How Macbeth Reinforces Gender Roles by Using Different Female Characters in the Play

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Shakespeare discusses topics which were only identified centuries later, such as gender power relations and Feminist Critisism. Feminist Critisism is about the patriarchal aspects of our culture, and what undermines or reinforces those ideas. The play Macbeth talks about femininity and masculinity, and how power and weakness pertains to those characteristics. The stereotypes of male intelligence and strength compared to the stereotypes of female inferiority and emotional and physical weakness. Macbeth reinforces gender roles by using different female characters in the play to act as the extremes of the womanly ideals of the time. Through the characters of Lady Macduff, Lady Macbeth and the witches, the play demonstrates feminine and masculine characters, relating to their amount of authority.

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Lady Macduff is created to be the perfect feminine ideal in the play, following all the socially acceptable traits for the time. As the perfect woman, she does not have much of a role besides being the wife of Macduff. She is also portrayed as the mother archetype, as we see in the scene with her son, she cares about her children and is a protector of them. “Whither should I fly? I have done no harm. But I remember now I am in this earthly world, where to do harm is often laudable, to do good sometime accounted dangerous folly”. This quote shows that Lady Macduff is a holy woman, though believing that the world is a dangerous place. Meaning that she must protect her children from it, as the mother archetype. However, these standards made for women make them out to have weak characteristics, as feminine qualities are linked to weakness and powerlessness against greater forces. For example, when murderers come to kill the family of Macduff there is no fighting back from Lady Macduff, more of a damsel in distress. “Crying “Murder!”” as she exited the scene. Lady Macduff is the more extreme version of that female ideal, weak characteristics and very proper habits.

Alternatively, in the middle of the spectrum of those women archetypes is Lady Macbeth. Lady Macbeth is a proper woman on the outside, hiding her inner self which has more masculine characteristics. “[L]ook like th’ innocent flower, but be the serpent under’t”. Which Lady Macbeth advised to Macbeth after the murder of Duncan. Having those masculine traits gives her a certain amount of power and authority. Authority over her husband Macbeth, as it was her plan to kill king Duncan. In addition, “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!” . The words “unsex me here” strip her of her femininity, introducing more masculine qualities. She does things which are not in line with the ideals of the time. Things which are factors that contrast with the feminine exterior which she puts on around other characters in the play. Thirdly, When she puts on that act of being a proper lady, she gets a lot of respect from society. “O gentle lady, ‘tis not for you to hear what I can speak: the repetition, in a womans ear, would murder as it fell”. She is told when her and her husband pretend to be learning about the murder of the King for the first time. When Lady Macbeth is in character, nobody suspects a thing, trying to hide the truth from her, as they think she, a woman, cannot handle the truth. Although, still a woman, she is only considered to be Macbeth's collaborator, instead of being her own being.

On the opposite side of the spectrum as Lady Macduff are the witches. Strong figures in the story of Macbeth. The witches are by far the least female female characters in the play. Not only in how they act but also in their appearance, “You should be women, and yet your beards forbid me to interpret that you are so”. The more masculine the female characters are, the more socially unacceptable or even scary they are. The witches are the trickster archetypes in this story, disobeying societal rules, but still having a certain amount of power. Having strayed away from the womanly archetypes, they have a lot of power over others, able to persuade people into doing certain deeds.. “Stay, you imperfect speakers, tell me more”. Macbeth says, desperate to know more about what the witches have to say about his future. These very masculine female characters have a lot of power, and Macbeth trusts their information that they have given to him. “Two truths are told, as happy prologues to the swelling act of the imperial theme.”, Macbeth says aside when becoming thane of Cawdor, the witches were right. Even before becoming thane, he seemed to trust the witches more than Banquo, their power from their confusing gender identity could be a factor.

In summary, the play discusses female and male roles in society and how they are presented, having to do with how much power they have. As the femininity of the characters decrease, the more power they gain. Although, women with power were not as respectable in Shakespeare’s time, meaning the more feminine the women, the more respect they received. Lady Macduff, the character in the play who was made to be the womanly ideal of the time received respect but was emotionally and physically weak. On the other hand, Lady Macbeth, portrayed as a perfect woman only on the outside, had the respect but also the strength that is stereotypical for men. Thirdly, the witches with authority and strength, but not respect from society. Lady Macbeth and the witches were capable of convincing Macbeth to go through with the unspeakable deeds because of their unknowable gender identity and power which comes with that.  

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