A Feminist Reading of Lady Macbeth
In ‘Macbeth’, Shakespeare shows three types of female characters, which will now be looked at in further detail, starting off with Lady Macbeth. Though her name, Lady Macbeth, would suggest that she should be just as her name says, a lady, an accessory to Macbeth himself, her characterisation, as one of the protagonists, defies the definition of the traditional female gender role defined by Tyson (2006) as she is neither emotional nor submissive. She describes a scene of infanticide (I would […] have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums, and dashed the brains out […]) showing that she dislikes children, unlike the typical women whose main aim it should be to raise children and care for the family. Lady Macbeth exudes dominance throughout the play and makes her power be heard.
Furthermore, she openly rejects her femininity through the words “Come […] unsex me here […] Come to my woman’s breasts, and take my milk for gall […]”. To make her worthy of murder, she asks spirits to “unsex me here,” implying that being a woman means she cannot be powerful. This is the first example of Lady Macbeth purposefully rejecting her femaleness to gain power. Lady Macduff acts as a counterpart to Lady Macbeth. She is written as the stereotypical female character, who is submissive and puts her family above all else. Even though she does voice minor criticism relating to her husband’s actions (“His flight was madness. When our actions do not, our fears do make us traitors. ”), women were supposed to accept whatever choices their husbands made and not criticise them, it is all made up for when his intention for leaving is discovered. Through the critique Lady Macduff differentiates herself from Lady Macbeth because she appeals to Macduff’s morale as opposed to Lady Macbeth, whose words are meant to drive her husband to commit heinous crimes. Lady Macduff is a prime example of female stereotype as she is portrayed as weak, powerless and submissive to the actions of men, which ultimately leads to her death when attacked by murderers hired by Macbeth. She maintains a close relationship with her husband, even though she voices criticism and concern whenever he leaves his family to go about his obligations. This close relationship leaves Macduff in agony upon discovering her death, as well as seeking revenge.
Macbeth on the other hand seems to almost completely ignore the suicide of his wife, which shows that Lady Macbeth’s death did not come as a loss to him. Other characters who do not fit the female stereotype are the Three Witches who are described as having manly features in appearance. Banquo depicts the Witches as “withered” hags (“What are these so withered and so wild in their attire […]”). They appear to him like unearthly outsiders – ones that do not belong in the realm of humans. Their gender is undecidable to him because they have beards (“You should be women, And yet your beards forbid me to interpret / That you are so. ”). They practice witchcraft, which, in Shakespearean times was a hot topic, as King James VI of Scotland was convinced about the existence of witchcraft and believed it posed a threat to him. This fear lead to witch trials in 1591 and in 1597 he published the “Demonology”, his study of witchcraft, which was later published in London after his ascent to the throne in 1603 (Levin 2016). Shakespeare uses a connection between gender and power to portray Lady Macbeth in a more masculine way than is expected from a female character in that era. Even though at times, the reader is lead to believe that she is nothing but the naïve and harmless wife of Macbeth her character is full of greed and envy, and she will do just about anything to accomplish whatever she has her mind set on. Using the traditionally female means of achieving goals, namely deception and manipulation, she tries to manipulate Macbeth to commit murder and succeeds by mocking his masculinity, when he first hesitates to commit homicide. Lady Macbeth’s actions show that women have the power to be just as driven and cruel as men. Her questioning his manhood is what ultimately drives him to murder just to prove himself to her, even though he would most likely never have committed these crimes without her psychological force. Shakespeare makes the reader overthink the pre-existing views of what is typically masculine and feminine by portraying Lady Macbeth the way she is. Lady Macbeth is determined to achieve her goals but fails to withstand the consequences of her actions. She has recurring nightmares in which she tries to wash imaginary blood from her hands, even though never having committed murder herself.
The guilt she feels is what drives her to suicide in the end. Lady Macbeth presents herself as her husband’s collaborator, rather than as a being with her own self-interests. Because her identity is based upon her conceptions of manliness, she serves to block Macbeth’s exits from the world of men, when she should be offering alternatives to it. In Women’s Worlds in Shakespeare Plays, Irene G. Dash writes of a Lady Macbeth torn between ideals of morality and power. Lady Macbeth desires to renounce her sex and powerlessness and in the process has to renounce morality, which she ultimately cannot follow through on. In the beginning of the play, she believes that she the strong figure in her union. However, she is only attempting to deny the double standard that she’s been subjected to: the subservient and obedient woman versus the creature of morality, taking a stand for what is right. Lady Macbeth finds the classical concept of femininity repulsive but cannot deny womanhood without denying morality as well.
Unfortunately, neither of her desires can carry through: she in unable to commit the initial murder herself because the sleeping king reminds her of her father. In this, she exhibits tenderness as well as a moral code. Still, in the beginning of the work she appears to be a strong, masculine figure, but, by the end of the play, resorts to mothering her husband, who, after the desired gaining power, no longer needs to regard her. As Dash says, “Lady Macbeth’s tragedy [is the] futility of her attempt to move into the wale world, and, having adopted her moral standards, her ever-increasing isolation from him” (Dash 161-171). Dash believes that she was written as a sympathetic character, whose staccato-like appearance in the play shows the tragedy of invisibility to the men around her. However, because of the societal tendency to immediately dehumanize a woman who desiring power over motherhood, many of her important scenes are cut and she is turned to a villain, and Macbeth into a hero (Dash 179).
The scene after Duncan’s murder is a perfect example of this. Previously, the audience saw a strong woman in command of herself and her husband, stepping, without flinching, over the lines of morality. In this scene, she faints several times, and is simply waved away by the men surrounding her. This was due to the fact that what the director had created was an evil woman that the audience could not identify with. I agree with Dash in that Shakespeare created a sympathetic character in Lady Macbeth. She was not at all a stock villain–it was not Shakespeare’s norm to create monsters out of people. By writing a woman who was attempting to break out of her role, Shakespeare was opening up a discussion of what women, and ultimately, people are capable of. Although power may be alluring, no human can forget his or her nature as a creature of morality. Therefore, feminist critical theory helps us to understand Lady Macbeth’s character better due to Shakespeare’s deliberate attempt of portraying her as a female possessing male attributes in a patriarchal society.
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