How do I analyze Macbeth's character through the lens of Elizabethan patriarchal discourse?

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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

 The patriarchal discourse is of vital importance to Shakespearean tragedy.  It is an essential component in Macbeth.  It is reflective of a condition in which the voice of women are silenced:  “Daughters are perhaps the greatest victims of a patriarchal family and Elizabethan daughters were no exception.”  Shakespeare takes a different approach to the Elizabethan patriarchal discourse in Macbeth.  He shows an inversion of the power structure in the initial characterization of Lady Macbeth.  However, the ending is one in which the discourse of Elizabethan patriarchy could be seen as validated.  

Shakespeare offers a specific challenge to the gender stereotype in Elizabethan patriarchal discourse.  He develops Lady Macbeth in a decidedly masculine manner in the drama's exposition.  Lady Macbeth is shown to be power hungry, assertive regarding the idea of acquiring power.  She is imbued with "male" traits, something that was deliberate in terms of the inversion of the traditional gender- related notions of power: "At the outset of Macbeth, Shakespeare gives Lady Macbeth the very same elements which other Jacobean playwrights use to display the absolute power of the state. He shows how these might be used subversively.”  This can be seen in Lady Macbeth's "unsexed" speech.

“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!”

The call to "unsex me here" and "fill me.. of direst cruelty" reflects how Shakespeare's construction of Lady Macbeth challenges gender stereotypes. Unlike an Ophelia or even a Desdemona, Lady Macbeth is as much the warrior as any men.  She covets power and desires control as with any man.  In a way, Shakespeare is able to articulate how gender bias is a part of both the Elizabethan patriarchal discourse, but also how specific qualities and traits can be perceived differently based on gender.  Aggressiveness and focused power are seen as the domain of men, while women who exhibit such traits often find themselves having to straddle perceptions that men do not: “For a woman the demands made on  the occupant of the throne were supremely difficult to meet, since the  characteristic qualities which a monarch was expected to display were largely masculine.”  It is in this regard where Shakespeare's initial characterization of Lady Macbeth challenges gender stereotypes held in Elizabethan patriarchal discourse.

Yet, as the drama progresses, it becomes clear that Shakespeare reinforces these very stereotypes in the devolution of Lady Macbeth.  He characterizes her as one who ends up experiencing a mental and physical disintegration as a result of her appropriating what is seen as "male" qualities.  Her inability to sleep, continual haunting from her own guilt, and her eventual death all result in a reinforcement that women who seek to embody traits that lie outside the socially conditioned notion of reality suffer.  The withering away of Lady Macbeth reinforces the gender based stereotype that is intrinsic to Elizabethan England. Lady Macbeth ends up losing her voice as a result of this patriarchy as she pays "a terrible price . . . to gratify her husband's ambition."  Lady Macbeth can be seen as serving as a cautionary tale to those women who seek to step outside the gender stratified condition of the time period.  Shakespeare continues to reinforce the stereotype in suggesting that there is a restorative note in Lady Macbeth's demise.  It can be perceived that Shakespeare suggests that Macbeth's own depravity was inspired by Lady Macbeth's ill- conceived notion of "stepping outside" her role:  "Shakespeare's resolutions  [in Hamlet and Macbeth] do not suggest positive involvement of women within the political structure. In fact, the  resolution comes with the ablution of women from the political realm."  In such a repudiation, Shakespeare can be seen as reinforcing Elizabethan patriarchal discourse.

mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

[Possible thesis] In the development of the character of Macbeth, his role in the play is present as a hero-villain; his vacillation in character both reinforces and challenges the Elizabethan patriarchal discourse.

In Act III of Romeo and Juliet, after having slain Tybalt, Juliet's beloved cousin, Romeo bemoans his actions:

                               .... O sweet Juliet,
Thy beauty hath made me effeminate,
And in my temper softened valor's steel! (3.1.113-115)

Romeo has become "effeminate," or womanly, because he has killed out of emotion and not valor. He has become a villain and is banished from Verona. So, too, does Macbeth become villainous whenever he abandons his patriarchal role of valiant and brave hero and is tempted by envy fostered in him by the evil sisters to seize power through underhanded acts of eliminating his enemies in his "vaulting ambition," or whenever his fears take hold of him.

Act I

Lady Macbeth accuses Macbeth of being too filled with the "milk of human kindness"; associating masculinity with violence, she invokes the spirits to "thicken " her blood so that she will have the strength to use her knife. But, Macbeth is anxious about murdering his kinsman, Duncan. In his soliloquy, in womanly fashion, he has misgivings:

.....Besides, this Duncan
Hath borne his faculties so meek, hath been
So clear in his great office, that his virtues
Will plead like angels trumpet-tongues against 
The deep-damnation of his taking off (1.7)

Act II

Macbeth's apprehensions about murdering Duncan manifest more effeminacy as he imagines a dagger before him and "wicked dreams abuse" him. In his soliloquy, he recalls the witchcraft of the first act which has seduced him into committing unnatural deeds: "Mine eyes are make the fools o' th' other senses."

