In both Shakespeare's own period and in the medieval Scotland in which Macbeth is set, the role of women was generally to be subordinate to men. Women were expected to marry at a fairly young age and bear many children. They also had an important role in the household, with women of the lower classes being responsible for cooking, cleaning, and making clothing and upper class women responsible for supervising a vast staff of household servants. In Macbeth's era (but not Shakespeare's), women might also become nuns, devoting themselves to a life of celibacy and religious devotion. Unmarried women could continue to live with their extended families as unpaid servants, but the only real alternatives to marriage for most women were either prostitution or domestic service.
The women in Macbeth are striking examples of the way society viewed those few women who transgressed what were considered the normal feminine roles. The witches, independent wise women with magical powers, were portrayed in the play as evil, probably instruments of the devil. To act in a strong fashion, Lady Macbeth, when she steels herself to murder, uses the phrase "unsex me here," suggesting that murder, like warfare, is naturally men's business and that she needs to cast aside her femininity to participate in it.