The nature and the role of women in Shakespeare’s Macbeth
The nature and the role of women in Shakespeare’s Macbeth
William Shakespeare’s Macbeth is among the few of Shakespeare’s plays where a female character plays a catalytic role. The female characters in this play are Lady Macbeth, Lady Macduff, the Three Witches, and Hecate. Lady Macbeth and her husband, Macbeth are the chief protagonists of the play. The role of female characters in Macbeth The Three witches The plot of Macbeth begins when the three witches address Macbeth on his return from the battlefield. The witches hail Macbeth with his present designation, the Thane of Glamis, and make a prophecy that he would become the Thane of Cawdor and ultimately the King.
News arrives almost immediately that the King has appointed Macbeth as the Thane of Cawdor. This makes Macbeth set his sights on the fulfillment of the witches’ prophecy. The witches thereby sow the seeds of ambition in Macbeth’s head, which ultimately culminate in King Duncan’s murder. The witches make their next appearance when Macbeth goes to seek their advice in a dark cave, after Duncan’s murder. The witches, under the control of Hecate present him with three apparitions.
The first apparition warns Macbeth to beware the thane of Fife, the second apparition is a bloody child that tells Macbeth that none born of woman shall harm him, and the final apparition assures Macbeth that he shall remain unvanquished until the Great Birnam wood marches to Dunsinane Hill. The witches thereby induce a sense of overconfidence in Macbeth, prompting him to act in a foolish manner, which ultimately leads to his destruction. All the prophecies become true, in a manner Macbeth could never perceive. Lady Macbeth
The initial impression of Lady Macbeth is that of an angelic and naive wife who wishes good for her husband. Her cunning and ambitious nature however reveals itself when she instigates Macbeth to work towards fulfilling the witches’ prophecy. She persuades Macbeth to plot the murder King Duncan when he visits their castle. Macbeth is initially not inclined to go ahead with such an evil scheme, but Lady Macbeth takes control over her husband’s thoughts and actions and psychologically forces him to commit to the murder.
She insults Macbeth, calling him “not manly” and brave. The Macbeths plot the murder together and on the night when the king visits their castle, Lady Macbeth serves drugged wine on the guards while Macbeth commits the actual murder. Lady Macbeth leaves the bloody daggers beside the dead king. Duncan’s murder and the subsequent murder of Macduff’s family affects Lady Macbeth’s facilities, and despite the outward appearance of calm, she becomes increasingly obsessed with the blood on her hands that no one else can see, until she finally takes her own life.
Hectate Hecate is the queen of the three witches, and Shakespeare depicts her as a shadowy character of the underworld, representing the forces of evil. In her brief appearance in the play, she chides the three witches for helping Macbeth and later commands them to tell Macbeth his future according to her well, which ultimately results in Macbeth’s downfall. Lady Macduff Lady Macduff, like Hecate, has a brief role in the play, appearing only when Macbeth sends murderers to kill her and his son.
She does not have a place in the main plot, but her role is nevertheless important as a contrast to Lady Macbeth, and she represents all the good people slaughtered by Macbeth. The nature of Lady Macbeth’s role Conventional approach The conventional viewpoint holds Lady Macbeth as an evil woman and considers Macbeth’s succumbing to the evil influence of Lady Macbeth and the Three Witches as the tragedy in the play. Lady Macbeth, driven by her desire to become the queen, succeeded in manipulating her husband to murder King Duncan.
Macbeth was a brave, courageous, and loyal man, and never contemplated kingship until the witches put the idea into his head. He still did not agree to murder the king to achieve his ends, but fell to the dominating influence of Lady Macbeth when she repeatedly questions his masculinity until he believed that he should commit the crime in order to live up to the assumed expectation of his wife. Lady Macbeth speaks to her husband the following words: Art thou afeard to be the same in thine own act and velour as thou art in desire? ” (I:vii:39-41) “And, to be more than what you were, you would be so much more the man.
” (I;vii;50-51) “What beast was’t then, that made you break this enterprise to me? When durst do it, then you were a man; And to be more than what you were, you would be so much more the man. Nor time nor place did then adhere, and yet you would make both. They have made themselves, and that their fitness now. ” (I. vii. 53-61). Lady Macbeth succeeds in masking her dishonest and deceitful nature from her husband by means of her appalling behavior while slowly weaning Macbeth towards her dark side. She advises her husband to “Look like the innocent flower, but be the serpent under.
