take my milk for gall, you murd'ring ministers, Wherever in your sightless substances You wait on nature’s mischief.” (1.5.39). She asks the gods to change the milk in her female breast into gal. The symbol introduces a gender nuance: besides implying that milk is benevolent and gal is bitter, she once more tacitly claims that cruelty is not a female preserve.“What bloody man is that? He can report, as seemeth by his plight” (1:2:4). Blood in this statement was used as a metaphor by Duncan, making reference to the army captain that had escorted Malcolm. In this sense, blood implies injury. “Make thick my blood. Stop up the access and passage to remorse,” were Lady Macbeth’s words in the same soliloquy referred to above, she uses the blood metaphor to imply that ‘thick blood’ is synonymous to courage. (1:5:30). She is once more implying that her blood is not ‘thick’. Being a woman, she believes that her blood must be thickened for her to follow through the brutal endeavor ahead.Children as symbols of helplessness and objects of feminine nurturance have been used frequently in the tragedy. For instance, in an aforementioned incident, Lady Macbeth claims that faced with a commitment, she would dash a child’s brains against a wall, after plucking her nipple from its mouth. There are numerous passages where there is mention of “Wife and children”. The emphasis is used by Shakespeare to portray the nurturing role of females in Scotland. Notably, the phrase separates men from women and children, which partly emphasizes masculinity. In virtually all places where it is used, it portrays a weakness of the female gender: “I’ll raid Macduff’s castle, seize the town of Fife, and kill his wife, his children,” (4:1:155): There is an assumption by Macbeth that by killing Macduff’s wife and children, he will have found his revenge. He also makes it appear as though it is a simple task to execute a woman and children.Lastly, religion and superstition have been used repetitively in the play. There are instances in which Shakespeare uses the two to underscore the subversive attitude of the Scottish society towards women. In an aforementioned incident, he describes Lady Luck as a ‘whore’, smiling at Macdonwald. The play also refers to the goddess of war as being Macbeth’s husband. This too portrays a woman as being subservient to a man. Therefore, the audience would be swayed to believe that the 17th century Scots had reinforced masculinity in their religious belief; thereby legitimizing masculine supremacy. There is also reference to a ‘male witch’ by Garry Wills which implies that Macbeth, by believing in witches and deliberately actualizing their prophecy, is himself a male witch (Wills 74).Garry Wills elaboration of the role of witchcraft in MacbethIn his work, “Witches and Jesuits: Shakespeare’s Macbeth” (1995), Wills describes Macbeth’s persona as one who is covertly intrigued and controlled by witchcraft. According to Wills, Macbeth seems to thrive in darkness (Wills 57), and his actions, fortunes, and failures all have their bearings in acts of witchcraft. In order to understand Will’s observation, the hallucinations he sees before the feast seem to appear before him alone (3:4:75). They affect him quite profoundly; until the banquet is called off. There is no other instance in the play before the banquet that discusses Macbeth as having hallucinations. It would therefore be safe to argue that it is only after Macbeth partook in the proposed ordeal of murdering the king that the ‘ghosts’ took over his mind.Lastly, Wills contributes to the discourse of masculinity and femininity by negating the notion that witches are women. He claims that Macbeth performs necromancy, an act that is only performed by witches (Wills 74). Macbeth is seen in several instances being haunted by ghosts. Later in the play, he converses with the ghost of Banquo, and also encounters King Duncan’s ghost. These instances therefore form a basis for Wills to state that Macbeth did not just engage in witchcraft; he was himself a witch.ConclusionShakespeare successfully elaborates masculinity and femininity throughout Macbeth through witty and effective use of imagery. He blends these with aspects of political power, religion, superstition, and progeny. The most common symbols that Shakespeare employs are blood, milk, childbearing, religion, and superstition. These exemplify the most prominent aspects of a person’s life cycle; birth, nurturance, progeny, death, and the afterlife. Throughout the play, characters either mischievously hide behind; or rather unconsciously depend on, masculine and feminine constructs of the Scots to perform acts that they would otherwise not perform by their own objective judgment, or sometimes fail to perform the acts. For instance, Lady Macbeth is seen frequently pushing Macbeth to indulgences that she refuses to uptake in the guise of being a woman. Macbeth uses his masculinity to murder Duncan, his enemies, and to unsuccessfully subdue his wife’s whims. He also engages indirectly in witchcraft, an act set apart for women, in deep secrecy, while exhibiting profound regret. In addition to imagery, the play uses religious symbols to further subvert femininity and to enhance the salience of masculinity. The goddess of war is portrayed as Macbeth’s husband, while Lady Luck is portrayed as Macdonwald’s whore. Finally, the use of witches by Shakespeare to dictate Macbeth’s fate can be seen as an acrimonious contest between the feminine and the masculine: witches, who were traditionally believed to be women, conspire to destroy the life of a man, Macbeth, who is arguably the most outstanding epitome of maleness in the play. The death of Lady Macbeth, a woman, and the end of Macbeth, a man can be construed as sending a message that despite the endless ‘battle of the sexes’, none is supreme.

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Works CitedBrooks, Cleanth, “The Naked Babe and the Cloak of Manliness” The Well Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry, New York Harcourt, 1975, pp. 22-49Cavell, Stanley, “Macbeth Appalled” Disowning Knowledge: In Seven Plays of Shakespeare, Updated Edition, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2003, pp. 223-250Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Macbeth. Vol. XLVI, Part 4. The Harvard Classics. New York: P.F. Collier & SonWills, Garry, Witches and Jesuits: Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” New York, Oxford University Press, 1995, pp. 53-74

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