As a playwright before his time, Shakespeare shows quite a bit of feminist influence in Macbeth. Lady Macbeth is Macbeth's "engine", pushing him toward greatness. At the beginning of the play, he is portrayed as not very ambitious and weaker overall than Lady Macbeth. She is portrayed as more confident and competent, so she feels it is her responsibility to help her husband "see the light" as to how he can reach his potential because she does feel he has the ability but to be great. Macbeth began his killing spree toward the crown almost solely because of the urging of Lady Macbeth. She wears "the pants" in that relationship at the beginning of the play and even continues to show control in the dinner scene when Macbeth sees Banquo's ghost and acts crazy; she provides explanations for her husband's behavior and manages to get rid of the guests, not really knowing about his most recent murder. Her control does break down after this point when Macbeth begins to harbor secrets about his actions.
Lady Macduff is also another strong woman in the play, and she risks her life to protect her son from Macbeth's assassins, not fleeing in spite of being warned; this act of valor results in her murder.
Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, at the beginning of the play, have a fairly equal marriage. In fact, Lady Macbeth's role in plotting the murder of Duncan shows the partnership of the couple.
Lady Macbeth even issued a plea to "desex" her to be able to help her husband in the crime. After the murder, Lady Macbeth must help her husband when he cannot return the daggers to the room, because he is so shaken. She is strong up to this point in the play.
Things tend to return to more traditional gender roles after that point.Macbeth does not reveal all the details of the murder to his wife. He is shielding her from the graphic nature of murder, and she does not press him. After that , she loses control of him. He does not tell her of his plan to kill Banquo, and she has no idea that he planned to kill Macduff's family.
Macbeth takes the dominant role, and does not feel he owes his wife any explanations.
There are also gender issues with regard to the witches. Macbeth says that he doesn't know what they are or even if he can believe his eyes that they are real and not a figment of his imagination. He remarks that they look like women, although they have beards. So perhaps the witches are some sort of androgenous beings--somewhere between male and female--in Shakespeare's mind.
Gender issues do not solely relate to the role of females. It is evident that as a tragic female lead Lady Macbeth is one of the strongest of her era and performs until the last when -whats done is done- becomes –whats done cannot be undone-. Gender roles are considered inverted during the first portion of the play by the actions of Lady Macbeth, the androgyny of the witches and the representation through these two of the inverted natural order as feminine (the physical world begins to act wayward within the play, this is inverted natural order as Macbeth has –jumped the life to come- and eventually nature rises up against Macbeth, through Birnam wood, to once again harmonise moral and natural order). It is also important to note that this gender inversion applies in reverse, Lady Macbeth teases and hounds her husband into murder by questioning his masculinity and devotion, Macbeth questions his own masculinity by addressing his position beside the king -hes here in double trust-, but in the end falls to Lady Macbeths assertion that a man, as it were, would follow his ambition and not hold on to petty loyalties (in this she confounds honour with servitude). Moreover, Macduff on discovering the murder of his family is told to –dispute it like a man- and replies that he will also –feel it as a man-.
The roles of a man, and what it is to be a man, is constantly questioned throughout the play.