What is the representation of femininity in Macbeth?

Expert Answers
teachersage eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Lady Macbeth, the main female character in the play, self-consciously understands herself in terms of her sex. Losing her "feminine" virtues becomes psychologically critical to her ability to ruthlessly pursue her ambitions for her husband. From her speeches, we as an audience understand Lady Macbeth perceives femininity as behaving in kind, compassionate, and merciful ways. Lady Macbeth wants to shed these perceived "weaknesses" so she can push Macbeth to murder.  She asks the spirits to "unsex" her and fill her with cruelty and to turn the milk in her breasts, a symbol of nurture and compassion, into gall, a bitter fluid:

... 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 ...
Later, Lady Macbeth will claim she would rip her baby from her nipple and dash its brains out if needed, another case of her specifically denying her feminine side. Macbeth will acknowledge his wife's "masculine" traits as well, stating that a spirit such as hers should only have male children. (He can't quite see her as "unsexed," as he still casts her in maternal terms):
Bring forth men-children only,
For thy undaunted mettle should compose
Nothing but males. 
An irony underlies Lady Macbeth's attempts to "unsex" herself, as it does in her equation of male power and potency with bloodthirsty cruelty and lack of human feeling. We learn during the play that the best rulers are exactly those like Duncan, Malcolm, and the English king who are "meek" (merciful) and compassionate, the very traits Lady Macbeth rejects as weak and feminine.
Therefore, the play critiques Lady Macbeth's way of perceiving gender roles in black and white terms, arguing instead that the best people, and especially the best rulers, blend "masculine" courage with "feminine" empathy. Lady Macbeth's adoption of a caricature of masculinity turns into a tragic error.