How are masculinity and femininity portrayed in Shakespeare's Macbeth? Discuss with examples from the play.

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litteacher8 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Macbeth is dominated by nontraditonal male and female roles.

Masculinity and femininity are not portrayed in uniform ways in Macbeth.  Although women are not fragile, they are not strong either.  Lady Macbeth goads her husband into murdering Duncan, and she sometimes possesses more masculine traits of ambition and follow-through.  However, she also demonstrates weakness, because she is the one who falls apart in the end.  The witches are another example of this contradictory strong feminism.  They are even described as men in some ways, with beards.

Macbeth is described as having all of the traits that are considered positively associated with masculinity at the beginning of the play: bravery, self-sacrifice, and loyalty.  This is the depiction of him in the initial battle.  Yet as the play develops, he also shows some stereotypical feminine traits: indecision, and the need to follow orders. He is, what we would call today, “whipped.”  He even comments that she seems manly, and she makes the comment that he should be more of a man.

What beast was't then

That made you break this enterprise to me?

When you durst do it, then you were a man;(55)

And, to be more than what you were, you would

Be so much more the man. (Act 1, Scene 7)

During the murder, he waffles about whether or not to commit it and leaves the details to her.  His wife clearly tells him what to do, and even chides him for not doing it exactly to her specifications.

As far of aspects of femininity, Lady Macbeth is someone of a paradox.  She is strong, but succumbs to guilt.  The reader or viewer could easily assume that when she faints at finding Duncan’s body it is only an act, except that at the end of the play she clearly has lost her mind.  She does so in a very feminine way, being obsessed with being unable to wash the blood off of her hands. It seems to be a girly thing to do, to worry about the physical as well as the metaphorical and symbolic nature of the blood on her hands.  It’s apt symbolism, but it heightens her femininity, and calls into question the viewer’s earlier assumption that fainting at finding Duncan’s body was only an act.

Finally, the witches are not quite women.  In fact, there is a joke made by Banquo when they are first described.

You should be women,

And yet your beards forbid me to interpret

That you are so. (Act 1, Scene 3)

Although it is humorous, the reference to beards and the masculine nature of the witches reinforces their role as figures of guidance.  They never act feminine in any way, especially Hecate.  She is the figure of prophecy and the one pulling the strings.  We are made to believe that while Macbeth thinks that he is making his own choices, it is really she who is leading him.

Women have an overbearing role in every aspect of the play.  Macbeth thinks that he has everything under control, and cannot be harmed, because he hears a prophecy that “none of woman born/Shall harm Macbeth” (Act 4, Scene 1).  He learns later that this means that Macduff can actually hurt him because he wasn’t born the traditional way.  Again, a woman is his doom.  Nontraditional roles of masculinity and femininity dominate the play, and remind us that while we may place ourselves into certain boxes, life is not always black and white.

mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Shakespeare's Macbeth, violence is associated with masculinity, and femininity weakness. In Act I, Scene 5, Lady Macbeth calls upon the spirits to "unsex" her so that she can become "top-full/of direst cruelty!" Later, in Scene 7, Lady Macbeth has suggested that Macbeth make the second prediction of the witches come true by murdering Duncan while he is at Inverness. In defense of himself Macbeth tells her,

I dare do all the may become a man;
Who dare do more is none (1.7.46-47)

This statement, albeit reasonable, angers Lady Macbeth, who scornfully retorts, "When you durst do it, then you were a man." (1.7.49). After shaming him further and declaring her "manliness," Macbeth is inspired by her, telling her,

Bring forth men-children only;
For thy undaunted mettle should compose
Nothing but males. (1.7.72-74)

Later, when Macbeth is unnerved after the murder of Duncan, Lady Macbeth ridicules him for his womanliness, saying she is braver than he:

My hands are of you color, but I shame
To wear a heart so white. (2.2.64-65)

Further, after Macduff's wife and son is killed, Malcolm tries to convince Macduff to take revenge. Having dried his tears, Macduff promises that he will certainly avenge himself upon the monstrous Macbeth. Satisfied, Malcolm replies, "This tune goes manly" (4.3.235),underscoring the trope of violence connected to masculinity. 

Finally, in the last scene of the play as Macduff informs Macbeth that he was not "of woman born," Macbeth reacts,

Accursed be that tongue that tells me so
For it hath cow'd my better part of man! (5.8.17-18)

Having been made to experience fear at the echo of the words of the witches, Macbeth feels that the "better part of man," his strength and violence, are now threatened by the preternatural world.