In William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Shakespeare explores the themes of masculinity and natural order, or the lack thereof.
This cursed play combines magic, violence, and prophecy, starting with witchcraft and ending with a severed head. It revolves around a couple whose thirst for power causes them to do unnatural things, and plunges their kingdom into ruin. Arguably, the character most responsible for this is Lady Macbeth, as she manipulates Macbeth to kill Duncan. In a kingdom dominated by men, she understands that in order to get power, she must rid herself of all her feminine traits. However, Lady Macbeth’s suppression of her real nature and her disruption of the natural order is what leads to her downfall and eventual suicide. In Acts 1 and 2 of Macbeth, the gender roles of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are reversed.
After Lady Macbeth reads Macbeth’s letter, she immediately starts to plan out their killing of Duncan. However, she fears that Macbeth’s nature is ” too full o’ th’ milk of human kindness…that I many pod my spirits in thine ear and chastise with the valor of my tongue all that impeded thee from the golden round” (1. 5. 17, 29-31). Lady Macbeth fears that Macbeth is too kind to kill Duncan, so she takes charge, assuming the dominant role.
In contrast, Macbeth is too kind to pull off something like this, which Lady Macbeth feels is a major flaw, characteristic of feminine traits. When Macbeth is having second thoughts about killing Duncan, Lady Macbeth responds by saying, “When you durst do it, then you were a man; And to be much more than what you were, You would be so much more the man..
.but screw your courage to the sticking place and we’ll not fail ” Lady Macbeth questions his masculinity, saying that he isn’t a man if he doesn’t carry out their plan to kill Duncan. Her insults provoke Macbeth to “man” up and strengthen his resolve.
This shatters the idea that women should be submissive to men. Again, Lady Macbeth is taking charge of the situation, seemingly void of any feminine qualities. Lady Macbeth also feels the need to suppress her feminine nature.
As a woman, she is naturally not able to do something as despicable as plot murder. She asks evil spirits to “unsex me here, and fill me from the crown to the toe top-full of direst cruelty. Make thick my blood…come to my woman’s breasts and take my milk for gall” (1. 5. 48-50, 54-55).
Lady Macbeth asks spirits to give her more masculine qualities, as the natural order suggests that women are not capable of murder. Lady Macbeth also understands that, knowing that the only way to carry out her plan is to become “unsexed”. She wants to be devoid of any compassion and remorse. However, her feminine-like qualities eventually start showing. After setting the murder up for Macbeth, she reveals that “Had he (Duncan) not resembled my father as he slept, I had done’t” (2. 2. 16-17). Lady Macbeth says that if Duncan didn’t look like her father, she would have murdered him herself instead of having Macbeth complete the deed.
A bit of her feminine qualities seeps through- she can plan the murder, but she can’t quite do it herself. Therefore, she hasn’t been completely unsexed, rather she is hiding her true qualities in order to kill Duncan, which eventually end up showing. Eventually, the guilt of what Lady Macbeth has done makes her descend into darkness. When Lady Macbeth’s maid and doctor find her sleepwalking, she is frantically rubbing her hands, saying “Out, damned spot, out, I say!..
.What, will these hands ne’er be clean?…
More needs she the divine than the physician” (5. 2. 37, 45, 78).
Lady Macbeth still believes that Duncan’s blood stains her hands, and she can’t wash it off. The guilt is consuming her conscience when she is vulnerable the most (when she is asleep). Being more “masculine” allows her to kill Duncan. However, she is still a woman and cannot deal with the guilt that comes with murder, which ultimately drives her crazy.
In contrast, Macbeth shows no such guilt, as he is preoccupied with consolidating his power. After Macbeth is killed in battle, Malcolm comments on Lady Macbeth that “who, as ’tis thought, by self and violent hands, took off her life” (5. 8. 83-84). This quote reveals that Lady Macbeth killed herself because she couldn’t withstand the guilt of the murders she and Macbeth committed. This kind of death can be perceived as a cowardly escape from life. Macbeth, on the other hand, is more heroic when he says he would rather die in battle while confronting the enemy.
Lady Macbeth masks her feminine qualities with her desire to become more masculine. Even she believes that as a woman, she has no capacity for murder, which is prevalent in her monologue to “unsex” herself. Her attempt to violate the natural order eventually contributes to her downfall.
Macbeth is a reflection of society’s stereotypes imposed on females during that time, such as inferiority to men. Some of these stereotypes still exist today. Even in modern times, people don’t think that women are capable of murder, and there are far more male murderers than women. Violence is still primarily associated with masculinity.