Why did Shakespeare use androgyny in writing Macbeth?
Shakespeare uses androgyny in Macbeth to create confusion and reinforce the theme of strength and violence.
The word androgyny means having male and female traits. In Macbeth, there are two examples. First, the witches are genderless. Second, Lady Macbeth is often talked about as a man and asks to be a man.
When Macabeth and Banquo first see the witches, Banquo questions their gender. He also questions whether they really are inhabitants of the earth.
You should be women,
And yet your beards forbid me to interpret
That you are so. (Act 1, Scene 3, enotes pdf p. 12)
Some versions of the play have the witches played by men. They are women, but have male characteristics. This makes them strange, but also reinforces the idea of strength and power since men usually have the power in society.
Lady Macbeth, he says, will only have sons because she is so tough. She also seems to ask to become a man or have a man’s strength.
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! (Act 1, Scene 5, p. 20)
Lady Macbeth famously is compared to a man by Macbeth, and also seems to be asked to turn into a man or have men’s strength. Macbeth tells his wife this when she pushes him.
Bring forth men-children only,
For thy undaunted mettle should compose
Nothing but males. (Act 1, Scene 7, p. 24)
In each case, Lady Macbeth is seen as the driving force in the plan. She is the one who spurs her husband along and tries to convince him to kill Duncan. When he falters, she is the one who calls him a coward.
By making the women act less as women, Shakespeare is able to characterize them as he needs to. He is also making a statement about what women really are. Women can be strong, and can be violent.
Shakespeare uses androgyny in two places in the play: one a true example androgyny and the other a false one.
The witches are truly androgynous: they are sexless, old, creepy, and are described as having beards. They don't behave in a predictably gendered way.
In contrast, Lady Macbeth pretends to androgyny to steel herself to the idea of killing Duncan and to goad her husband into going through with the deed. She speaks very powerfully of being "unsexed" and tells her husband that she has gall in her breasts and would dash her baby's brains out if she had promised to do so. These powerful and "unwomanly" words have the intended effect: rather than be outmanned and emasculated by his wife, Macbeth murders Duncan.
However, Shakespeare plants a hint early on to show that Lady Macbeth's words are just words: she also says she would have murdered Duncan herself, except that he reminded her of her father. This is not exactly the attitude of a hardened woman.
In the end, Lady Macbeth reveals her stereotypically female characteristics when guilt overtakes her. She cracks under the strain of the murder, eventually committing suicide. Macbeth is the one who proves to be the harder of the two.
The witches, however, who showed some "feminine" weakness in trying to help Macbeth early on, are forced to be hard when Hecate comes and chastises them for being kind to a human who does nothing for them. They end up tricking and destroying Macbeth completely.