Throughout William Shakespeare’s career as a playwright, he was able to compile numerous plays that incorporated the use of exceptional language. His various plays included many forms of symbolism in order to produce deeper understandings to his audience. In Macbeth, Shakespeare uses symbolism to explore the theme of masculinity and the various ways Lady Macbeth uses it to lead to the downfall of Macbeth.
The first example of the theme of masculinity can be found in act one scene five when Lady Macbeth exclaims, “Come, you spirits that tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here”. In this scene, Lady Macbeth shows that she is willing and able to give up her femininity to become queen and remove Duncan from his throne. She openly invites evil spirits to “unsex” her and take away feminine qualities such as remorse and tenderness. Additionally, Lady Macbeth is constantly questioning Macbeth’s manliness and degrading him for his faults. Once Lady Macbeth has done this, she takes on the role of a man, which can be examined as one gets further into the play. In the Elizabethan era, males were considered above women, and Shakespeare twists the idea of a woman being a nurturer by portraying Lady Macbeth as this vile, foul character. Furthermore, the Elizabethan hierarchy is corrupted by having a male be lower than the female in the household. Shakespeare uses Macbeth as a character that does not tailor to the manhood that is endorsed by societal views. Macbeth begins as a person who is dominant in battle and an epic hero, as stated by the captain earlier in the play. This view soon alters as Macbeth soon finds himself fighting for his spot on the royal throne. Shakespeare’s main character is then forced to contemplate his masculinity as he compares his actions to his all-too masculine wife. As seen in Macbeth, social pressures, along with cultural pressures, can significantly impact one’s actions. Sociological problems impacted the once great hero into a downwards spiral. Social pressure occurs when one’s emotions or behaviors are affected by others. Being human, Macbeth had a need to conform to the expectations of others. His social influence became a fault when he was uncertain with his masculinity after all Lady Macbeth did to destroy it.
The second example of Lady Macbeth using masculinity against Macbeth is found in act one scene seven when Lady Macbeth says, “When you durst do it, then you were a man; And, to be more than what you were, you would be so much more the man”. True masculinity is defined by Lady Macbeth in these lines as she lectures Macbeth on taking over the throne. Now, the two characters are switching roles and Lady Macbeth rises even more with fierceness. There are many factors that define a man’s masculinity such as social, political, and cultural aspects. A man’s intentions are based upon these aspects and his actions are only justified along these guidelines. These aspects can be very degrading to a man if their actions differ from what society deems they should be. During Macbeth’s time, Scotland viewed killing in battle as heroic and valiant. In this case, violent aggression is saved only for men. Now, Macbeth is viewed as ignoble by giving up his role as head of the family as Lady Macbeth challenges his masculine position. Contradictory to these male stereotypes, Duncan is not a violent killer, but rather a king who is virtuous and kind. Duncan’s traits leave Macbeth with no ethical reason to murder the King. Lady Macbeth’s piercing comments lead Macbeth to question his manhood, and in the end cause him to kill his king, taking away Macbeth’s purity and guiltlessness as he attempts to redeem his manhood.
The third example of Lady Macbeth using masculinity against Macbeth is found in act three scene four when Lady Macbeth asks, “Are you a man? . . . O these flaws and starts, impostors to true fear, would well become a woman’s story at a winter’s fire, Authorized by her grandam…”. During a banquet at the castle, Macbeth sees the ghost of Banquo, causing him to seem mad in front of his guests. Lady Macbeth compares him to a woman in front of all the lords and openly scolds him for acting in such ways. Macbeth is enveloped in a patriarchal society where men are far above women at the time and exercise their power above them regularly. Macbeth’s infirmity allows his wife to constantly bombard him with concepts of manliness and drive him to seek blood in order to defend himself. Shakespeare uses these specific traits for Macbeth to show multiple views of his character. The audience can interpret these traits to mean many things. For instance, some in the audience would pity Macbeth and focus more on his heroic attributes defined early in the play when he was in battle, or some might see him as a tyrant who only thirsts for blood to get power and control. Had it not been for Lady Macbeth, different viewpoints would not be as strong because Macbeth would have lived loyal to the king.
The last example of Lady Macbeth questioning Macbeth’s masculinity can be found in act five scene one where Lady Macbeth says, “Fie, my lord, fie, a soldier, and afeard?” In this scene, a doctor and gentlewoman encounter Lady Macbeth sleepwalking, with something obviously troubling her. Here, Lady Macbeth remembers herself challenging Macbeth’s masculinity when he is struggling with the idea of murdering Duncan. The audience gets the opportunity to see an unconscious Lady Macbeth and understand what is really troubling her mind. Even after going insane, Lady Macbeth holds on to her masculine attributes and demotes Macbeth by calling him a coward yet again. Shakespeare uses powerful ideas in this complex speech delivered by an ill-minded Lady Macbeth.
Throughout the tragic play, Lady Macbeth is constantly belittling Macbeth by challenging his masculinity in situations that are certainly uncomfortable for him. In Macbeth’s time, a man was assumed to follow the cultural norm by being some dominant person who is much higher than a woman in society. A man’s worst dream is to not live up to these standards that are set by cultural pressures. Shakespeare creates the character of Macbeth to show his struggle to identify his masculinity while Lady Macbeth is constantly cutting him down. Macbeth, who was once deemed as a hero, is now broken down because of the relentless actions of Lady Macbeth.