Does Lady Macbeth shatter or support Renaissance stereotypes of femininity? 

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Lady Macbeth goes out of her way to try to shatter Renaissance stereotypes about femininity, but whether she succeeds or not is another question.

Women were considered the weaker sex in this time period—weaker physically, mentally, and emotionally. They were defined primarily by their ability to bear and nurture children and were thought to be naturally kinder and gentler than men.

Lady Macbeth knows all these stereotypes and deliberately challenges them. She asks the gods to turn her nurturing breast milk to gall, and she forcefully tells her husband that had she promised to do so, she would without a second thought dash her baby's brains out. After Macbeth comes back from murdering Duncan, filled with guilt, foreboding, and horror at all the blood, she dismisses his fears, telling him, essentially, to man up and shake it off.

Ironically, however, Lady Macbeth does seem to play into stereotypes of women as the weaker sex. By the end of the play, all her brave words are shown to be false. It is she, not Macbeth, who cracks under the weight of guilt. She sleepwalks, and in her sleep she tries obsessively to wash the blood (guilt) from her hands. She ends up not able to bear the crimes she has been part of, committing suicide.

The gender-bending Shakespeare often delights in showing strong female characters who defy stereotypes, but these are morally good women. In the case of this evil figure, Shakespeare shows she is filled with hot air.

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Most importantly, the Renaissance was a humanist movement, with particular importance placed upon the intellectual and social rights of the populace. It was not a feminist movement in the traditional sense, even though it is true that women benefitted from the cultural advances during this time period.

As a fictional character, Lady Macbeth could be considered within a pre-feminist scope with parameters that emphasize her role in the death of King Duncan and the consequent rise to power as experienced by Lady Macbeth. As such, Lady Macbeth could be interpreted to be a feminist icon of sorts with a particular emphasis on a historiographic representation of women's rights. This interpretation would be better suited in comparison to the French Revolution as Lady Macbeth does indeed commit suicide towards the end of the play.

Since the Renaissance focused upon advancements in knowledge mostly by men, Lady Macbeth's eventual suicide would probably more closely support rather than shatter Renaissance stereotypes of femininity since the Renaissance was more concerned with science and art and not necessarily feminism.

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First, let’s look at what the Renaissance stereotype of femininity was. Women were definitely second-class citizens. Even though Queen Elizabeth was a strong ruler, women in general were expected to defer to men. Men ruled the households. Women were to look as beautiful as possible and submit fully to their husbands. A Renaissance-era woman was expected to care for the house and see that her husband’s needs were met. She was to be patient, kind, gentle, modest, humble, and pious.

Lady Macbeth pretended to be this kind of woman, but as she said to Macbeth, “Look like th' innocent flower,/But be the serpent under ’t.” She was definitely the serpent pretending to be innocent! She welcomed Duncan graciously and prepared a feast in his honor.

The first stereotype which Lady Macbeth breaks involves her relationship with her husband. He addressed her as ‘my partner in greatness,’ which was surprising for that time. But it is clear from the first moment we meet her that she is in control of Macbeth, not the other way around. She devises the plan to kill Duncan and she goads Macbeth into it by attacking his manhood and courage: “When you durst do it, then you were a man.”

She also negates her own femininity in her famous 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!... Come to my woman's breasts,
And take my milk for gall, you murdering ministers…”

Interestingly, however, Lady Macbeth loses her power over her husband once he becomes more evil and ambitious than she does; once he murders Banquo without her knowledge or consent, her hold over him is broken and they begin to grow apart.

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