William Shakespeare’s tragedy “Macbeth” explores and challenges the idea of traditional gender roles and/or gender norms. The female characters in this play have a strong sense of masculine traits while the male characters are actually shown with feminine traits, reversing the stereotypical roles of genders. One of the typical gender norms in society is that men are the workers and providers and essentially the strength of the family, as women take more of a nurturing and caring role and are labeled as emotional and inferior. From this, a man’s physical strength is represented as being strong and brave at superior and horrific times, yet in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, it shows that they, the men, can end up weak while the women remain “strong” as shown multiple times between Lady Macbeth and Macbeth. The roles between the Macbeths’ progressively transition throughout the play showing how the stereotypical gender norms are challenged and explored.
The Macbeths obviously do not represent the stereotypical husband and wife. Within the first couple acts of the play when Lady Macbeth is being introduced we can see the sense of dominance and power in her character over her husband, Macbeth, which is not the average stereotypical trait of a woman. Lady Macbeth blatantly distinguishes herself as the dominant force in the relationship. For instance, when Macbeth is hesitant of how to manage King Duncan’s visit to their home, Lady Macbeth instantly seizes control of the situation, demanding that Macbeth lets her take control of the situation as shown in “Let me handle tonight’s preparations, because tonight will change every night and day for the rest of our lives.” (1.5. 57-60). This is an example of how the gender roles are reversed as the men/husbands of our society are usually portrayed as being assertive or dominant to handling situations, not the women/wives.
Macbeth and his wife also switch roles in terms of the amount of ambition they show. While both characters obviously crave power, it is Lady Macbeth who is initially presented as the motivating force in the relationship. Her intentions are purely directed toward obtaining immediate power. For example, after first learning about the witches’ predictions, she immediately creates a murder plan and takes charge of the situation. This is made evident as she emotionlessly explains to her husband, “You should project a peaceful mood, because if you look troubled, you will arouse suspicion. Leave all the rest to me.” (1.5. 63-65). However, Macbeth’s first reaction to the prophecy is somehow different in that he is hesitant of what actions should be done to successfully seal his future, stating “The dangers that actually threaten me here and now frighten me less than the horrible things I’m imagining. Even though it’s just a fantasy so far, the mere thought of committing murder shakes me up so much that I hardly know who I am anymore.
My ability to act is stifled by my thoughts and speculations, and the only things that matter to me are things that don’t really exist” (1.3. 142-146). Macbeth and Lady Macbeth also exchange roles in terms of their expression of guilt. Initially, Lady Macbeth is completely unaffected by the thought of murder, and even directly after the murder of King Duncan she remains unaffected by the act. This is recognized through the scene (interaction) in which she handles Macbeth when he forgets to leave the gory daggers at the scene of the murder: “Coward! Give me the daggers. Dead and sleeping people can’t hurt you any more than pictures can. Only children are afraid of scary pictures.” (2.2. 52-55). In contrast, Macbeth is portrayed as a physical and emotional mess, so much so that he refuses to re-enter the room in which the murder took place, “I can’t go back. I’m afraid even to think about what I’ve done. I can’t stand to look at it again.” (2.2. 50-51).
Macbeth is clearly disturbed by the murder and is troubled by the thought even before completing their plan. When talking about King Duncan he states, “The king trusts me in two ways. First of all, I am his kinsman and his subject, so I should always try to protect him. Second, I am his host, so I should be closing the door in his murderer’s face, not trying to murder him myself.” (1.7. 13-17) showing how hesitant and reluctant he is to betray and proceed with murdering King Duncan. This shows how the typical gender norms are challenged through Shakespeare’s tragedy Macbeth, as the Macbeths’ gender roles are clearly in contrast to the typical gender norms that society has in just about every aspect. The Macbeths’ personalities reflect the inverse of the social standards and expectations, though as the play continues, it is apparent that it becomes reversed as Lady Macbeth begins to lose her edge and assumes the more submissive role, while Macbeth assumes the assertive position.
As Lady Macbeth begins to unravel, Macbeth becomes the more dominant and stronger force. She no longer has to instigate or persuade him to murder; as he starts to do so on his own. Whenever Macbeth fears someone stands in his way to maintain his kingship, he immediately develops plans for their murder. This is made obvious through his lack of care for Banquo when arranging his murder as seen in “They can be killed, it’s true. So be cheerful. Before the bat flies through the castle, and before the dung beetle makes his little humming noise to tell us it’s nighttime, a dreadful deed will be done” (3.2.41-44). Throughout the play, the Macbeths progressively take up each other’s common behavior. Lady Macbeth is clearly seen manipulating people for her own benefit (which seems to be a common technique for her), such as frequently challenging Macbeth’s manhood, which she uses in convincing him into killing King Duncan as seen here “When you dared to do it, that’s when you were a man.
And if you go one step further by doing what you dared to do before, you’ll be that much more the man. The time and place weren’t right before, but you would have gone ahead with the murder anyhow. Now the time and place are just right, but they’re almost too good for you. I have suckled a baby, and I know how sweet it is to love the baby at my breast. But even as the baby was smiling up at me, I would have plucked my nipple out of its mouth and smashed its brains out against a wall if I had sworn to do that the same way you have sworn to do this” (1.7.48-59). Through launching such insults at him, Lady Macbeth is easily able to convince him to murder. However, after becoming king, Macbeth uses the same strategy when conferencing with the murderers he hired to get rid of Banquo as seen here in “Now, if you occupy some place in the list of men that isn’t down at the very bottom, tell me. Because if that’s the case, I will tell you a plan that will get rid of your enemy and bring you closer to me” (3.1.103-106).
While earlier Macbeth was reluctant to murder and was therefore pressured to do so by his wife, Lady Macbeth, he rapidly changes into an individual ready to kill, while Lady Macbeth insists, “Come on, relax, dear. Put on a happy face and look cheerful and agreeable for your guests tonight” (3.2.29-31) and even, “You have to stop talking like this” (3.2.38), which differs from her previous desire and plea for him to take immediate action. In opposition, as the play begins to reach its conclusion, Lady Macbeth finds herself plagued by guilt. Macbeth, however, is no longer troubled by the guilt of murder, which he makes clear through the increasing number of people he has killed, including Macduff’s entire family. This description of Macbeth’s obvious lack of guilt directly resembles Lady Macbeth’s previous attitudes at the beginning acts of the play.
The gender reversals of the Macbeth’s throughout the play are evidently represented in multiple ways such as (but not limited to), their amount of ambition, dominance and assertiveness in their marriage, guilt, and personalities. Shakespeare’s tragedy “Macbeth” explores and defies the idea of traditional gender standards through the plot progression within Macbeth, in which the roles of Lady Macbeth and Macbeth are reversed. Macbeth challenges the explicit gender norms that society has placed on, both past and present, men and women. Lady Macbeth and Macbeth switch gender roles and explicitly show the dominant traits that the other gender clearly possess. Lady Macbeth clearly breaks several gender norms and expectations with her cold-heartiness and evident masculine characteristics as Macbeth did the same with his more feminine characteristics. Yet, the plot progression throughout the play negatively shows how the characters transition into more of their gender roles and how it leads to their downfall.