Exploring the gender roles in Macbeth and The Taming of The Shrew
Shakespeare uses gender roles in Macbeth and The Taming of The Shrew both as a commentary on society in his time and as a way of flattering King James I, the monarch at the time both of these plays were released.
At the time these plays were published, in the 16th and 17th century, society had a very different view on women and their roles alongside men compared to modern times- they were thought to be only useful for childbearing and housekeeping, and that their nature should be one of timidity and mildness. In 1531, Sir Thomas Elyot said: “A man in his natural perfection is fierce, hardy, strong in opinion” and “The good nature of a woman is to be mild timorous, tractable, benign”. Both Macbeth and The Taming of The Shrew feature male characters who fit the description of what a man in Shakespearean times should be, and also include female main characters who break the mould: be it Lady Macbeth, an independent and strong character who wants respect and power by any means (which, ultimately, becomes her downfall), or Katherina, who refuses to be tame and gentle, until she can take advantage of it for her own gain.
One interpretation of Shakespeare’s use of gender roles in Macbeth and The Taming of The Shrew is that Shakespeare was a feminist- or at least interested in gender equality. By creating powerful main female characters with behaviour and mannerisms similar to that of the ‘ideal man’ he is saying that men and women should be equal- in Macbeth, Lady Macbeth is a strong, wilful and decisive character; she gets things done far more efficiently and with much more determination than her husband, who is seen as brave and honourable: “O worthiest cousin”, “brave Macbeth”, the semantic field of honour and courage used to describe Macbeth shows how he is a heroic character and that the other characters respect him. Some literary critics agree: in 1904, A C Bradley said “Lady Macbeth is the most commanding and perhaps the most awe-inspiring figure that Shakespeare drew”. In the play she is shown to have vast ambition and willpower- far more than her husband. She asks spirits (although the speech could be seen simply as a way of preparing herself) to “unsex me here”, “fill me (…) of direst cruelty”, and “Stop up th’access and passage to remorse”. The fact that she is asking spirits or evil forces to help her reinforce the idea that she is an unnatural character by the standards of Shakespearean times. Whether or not she does gain supernatural aid, it is clear that she is much more willing than Macbeth to seize power when the opportunity arises. Similarly, Katherina is also a dominant female character- she answers to no one unless she is treated equally to men. Some critics however, claim that Macbeth is a play about “the victory of masculine over feminine, with there being at the plays’ end a ‘totally masculine world,’ Lady Macbeth dead and the witches gone.”
In the Rupert Goold version of Macbeth, set in the time of the Cold War, we see an older Macbeth, who is considered noble and heroic by his peers, and a (relative to Macbeth’s age) younger Lady Macbeth, who holds a lot of sway over his actions- they are both equals but since Lady Macbeth is but a housewife she wants to gain the power and respect that she believes she and her husband deserve- they are equally ambitious in this way and they both rise and fall in similar ways; portraying them as equals as a couple, but individually Macbeth is praised by his peers at the start and feared by them at the end while Lady Macbeth doesn’t get the same recognition.
Geoffrey Wright’s adaptation of Macbeth, set in modern Melbourne, is very different as all the supernatural elements have been replaced: the witches are now teenage girls, and the visions caused by drugs. Macbeth is portrayed as opportunistic, lustful and shameless (possibly an attitude caused by his drug use), and at the start it is made clear that Lady Macbeth is a little off because the couple lost a child. In this adaptation they are fairly equal, there is a lot of them working together however the version doesn’t focus on their relationship as much as others- it also changes the story, as Macbeth is no longer a tragic hero, as he is a murderous drug lord- because of this the audience no longer pities him and feels bad for his downfall.
In BBC’s ShakespeaRetold version, directed by Mark Brozel, Macbeth is an overworked chef working in an expensive restaurant, who feels like he deserves more from his boss- Lady Macbeth agrees and pushes Macbeth to murder him. Similarly to Geoffrey Wright’s version, it is made clear that they lost a child in the past. The couple are portrayed as equals as throughout the adaptation they work together, with Lady Macbeth covering for Macbeth’s mistakes sometimes. This version modernizes (sort of) the story while keeping the story and the most important aspects of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth the same.
