In Macbeth, how is the relationship between cruelty and masculinity  related to the three witches?

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karaejacobi eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Cruelty and masculinity are most obviously linked by Lady Macbeth in act 1, scene 5, when she proclaims in a soliloquy:

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. Make thick my blood.
Stop up the access and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
The effect and it! Come to my woman’s breasts,
And take my milk for gall, you murd'ring ministers,
Wherever in your sightless substances
You wait on nature’s mischief. (lines 30-40)
Here, Lady Macbeth implies that "direst cruelty" is not a quality given to women. In order to carry out the murderous plot, she must be "unsex[ed]," or stripped of her feminine qualities and instead "fill[ed]" with "direst cruelty." Her point becomes more obvious when she begs the "spirits" to "Come to my woman's breasts / And take my milk for gall." Instead of the feminine instinct to support, to nurture, she wants to have the "gall" to commit murder. She wants to become less feminine, which suggests the qualities she wants are more masculine traits. On the other hand, she worries in the same scene that her husband is "too full o' th' milk of human kindness," which is another reversal of gender norms. 
The question here is, how are the witches related to these subversion of gender norms? First of all, Lady Macbeth calls on "spirits" to take her femininity from her, so there is a supernatural element in common with the witches. Further, when Macbeth and Banquo see the witches in act 1, scene 3, they comment on the witches' androgynous appearance:
You should be women,
And yet your beards forbid me to interpret
That you are so. (lines 46-48).
Banquo is commenting on the expectation that witches are female; however, these witches have "beards," which are a masculine trait. They have qualities of both genders. They also could be considered "cruel" in the way Lady Macbeth wants to be made cruel in scene 5. It is left unclear, of course, whether they trick Macbeth into committing crimes, or whether he is to blame for being ambitious and gullible. Nonetheless, the witches subvert gender expectations and turn the norms upside down in Macbeth
Susan Hurn eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The relationship between cruelty and masculinity is most fully explained in Lady Macbeth's soliloquy in Act I, Scene v, when she summons the spirits to "unsex me here" and to fill her with "direst cruelty." The inference is clear: Cruelty is a masculine trait not found in women.

Although it is Lady Macbeth who develops the idea, the relationship between cruelty and masculinity is first introduced in the play through Shakespeare's characterization of the three witches. Scene iii of Act I opens with the weird sisters alone on the stage engaging in a conversation that reveals their malevolence and cruelty. The First Witch explains with relish the terrible torment she will inflict upon the husband of the woman who has offended her; her two companions spur her on and offer their services to help her in torturing him. To emphasize the cruelty of the witches, the First Witch carries with her "a pilot's thumb, / Wracked as homeward he did come."

Having established the witches as incredibly cruel, Shakespeare then portrays them as being masculine in nature. Banquo describes them when he and Macbeth first meet them on the heath:

You should be women,

And yet your beards forbid me to interpret

That you are so.

The relationship between cruelty and masculinity, established early in the play, establishes the motif later expanded upon in Lady Macbeth's speech.


mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The three witches in "Macbeth" motivate much of the action of the play since Macbeth becomes driven by their predictions.  These witches appear masculine as they are described as wearing beards.  In Act I, Scene iii, Banquo says to the witches who turn "fair to foul, and foul to fair,"

....You should be women,/And yet your beards forbid me to interpret/That you are so (45-48)

Later, in Act IV, Scene i, the witches express their delight in cruelty as they make a thick gruel from body parts of non-Christians such as Turks and Tartans.  One of the witches rejoices in the appearance of the evil Macbeth; she says she can feel it

By the pricking of my thumbs/Something wicked this way comes (44-45).

That the witches' masculinity has an evil overtone is evidenced in the acceptance of the predictions of the "weird sisters"  by Lady Macbeth who is led to an unnatural phantasmoagoric realm of witchcraft in which she transforms herself into an unnatural desexualized evil spirit so that she can motivate her husband in his cruel designs for power as well as commit her own acts of cruelty.