Further in this act, when Macbeth expresses his fears--"I am afraid to think what I have done"--and he imagines someone knocking, Lady Macbeth chides him for his "heart so white." At this point, she assumes the masculine role of firm purpose while Macbeth demonstrates effeminacy as the villain and doer of evil deeds because, like Romeo, he has been moved by emotions in satisfying the desires of his wife and the temptations of the evil sisters.


And, yet, as he becomes more violent, he resumes his masculinity, and Lady Macbeth becomes less sure of herself. However, Macbeth is fearful of Banquo as he recalls the words of the witches to him, again exhibiting feminine traits. So, he has Banquo murdered and cautions his wife to "make our faces vizards to our hearts/Disguising what we are." Still, when the phantasmagoric realm enters a scene, Macbeth becomes less manly. For instance, when he imagines Banquo's ghost at the banquet, it is Lady Macbeth who must control the situation, explaining her husband's behavior as a momentary fit he has suffered from his youth. Aside, she asks Macbeth, "Are you a man?" (3.4.)

Act IV

In this act Macbeth returns to the witches and vacillates between masculine anger and feminine fears.

Act V

Macbeth describes the change in himself:

I have almost forgot the taste of fears:
The time has been, my sense would have cooled
To hear a night-shriek, and my fell of hair
Would at dismal treatise rouse and stir
As life were in 't....
Direness, familiar to my slaughterous thoughts,
Cannot once start me. (5.5)

Having become accustomed to his evil deeds, Macbeth now knows no fear and is ruthless. When he later encounters a young siward in the battlefield, the youth says Macbeth's name is "hateful" to his ear; Macbeth adds, "No, nor more fearful," assuming again his masculine role as warrior. And, to the end, Macbeth displays the admirable traits of courage

durbanville eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Macbeth, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth reveal contradictory natures in terms of Elizabethan expectations. Their roles often appear to be reversed as Lady Macbeth steels herself to the point of calling upon the spirits to "unsex me here" (I.v.38). What is important to note is how, as strong as her character is, she cannot fulfill her ambitions unless she denies her female characteristics. She can only further Macbeth's ambitions and so realize her own by denying her femininity. Even her own ambitions are restricted to being the wife of the king.  Macbeth and Lady Macbeth believe that it is Macbeth's success that will secure their futures .

A very significant aspect of Macbeth's character is revealed in Act I, scene vii, when he suggests that Lady Macbeth should "bring forth men-children only,"(72). He is referring to her giving birth to boys because her fearlessness- her "undaunted spirit," (73)- supports a very masculine characteristic. Lady Macbeth should therefore, in Macbeth's opinion, bear him sons - "nothing but males" (74)- as girls or daughters would not need to possess such qualities. 

A married woman, in Shakespeare's day would ruin her reputation if she had a public profile and Macbeth's character thus reinforces this prescriptive gender definition as he relies heavily on Lady Macbeth to further his aims but thinks of her contribution to his status as king more as supportive; confirmed in the way he later excludes her from his murderous plans. Macbeth expects her to assist him and wants to take care of her and please her but ultimately dismisses her advice because he thinks that he knows best - a classic patriarchal trait. When he contemplates the possibility of having, in fact, furthered Banquo's lineage -and that "no son of mine succeeding" (III.i.63)- Macbeth takes it upon himself to resolve this problem and Lady Macbeth should be "innocent of the knowledge." (III.ii.45). It is also arguable that Macbeth excludes his wife because it is she who misled him in the first place and a man should not have allowed himself to be so influenced. Macbeth's taking back control is indicative of his seemingly superior understanding of the situation. She couldn't possibly understand. This is emphasized by the Royal Shakespeare Company when Macbeth attends the banquet and is masterful and in control. The actions of the other lords show deference to him. When Macbeth becomes incoherent, from fear of the ghost, it is Lady Macbeth who assumes control but only in defense of her husband. His pathetic descent into almost temporary insanity blurs the lines but still Lady Macbeth can only soothe her husband . He has the last word and reassures them both that it is just inexperience- being "young in deed" (III.iv.144)- that has resulted in his momentary lapse.   

Although Macbeth, as his wife deteriorates, is distressed by her condition and insists that the doctor should "with some sweet oblivious antidote," (V.iii.42)make her strong again, he is too distracted by his purpose and has even "forgot the taste of fears," (V.v.9). It is as if her health is secondary to defeating his "enemy" because he cannot be the man Lady Macbeth expects him to be unless he is king - at all cost. This is a classic patriarchal attitude. Macbeth is hardly surprised by his wife's descent into madness; her weakness as a woman would be responsible for that. The fact hat he does not see his own part in her deterioration again supports the concept.

amanda53 | Student

example of analytic paragraph with shot of play  

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