In The Taming of The Shrew, gender equality also comes into play a lot. Katherina is a strong, aggressive character, yet when she finally works together with Petruchio they both benefit greatly; Shakespeare could be saying that society’s view towards women is wrong- that they are equal to men, and instead of one having the advantage over the other, cooperation is needed; the same is also true for Macbeth- Lady Macbeth and her husband work together to achieve their goals (although their goals are a little more sinister). This is further emphasised by all the similarities Petruchio and Kate have- despite seemingly hating each other at first, it doesn’t take long to realise that their personalities are one and the same: they both answer to no one, they both seem to dislike everyone else, they both come from rich backgrounds, they both want to find someone who will be a challenge to them, and they are both quick-witted, as shown by their verbal jousting the first time they meet:
“I am too young for you.”
“Yet you are withered.”
“’Tis with cares.”
“I care not.”
They are both playfully insulting each other- sniffing each other out. This is when they both first realise that they are similar, they continue to insult each other in much the same way good friends do. Many critics agree that this is a feminist play: Michael Bogdanov in 1988 said “I believe Shakespeare was a feminist”, and many deny that it is a sexist play: “(The play) is not a knockabout farce of wife-battering but the cunning adaptation of a folk-motif to show the forging of a partnership between equals” – Germaine Greer, 1970. Some feminist critics claim that the play is very sexist, saying “The last scene is altogether disgusting to modern sensibility. No man with any decency of feeling can sit it out in the company of a woman without feeling extremely ashamed.” This refers to the final scene in which Katherina, after declining to obey her father or Petruchio throughout the play, delivers a speech about the importance of compliance towards ones husband: “dart not scornful glances from those eyes to wound thy lord, thy king, thy governor.” Laurie E. Maguire referred to Katherina as “the most obvious Shakespearean example of an abused woman”, saying that there is no way that Katherina wants to obey Petruchio, but that she knows now that she has no choice but to do so.
Franco Zefirelli’s version of the play is very close to the original in that the script is only a little shortened and updated. Throughout the first half play it is made clear that they are fairly equal through their even arguments and violence, after this however, when they are married, Petruchio starts to take control by taking away food, sleep and clothing from Kate, and towards the very end, it appears that she has completely submitted to him, after she gives a speech about obeying your husband- however while he is not looking she leaves the room- something which is not included in the original script- and which causes his peers to laugh at him. In the end, they are portrayed as being fairly equal.
In 10 Things I Hate About You, both Kat and Patrick are portrayed as social outcasts who don’t like to answer to others, and throughout the play they quickly realise how similar they are. This is quite a modern interpretation and so both characters are very even, in fact, (in regards to the Kat and Patrick) gender roles are not really something that is focussed on.
David Richards’ ShakespeaRetold version presents Kate and Petruchio as very uneven at a surface level as Petruchio is practically twice the size of Kate- but quite soon it becomes clear that on a deeper level they are very evenly well matched to the extent that they almost have their own ‘secret’ communication. In the end, they are portrayed as a happy couple. The equality of genders comes into question a lot in this version but it is very clear that they are equal, especially towards the end.
Another interpretation of the meaning of the use of gender roles in Shakespeare’s plays is that he portrays women as weak and ruining everything to impress the King at the time, James I- who replaced a woman as monarch and had a fear of witches. We see this in Macbeth as it is Lady Macbeth’s idea to murder the King, and the whole plan falls apart. Perhaps this is Shakespeare saying that women cannot properly handle positions of power, and that males should handle it- something further emphasised by the fact that at the beginning of the play during the battle, (without Lady Macbeth) Macbeth is successful in war and heralded as a hero- yet once Lady Macbeth enters the fray things start to fall apart.
This interpretation can also be applied to The Taming of The Shrew in that Kate is out of control and disliked by everyone until Petruchio comes along and ‘tames’ her- making her into the ideal 16th/17th century woman.
However this analysis can be turned on its head, in that it may be possible that Shakespeare used gender roles as a commentary on what he thought was wrong with society at the time: in Macbeth he could be using Lady Macbeth (by making the audience sympathise with her) to say that he believes women should be allowed to have power and property, rather than being simply property of their husbands. The same can be applied to The Taming of The Shrew in that Kate is controlled by males (her father) her whole life and rebels against him but when Petruchio comes along she feels as though she is his equal rather than controlled by him.
In conclusion the use of gender roles in Shakespeare’s plays could be interpreted to have a number of different meanings- he may have had an agenda and had one or many meanings behind his use of gender roles in mind, or maybe even none. It is likely however, that he wanted to impress and butter up King James I as without his support, he would not get paid. However alongside this, he could have been subtly mocking James’ and society’s opinions towards gender roles.