How Shakespeare Completely Subverts the Traditional Role of the Female Through the Character of Lady Macbeth

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To determine whether or not Lady Macbeth completely subverts the traditional role of the female, we must first define the word ‘completely’. Completely means ‘in every way possible’. In order for Lady Macbeth to fully challenge society’s expectations at the time Shakespeare would have had to present her as being void of any traits associated with the traditional, the typical, Elizabethan woman. In the beginning of the 17th century when Macbeth was first performed, women were seen as the property of their male guardians and were punished or ridiculed if they deviated from set principles. They were to take the roles of submissive wives, mothers and hostesses. Instead Lady Macbeth challenges her husband, rejects her maternal instincts and kills the guest she was to tend to. That being said, Lady Macbeth meets her demise due to the feminine qualities that she once tried to discard.

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During the Jacobean era, there were specific roles and characteristics that were expected to be fulfilled depending on the person’s sex. “Attributions such as chastity, modesty, humility, constancy, temperance, piety, patience, and kindness”  were the expectations for women. In contrast Lady Macbeth is presented as resolute, ambitious and ruthless. While other wives were forced to be unquestionably obedient to their husbands, Lady Macbeth manipulates him and even insults him by challenging his masculinity, something that would have been punished greatly in that day and age. Examples of this behaviour are their interactions in Act 1 scene 7. After Macbeth tells his wife that he no longer plans to kill the King, she said “When you durst do it, then you were a man.” She tells him that because he is being a coward and not following through with their plans, she no longer sees him as a man. This is very significant because women were meant to be “silent most of the time and not speak out or argue, . . . [and] she must never be witty or clever”. Lady Macbeth completely disregards these social standards in order to manipulate Macbeth and achieve her goals, even though she could have been punished severely for it. Women commanding their husbands was unheard of.

Lady Macbeth strips herself of her femininity in Act 1 Scene 5 when she can no longer rely on her Husband to commit regicide on his own. She believes that the internal transformation will enable her to help Macbeth, as her feminine nature and body would hinder her ability to murder King Duncan. She calls upon evil spirits to “unsex” her and ‘fill her from the crown to the toe top-full of direst cruelty’. She asks them to ‘make thick [her] blood; Stop up the access and passage to remorse’ so that she would not feel guilt and let her womanly compassion ‘shake [her] fell purpose’, as it was believed that emotions would not reach the heart or brain if one had thicker blood. Being a ruthless, cold and calculating killer was only thought to be possible by men who had this thick blood. Witches were also believed to have blood so thick that they did not bleed. Another way that she rejects her biological sex as well as her role as a women is asking the spirits to “take [her] milk for gall”. This symbolism is important because breastmilk is vital to the growth of an infant and is an emblem of motherhood, the complete opposite of poison. Being a mother was an essential part of playing the traditional role of a woman and Lady Macbeth removes this ability from herself in pursuit of power. Thickening her blood and turning her milk to gall means an early menopause and no longer being able to have children as well as nurturing a newborn. Lady Macbeth revokes traditionally feminine qualities from herself and gives up her ability to have children in exchange for masculine qualities. Ambitious women were associated with the supernatural, and were accused of being witches as a way of preventing them from taking positions of power in the patriarchal society. Witches, though female, were the very opposite of traditional women. They were portrayed with masculine traits such as facial hair, suggesting that they too must have given up their femininity in order to obtain evil powers. Another way that Lady Macbeth is associated with witchcraft is her common ability with the three with witches —to ‘read’ Macbeth’s mind. —quotes needed’’’ The Jacobean audience would have interpreted Lady Macbeth as a witch due to the views society has at the time.

Lady Macbeth is portrayed as violent, a trait that is associated with men rather than women. She plots to have the King killed, frames the guards for murder and even makes the horrific claim that she would have “d’ashed it’s brains out” of her own child if she promised Macbeth, emphasising the lengths she would be willing to go for him as well as her lack of maternal instinct. Other examples of Lady Macbeth opposing this motherly role and displaying her unsuitability to raise children is highlighted through Macbeth’s line “only bear male children’. Even someone as ruthless as he believes that his Wife is far too violent to raise young girls. Women were expected to be hostess and tend to guests. Instead, Lady Macbeth comes up with a cunning plan to kill him. In doing this she does the complete opposite of what would usually be expected in the same way that she claims she would kill a child, showing that she is not afraid to defy social norms in order to obtain what she wants. Women were seen as to not be able to focus on tasks for an extended period of time and be more passionate and emotional. However Lady Macbeth again power through manipulation and clever means, remaining unemotional initially. Shakespeare further creates contrast between Lady Macbeth and Lady Macduff in order to emphasise just how different abnormal she really is. Lady Macduff is a representation of the traditional woman; meek, powerless, reliant, and motherly to the point where she died trying to save her children. Lady Macbeth’s masculine attitude is also emphasised when calls Macbeth incompetent for not being able to carry out her plan properly, undermining him and making her seem more capable than he is.

Although Shakespeare has created great contrast against Lady Macbeth and other women of her. time, she still holds traits that would be associated with female mind. An example of this is when Lady Macbeth tells herself that “Hath he not resembled

My father as he slept, I had done’t.” Although she claimed she would smash her own baby against a wall had she promised Macbeth, she cannot bring herself to kill the King. This emotional mindset was linked to women, who were believed to be ruled by passion and emotion over reason. Her statement about killing the baby was likely a facade in order to influence Macbeth, as the statement about the King was likely an excuse. This demonstrates that Lady Macbeth is perhaps not as strong willed as she makes herself out to be. Nearing the end of the play, we see Lady Macbeth’s mental health deteriorate completely. She experiences hallucinations and roams the halls of the castle at night after King Duncan is killed. Mental illness was seen as feminine. Shakespeare shows the audience that women are incapable of bearing the weight of murder unlike men, and that Lady Macbeth’s unsexing was ineffective. More evidence of her calling upon spirits having no effect was her drinking alcohol before the murder to give her confidence, as she lacked the bravery to do it while not intoxicated. Lady Macbeth does have influence over Macbeth, but she does not dominate him in the way that a man would a woman, but instead eggs him on. Ultimately, Macbeth decides everything and this becomes increasingly apparent throughout the play as his wife begins to have little influence or involvement over Macbeth’s plotting. Nearing the end of the play, Lady Macbeth commits suicide. This further solidifies society’s belief that the mind of a woman is weak as the character could not handle the guilt and stress that came with murder in the same way a man could. She dies offstage and insignificantly, demonstrating how uninvolved she has become and reinforcing society’s views.

In conclusion, Lady Macbeth does subvert the traditional role of the female in many ways, but ultimately fell to her demise due to characteristics that were associated with being a woman, a punishment for deviating from society’s norms. Her fall acts as a word of caution from Shakespeare, telling women to stay in their place or to suffer the ultimate consequence, and that even calling upon evil spirits could not overwrite the inescapable fact that she is female.   

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