Links Between Witchcraft And Femininity in Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’ And Alderman’s ‘The Power’
Ideas associated with witchcraft and witches themselves are inherently connected with femininity in a twisted form. Specifically, aspects of motherhood play a massive part in perceptions of the witch, especially the ways in which a mother can become controlling and abnormal (‘abnormal’ being generally perceived as angry, resentful, spiteful and selfish- things opposed to many people’s expectations for women in the 19th and 20th centuries).
These ideas surrounding witches are exemplified in Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’, where Lady Macbeth is representative of an aristocratic twisted mother while the Weird Sisters represent the lower-class wet nurse, also twisted by powers of darkness linked to their rejection of social norms and typical presentations of gender. Alderman’s ‘The Power’ is an interesting modern perspective on these archetypes, focusing more on the ideas to do with religion in relation to the supernatural and explores maternal power in a natural and supernatural way, in social and political contexts. In Macbeth, maternal power is the basis of the majority of the witches and Lady Macbeth’s powers. For example, she says during her monologue “take my milk for gall”, “come to my woman’s breasts” and “unsex me here”. This semantic field of motherhood, or things associated with pregnancy, give the impression of inverted maternal power; during Shakespeare’s time it was considered a blessing by God to be able to carry children, and therefore was positive. In Macbeth this blessing becomes something which holds Lady Macbeth back, which she has to forcefully discard to realise her ambition. However in doing this she doesn’t lose the power of a mother: instead of it being exerted over a child, she controls her husband. Macbeth essentially becomes a child again when subjected to Lady Macbeth’s persuasion. This supports the idea that maternal power was a big influence in the ideas of what a witch would be. By inverting her womanhood, she becomes more masculine, and this is what seemingly denotes her as a twisted being. Shakespeare draws on patriarchal beliefs that valorize the masculine mother as a producer of sons: Macbeth specifically lauds her as such by praising her “undaunted mettle” that should ensure she gives birth to nothing but sons.
Furthermore, the imperative sentence mood creates a sense of urgency in the audience, while also conveying the idea of a powerful female figure. When this is combined with the semantic field of motherhood, one naturally comes to the conclusion that Lady Macbeth is a malevolent mother figure. Deborah Willis says “she remakes herself in the image of the male armored body and of the witch-mother whose powers of nurture bring death, trading her “milk” for “gall”, closing off the vulnerable female openings associated with pity and remorse, and weilding a “keen knife”. This suggests that witchcraft is connected to the idea of something good becoming twisted to something un-godlike or unnatural. This includes the defiance of social norms; in the time of King James, old women and wives who stepped out of submissive roles were demonized. Non-conforming women were therefore more likely to be accused of witchcraft, and became associated with negative maternal power e.g. the jealous mother, the spiteful neighbor etc. The idea of motherhood as the root of malevolent powers is also present in ‘The Power’. This is shown when Tunde tells the reader that “pregnancy hormones increase the magnitude of the power” and a woman proclaims “We have allowed the Devil to take root in our breasts and make his nest in our hearts”. This links to when Lady Macbeth invites “spirits that tend on mortal thoughts” to “come to my woman’s breasts”. The use of sibilance in both the quotes creates an impression of something eerie at work, or a spell in the making. It is easy to read both quotes in a malevolent hiss, like that of a snake, and both use the same words at points.
The idea of witches surrendering themselves entirely to evil spirits originated in the early 15th century, and with it came the belief that witches’ access to and control over demonic power was due entirely to “an explicit pact with Satan”. Convinced that the power of demons lay behind all acts of witchcraft, clerical authorities worked aggressively to publicize this idea. This clearly influenced Shakespeare’s portrayal of how witches gained their powers, and Alderman made references to the idea through her portrayals of clergy the Power, such as the nun Sister Veronica who tells the other nuns before she is killed: “If we do not burn them as they burned these girls in Decatur and Shreveport, the Devil will take us all.”
The idea of a twisted nuclear family is explored in both texts; in Macbeth, King Duncan has often been read as a father in both psychoanalytic and non-psychoanalytic treatments of the play. This suggests to me that because Lady Macbeth (aka the Mother) is the cause of the murder, her identity as the malevolent mother rebelling against the Father (both in the sense of God, and Duncan) becomes even more important. In this reading, Macbeth himself would be the child (he considers himself essentially Duncan’s son throughout the beginning of the play anyway, believing he has the right to inherit the throne) which would be in line with the Oedipus complex which was also explored in other Shakespeare plays such as Hamlet. Macbeth has married the mother figure (Lady Macbeth) and killed his father figure (Duncan). Lady Macbeth’s deployment of the role as a mother takes on more “ominous and terrifying implications” as her plan unfolds; it succeeds in part because, having made Macbeth psychically into her child again, she exploits his vulnerability endlessly. Janet Alderman expanded on this idea: “In the figure of LM, that is, Shakespeare rephrases the power of the witches as the wife/mother’s power to poison human relatedness at its source; in her, the power of cosmic coercion is rewritten as the power of the mother to misshape or destroy the child…..As she progresses from questioning Macbeth’s masculinity to imagining herself dashing out the brains of her infant son, she articulates a fantasy in which to be less than a man is to become interchangeably a woman or a baby, terribly subject to a wife/mother’s rage”.
To Macbeth, the threat is clear: if he fails her, he will become the murdered infant, entirely at the mother’s mercy. In the Power, the idea of the nuclear family is twisted to put the mother at the head instead of the ‘traditional’ role of the father. Instead of God being the Father, Eve pronounces that “we are to call God ‘Mother’”. This mother is more loving than the ones presented in Macbeth, but in the context of an infant; a husband is reduced to a child, easily controlled and at the mother’s mercy. Eve proclaims: “woman rules over man as Mary guided her infant son, with kindness and with love.” This is similar to the way LM ‘guides’ Macbeth, except she shuns “th’milk of human kindness” and opts for a harsh approach to demasculinize and manipulate Macbeth.
In both these cases, witchcraft and the power associated with it come from motherhood, and by extension, femininity. The bad mother (who frequently also turns out to practice maleficium) is seen in many pieces of literature: perhaps most famously the queen in Snow White, Cinderella’s stepmother, or as Circe or Medusa. These figures stand for a reversal of positive mothering. Instead of providing food and comfort, they seduce and devour, harboring a secret malicious intent. For many people throughout history, this was synonymous with witchcraft. The witch has powers; she is uncanny and unholy. She lives outside the borders of civilization and has been ostracized because her ways stand in opposition to accepted values, thus challenging one’s own impulse to conform and thereby spreading her ‘evil’. All bad mothers in fairytales did not have a male counterpart; their husbands had died, leaving the mother in control. This suggests that a single mother then naturally took on ‘masculine’ roles, which was against nature and therefore corrupted her.
Essentially all witches in literature (the weird sisters in Macbeth, Lady Macbeth relinquishing femininity, what Mother Eve says God is “neither male nor female” in The Power) are a mixture of feminine and masculine traits, which many viewed as an abomination. The weird sisters have beards, and Lady Macbeth allows evil into her soul by giving up her womanhood. Ulanov comments on this, saying “the witch image is a very satisfactory fantasy elaboration of a child’s experiences of badness, both in its own emotions and in relation to the mother. The identifying mark of the witch here is her reversal of the natural flow of life. She dries up milk instead of giving it. She is absent instead of present. She is the invader, hexing, rejecting, poisoning, turning away and bursting forth, always with angry noise, howling her disappointment”. This suggests that anything which twisted traditional notions of femininity and motherhood, or defied the status quo, could be called witchcraft; this shows the extent of the connections between femininity and witches, supporting my argument.
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