” (I;v;65-66), which is actually a reflection of her own character. Shakespeare thereby portrays Lady Macbeth as an evil, devious, and manipulative woman who would go any length to attain power and dominance. Macbeth was never at ease in committing the evil act and even after committing the act and becoming king, he remains remorseful and disturbed. Prior to the murder, Macbeth refers to his wife as “… my dearest partner of greatness… ” (I. v. 11-12), and towards the end of the play when Lady Macbeth kills herself, Macbeth has little sympathy left for her and remarks “…
she should have died here after… ” (5. v. 17). Lady Macbeth’s death ensures that Macbeth suffer the ultimate punishment of remaining without a son. Feminist approach The feminist approach considers Lady Macbeth’s greed and envy dominated persona as a direct mirror reflection of her husband. She forces herself into an aggressive and authoritative persona, incongruous with the accepted conventions and characteristic women of Shakespeare’s age, only for her husband’s benefit, for she knows what he wants and is willing to do all necessary to ensure he gets it.
The feminist approach dismiss the notion of Macbeth being the victim of the scheming of female characters, and stress upon the fact that Macbeth’s ambition led to his committing the actual murder, with Lady Macbeth being left to sort out the mess. Lady Macbeth confesses that she could not place the dragger on the King, who looked like her own father. Evidence of this theory starts emerging during the banquet in celebration of Macbeth becoming king. Lady Macbeth tries to calm Macbeth, disconcerted with from seeing the ghost of Banquo.
The pressure of taking up the scheming and aggressive stand on behalf of Macbeth takes a heavy toll on Lady Macbeth’s faculties, and the murder of Macduff’s family finally breaks her. She confesses, “Here’s the smell of blood still. All the perfumes of Arabia would not sweeten this little hand. ” (V. i. 48-50). In her somnambulism she betrays her feeling of guilt and remorse and repeatedly act out the events connected to Duncan’s murder, and the subsequent events related to this murder, such as Macbeth’s murder of Banquo, the murder of Macduff’s family, and Macbeth’s disconcertion at the banquet on seeing the ghost of Banquo.
The tragedy of Macbeth therefore lies in the man’s mistreatment of women. For all that Lady Macbeth did for Macbeth, Macbeth’s remarks on finding out about her death was “… she should have died here after… ” (V. v. 17). The play concludes with women removed from any position of power and Macduff, the last man standing is a man not “of woman born (IV. ix. 94). A related analysis concludes that though women remain aggressive and authoritative, they have the power only to create petty mischief.
Lady Macbeth’s wish to shed her sexual identity, evident from her quote “unsex me here” (I. v. 39-42) betrays the fact that traditional male qualities alone result in the realization of any real power. Macbeth himself remarks that her wife was a “man inside a woman” seems to connect masculinity to ambition and violence. Psychoanalytical approach The psychoanalytical approach based on the findings of Sigmund Freud depict the characters of Macbeth, Lady Macbeth and the three witches as being terribly disturbed.
Lady Macbeth’s raison d’etre to overcome the scruples of her husband and her willingness to sacrifice her womanliness to her murderous intention depicts her as a victim of a pathological mental dissociation resultant from the emotional shocks of the past. Lady Macbeth shows a “false face” to everyone, and reveals her true self only in unconscious states of sleep. She is extremely isolated and has no companion or confidante other than her husband, which accounts for the strong bond between the two.
She is his “dearest partner of greatness” and the only person to whom she reveals her thoughts. The Freudian analysis of Lady Macbeth’s role and character dismisses her as a typical case of hysteria, her ambition being a sublimation of a repressed sexual impulse and the desire for a child based upon the memory of a child long since dead. Shakespeare indicates that Lady Macbeth had “given suck, and know/How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me” [I. vii. 54-9], but does not give any indication as to what happened to this child.
Lady Macbeth also suffers from the psychological effects of repressed emotion. She suppresses her true emotions when she first hears of the witches’ prophecy, and again after Duncan’s murder. She reveals her nature in the line “These deeds must not be thought” (II. ii. 30) when Macbeth expresses fear and aghast that their foul deed. Shakespeare acknowledges the damage caused by repressed emotion later in the play when Malcolm says to Macduff “Give sorrow words: the grief that does not speak whispers the o’er fraught heart and bids it break.
” (IV. iii. 208-210). The nature of the witches’ role The three witches and Hectate, the one who controls the three witches depict the dark and supernatural forces representing the forces of evil. This characterization is an articulation of the reflection of the age where people considered “evil women” as witches. The witches are the primary instigators of evil for they sow the seeds of ambition in Macbeth’s mind and then, following Duncan murder, when Macbeth approaches them, gives him false hopes and vain illusions that lead to his downfall.
A secondary depiction of the nature of women’s role in the play, which upholds the conventional viewpoint regarding Lady Macbeth’s nature comes in Act I Scene 3, when the three witches cast spells on a poor sailor because his wife cursed one of the witches and refused to give her some chestnuts. This indicates that scheming women cloud reality and men suffer for women’s schemes, manipulations and evil actions. The reference to the witches being “female, but have beards,” reinforces the gender ambiguity in the play.
Subject: Shakespeare’s Macbeth,
University/College: University of Arkansas System
Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter
Date: 30 September 2016
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