What is the role and status of women in the play Macbeth and in general in the 11th century?

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perfectsilence eNotes educator| Certified Educator

During the eleventh century, women were expected to function in a domestic role, keeping the home and having children. The women in William Shakespeare's Macbeth represent this expectation, although Lady Macbeth fights against traditional gender roles of the time.

As the lady of the castle, Lady Macbeth should essentially concern herself with seeing to any guests and attending to whatever her husband may need. Shakespeare has her brilliantly both subvert and support this perspective by making her murderous and cunning but having her display these qualities in an effort to tend to her husband's needs. In act 1, scene 5, when she first receives Macbeth's letter outlining his initial experience with the Weird Sisters and his promotion to Thane of Cawdor, she reacts as a concerned but supportive wife:

Glamis thou art, and Cawdor; and shalt be
What thou art promised. Yet do I fear thy nature;
It is too full o' th' milk of human kindness
To catch the nearest way: thou wouldst be great,
Art not without ambition, but without
The illness should attend it. What thou wouldst
highly,
That wouldst thou holily; wouldst not play false,And yet wouldst wrongly win. (act 1, scene 5, lines 15–23)

Here Lady Macbeth wants Macbeth to have the crown, but she fears that he is too kind to do what he must. She says he is ambitious but that she believes he doesn't have what it takes to capitalize on his ambition. At the end of this speech, she continues to support her husband as a good wife of the time should, but, ironically, it manifests as a desire to show him how to be bad. In a moment of apostrophe, directed toward Macbeth, she states:
Hie thee hither,
That I may pour my spirits in thine ear
And chastise with the valor of my tongue
All that impedes thee from the golden round,
Which fate and metaphysical aid doth seem
To have thee crowned withal. (act 1, scene 5, lines 28–33)
Finally, shortly before Macbeth enters the scene, Lady Macbeth is told about the imminent arrival of both Macbeth and Duncan; here she reveals her own understanding of gender roles and her wishes to obliterate them:
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. 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, you murd'ring ministers,
Wherever in your sightless substances
You wait on nature’s mischief. Come, thick night,
And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell,
That my keen knife see not the wound it makes,
Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark
To cry “Hold, hold!” (act 1, scene 5, lines 47–61)
Lady Macbeth understands the expectations associated with women. She realizes that women are not believed to be capable of being heartless, cunning, or murderous. She prays to be "unsexed" so that she may be more like a man and thus capable of "manly" acts such as murder. However, despite wishing to be unsexed, she continues to reference her own femininity as a means to achieve her goals, wanting her milk to be taken "for gall." This, combined with other scenes in which she will manipulate events by exploiting her perceived weaknesses, creates an interesting hybrid of gentleness and malevolence.

While some other characters, such as the Gentlewoman of act 5, scene 1, represent the quiet, concerned servants that women were essentially expected to be, Lady Macbeth presents a strong, albeit devious and sinister, woman who is a fitting rival for any of the men in the tale.
Doug Stuva eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Shakespeare's Macbeth, the role women are supposed to play in society is demonstrated most specifically by Lady Macbeth.

Lady Macbeth does not have any official or legitimate power of her own.  Any power she has, has to be generated indirectly by influencing her husband.  The male has the power.  She so powerfully rejects her traditional role, of course, that she prays to be made more like a man, which leads us to the unofficial view of women.  Everything Lady Macbeth prays not to be is what she is expected to be:  full of pity, mild, gentle, non-aggressive.

Her role in the society of the play is to keep house and play hostess (she greets Duncan as hostess and hosts all of Macbeth's feasts) and to raise children (thus, her imagery of ripping her babe from her breasts while breast feeding).  Again, she rejects these roles, except in the sense that the hostess role helps her keep her deeds hidden, or at least that's the plan.