Shakespeare and gender: representation of gender roles in Macbeth

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Introduction

The world has always had various questions regarding gender and gender studies. What represents a man? What symbolizes a woman? The answer to most of such questions is simple – nothing particular.

Gender stereotypes and already existing gender roles are essential to socialization in any society. They play an important role in how people are expected to interact as individuals within some social group. When analyzing gender roles in different cultures, one can discover that they vary from place to place and that the anticipations of roles of males and females differ in different cultures.

Even though gender roles have changed dramatically over the decades, the way modern civilization functions today still reflects some old gender customs. In William Shakespeare’s classic play, “Macbeth,” among the causes of the tragedy are the reversed gender roles.

Throughout the story of Macbeth, it is evident how the aspiration to follow a socially-accepted approach to masculinity results in things like losing one’s essence or committing crimes that one will regret for the rest of their life. This concept is based on the character of Lady Macbeth, who sacrifices femininity to be more man-like and powerful, her husband, Macbeth, who tries to prove his masculinity to the crowd and the 3 Witches represented by the author with male physical attributes.

How Lady Macbeth changes the gender expectations

First of all, Lady Macbeth is shown to be more dominant in the marriage, as she demonstrates a more man-like behavior throughout the play. Such an illustration contradicts the male’s typical dominant role within a marriage. Among the many non-female actions, Lady Macbeth also pushes Macbeth to murder Duncan once she finds out about the Witches’ prophecy. Even though Macbeth doubts taking the crown by killing, Lady Macbeth shows no fear as she says, “Come, you spirits/ That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,/ And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full/ Of direst cruelty.” This quote also emphasizes the great ambition behind Lady Macbeth’s strategy. The heroine shows no fear just like a true man does. Also, in the same monologue, she keeps emphasizing her readiness to do what has to be done to ensure the throne as she states: “Come to my woman’s breasts,/ And take my milk for gall, you murd’ring ministers.”

The symbol of feminine traits represents a rejection of femininity to become more masculine to carry out acts of violence. Therefore, Lady Macbeth’s forsaking of feminine features is an attempt to perform the role of a man in the tragedy that pursues reverse gender roles.

How Macbeth lacks masculinity

Second of all, Lady Macbeth always bullies her husband for his lack of masculinity. These words persuade Macbeth to prove he is a true man with the qualities to get the crown. At first, Macbeth knows that killing someone is sinful and doubts taking Duncan’s life in exchange for endless power. However, Lady Macbeth implies that he is a pushover by threatening his manhood as she yells: “When you durst do it/ then you were a man.” when he opposes her plan. Once the protagonist’s manhood is challenged, he responds to his wife: “Prithee, peace/ I dare do all that may become a man/ Who dares do more is none.” Consequently, he falls into Lady Macbeth’s trap and does everything he can to defend his masculinity.

Despite the unusual gender role differences between the main characters, an inconsistency in gender roles can also be noticed in the representation of the Witches. Their physical appearance reflects their power over humankind as they are the only ones able to control destiny. It is illustrated in Banquo’s first meeting with the witches when he says: “Upon her skinny lips; you should be women,/ And yet your beards forbid me to interpret/ That you are so.”

Conclusion

Summing up, in the play “Macbeth,” the author uses the repetitive association of violence with attempts to acquire masculinity. These acts result in a tragedy, the deaths of the main characters. It is proven through Lady Macbeth’s rejection of femininity to become more masculine, the general’s lack of masculinity, and the Witches displaying both masculine and feminine traits.

Reversed gender roles result in tragedy in this particular story because the characters in Macbeth lived their lives trying to achieve gender roles and prophecies, not become stronger and happier. However, in modern society, with the popularity of feminism, changes to gender roles, and updated standards of ideal masculine and feminine traits, such old-school attitudes are less significant as the society is thriving to achieve the equality of genders.

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  1. Shakespeare, W. (1992). Macbeth. Wordsworth Editions.
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