The essay question is "Discuss the representation of gender roles in Macbeth" I am also instructed to make detailed reference to language forms, features and structures of the dramatic text. How...

The essay question is "Discuss the representation of gender roles in Macbeth"

I am also instructed to make detailed reference to language forms, features and structures of the dramatic text.

How would I be able to tackle this essay? Please help!

Expert Answers
mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The fluctuating relationship of gender roles with Macbeth and Lady Macbeth is one that corresponds to the balance of conscience and guilt within them. 


Before beginning to write, the student may wish to examine the marital relationship of the Macbeths in the beginning as a traditional relationship that becomes reversed in Act I, Scenes 5 and 6; later, it changes back in Act IV as Macbeth becomes brutal and, certainly, in Act V as Lady Macbeth weakens and hallucinates in her guilt. Planning out the points at which role changes occur in the play before writing will be helpful to the organization of the essay. Whenever a point is made, supporting that statement with passages from the play will fulfill the assignment to "make detailed reference to language forms, features, and structures."  (Of course, making a rough outline of sorts prior to writing is very helpful to organizing the essay)

Ideas/Specifics that can be used (The student will need to organize ideas arrange them according to his/her essay plan directed by the thesis that is written.)

--The first sentence at the beginning of this response can work as a thesis for this essay, For, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth hold the dominant role in their marital relationship according to who is undisturbed by conscience. In Act I, Scene 5, the initial role reversal of genders occurs after Lady Macbeth reads her husband's letter that informs her of his appointment as Thane of Cawdor and the witches' prediction that he will become king, she wants him to hurry home so that she can persuade him to immediately go after the crown:

He thee hither,
That I may pour my spirits in thine ear....
To have thee crowned withal. (1.5)

So that she will remain firm in her purpose, Lady Macbeth asks the spirits to unsex her in Act I, Scene 6. After this she dominates Macbeth whose conscience bothers him about killing King Duncan, a kinsman who has always been a virtuous king [see M.'s soliloquy of 1.7] Further, when Macbeth does kill Duncan, his conscience bothers him more as he speaks of the blood upon him. Lady Macbeth derides him for his lack of manhood:

My hands are of your color, but I shame 
To wear a heart so white....(2.2)

(Yet, there has been some fluctuation in her bravado earlier in the scene when she reflects that if Duncan had not looked so much like her father, she could have murdered him herself. This twinge of conscience foreshadows her reversal later on. Also, her telling Macbeth to wash his hands and everything will be fine foreshadows her obsession of not being able to wash the blood off the steps)

Commenting of the first part of the play, critic Roland Frye observes of the Macbeth's relationship that Lady Macbeth "usurped conjugal authority" from Macbeth and “[While] Lady Macbeth ‘unsexed’ herself, Macbeth profaned his sex by submission to her”

Frye, Roland Muschat. “Macbeth’s Usurping Wife.” Renaissance News 8 (1995): 102-105.

--By Act III roles start to reverse themselves again: Lady Macbeth begins to soften and Macbeth becomes more brutal as he loses any conscience about his acts as his arms sink in blood. He urges Lady Macbeth now, instructing her to make her face a "vizard" and tells her that Banquo and Fleance must be killed (3.2).  Yet, he still has twinges of conscience as he imagines the ghost of Banquo sitting in his chair at the banquet. However, while Lady Macbeth begins to become more womanly--“You must leave this” (3.2. 40)--at the end of Scene 3, Macbeth resolves that he must continue his brutal path because he is so steeped in blood now. Experience will harden him, he tells his wife, "Is the initiate fear that wants hard use."(3.3)

--With Macbeth's growing lack of guilt, he reasserts his male gender role. He plans murders with no twinge of conscience:

The castle of Macduff I will surprise, 
Seize upon Fife, give to th’ sword 
His wife, his babes, and all unfortunate souls 
That trace him in his line. No boasting like a fool; 
This deed I’ll do before this purpose cool. (4.1. 171-175) 

On the other hand, Lady Macbeth, becomes feminine again as she assumes guilt. In Act V she is stripped of her bravado and cruelty. She hallucinates, repeatedly washing her hands in an effort to remove Duncan's blood. Yet, she sees spots of it constantly: 

Out, damned spot!...Why then, ‘tis time to do’t. Hell is murky. Fie, my Lord, fie, a solder and afeard? What need we fear who knows it, when none can call our power to account? Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him? (5.1. 37-42) 

Also, she is delusional and speaks to Macbeth of Banquo's murder: "What's done cannot be undone." Clearly, Lady Macbeth is no longer able to restrain her conscience which causes her return to womanhood while Macbeth continues upon his ambitious and murderous path.