What is the role and status of women in the play Macbeth and in general in the 11th century?
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
That wouldst thou holily; wouldst not play false,And yet wouldst wrongly win. (act 1, scene 5, lines 15–23)
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 seemTo have thee crowned withal. (act 1, scene 5, lines 28–33)
Come, you spiritsThat tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,And fill me from the crown to the toe top-fullOf direst cruelty. Make thick my blood.Stop up the access and passage to remorse,That no compunctious visitings of natureShake my fell purpose, nor keep peace betweenThe effect and it! Come to my woman’s breasts,And take my milk for gall, you murd'ring ministers,Wherever in your sightless substancesYou 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 darkTo cry “Hold, hold!” (act 1, scene 5, lines 47–61)
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.
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.