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Ah, 11th-century Scotland: a time when men were men, and women were … either bearded witches, unsexed nags, or dead. (Yeah, did you notice that not a single woman is left alive at the end of the play?) Shakespeare may be known for strong female heroines, but they're not hanging around this play. Not that Macbeth is full of strong male heroes, either. We get a lot of examples of how not to do it, and in the end we're left with Macduff and Malcolm as our role models. So, which one are you going to look up to: the man who left his family to the not-so-tender mercies of Macbeth's murderous crew; or the new king, whose first impulse was to run away?
Try on an opinion or two, start a debate, or play the devil’s advocate.
For Lady Macbeth and her husband, masculinity is synonymous with cruelty and violence.
In the play, women are portrayed as dangerous forces who can emasculate and ruin men.
Macbeth is dominated by nontraditonal male and female roles.
Masculinity and femininity are not portrayed in uniform ways in Macbeth. Although women are not fragile, they are not strong either. Lady Macbeth goads her husband into murdering Duncan, and she sometimes possesses more masculine traits of ambition and follow-through. However, she also demonstrates weakness, because she is the one who falls apart in the end. The witches are another example of this contradictory strong feminism. They are even described as men in some ways, with beards.
Macbeth is described as having all of the traits that are considered positively associated with masculinity at the beginning of the play: bravery, self-sacrifice, and loyalty. This is the depiction of him in the initial battle. Yet as the play develops, he also shows some stereotypical feminine traits: indecision, and the need to follow orders. He is, what we would call today, “whipped.” He even comments that she seems manly, and she makes the comment that he should be more of a man.
What beast was't then
That made you break this enterprise to me?
When you durst do it, then you were a man;(55)
And, to be more than what you were, you would
Be so much more the man. (Act 1, Scene 7)
During the murder, he waffles about whether or not to commit it and leaves the details to her. His wife clearly tells him what to do, and even chides him for not doing it exactly to her specifications.
As far of aspects of femininity, Lady Macbeth is someone of a paradox. She is strong, but succumbs to guilt. The reader or viewer could easily assume that when she faints at finding Duncan’s body it is only an act, except that at the end of the play she clearly has lost her mind. She does so in a very feminine way, being obsessed with being unable to wash the blood off of her hands. It seems to be a girly thing to do, to worry about the physical as well as the metaphorical and symbolic nature of the blood on her hands. It’s apt symbolism, but it heightens her femininity, and calls into question the viewer’s earlier assumption that fainting at finding Duncan’s body was only an act.
Finally, the witches are not quite women. In fact, there is a joke made by Banquo when they are first described.
You should be women,
And yet your beards forbid me to interpret
That you are so. (Act 1, Scene 3)
Although it is humorous, the reference to beards and the masculine nature of the witches reinforces their role as figures of guidance. They never act feminine in any way, especially Hecate. She is the figure of prophecy and the one pulling the strings. We are made to believe that while Macbeth thinks that he is making his own choices, it is really she who is leading him.
Women have an overbearing role in every aspect of the play. Macbeth thinks that he has everything under control, and cannot be harmed, because he hears a prophecy that “none of woman born/Shall harm Macbeth” (Act 4, Scene 1). He learns later that this means that Macduff can actually hurt him because he wasn’t born the traditional way. Again, a woman is his doom. Nontraditional roles of masculinity and femininity dominate the play, and remind us that while we may place ourselves into certain boxes, life is not always black and white.