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Summary: How Shakespeare Uses Gender Roles in the Play Macbeth

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In the play Macbeth by William Shakespeare the author uses gender roles to keep the play going and interesting for his audience. He uses Lady Macbeth as his puppet to show that even though she is a woman she has to take a man’s job in order for her husband Macbeth to be successful. She picks up the male role to do unthinkable things just to ensure that Macbeth becomes king with her being the supportive wife and queen. She uses her own ambition to become queen to fuel her actions to help Macbeth all while supporting him throughout their journey.

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Lady Macbeth is the focus of much of the exploration of gender roles in Macbeth. As Lady Macbeth propels her husband toward murdering Duncan, she indicates that she must take on masculine characteristics. In Act I, Scene 5, after reading Macbeth’s letter in which he details the witches’ prophecy and informs her of Duncan’s impending visit to their castle, Lady Macbeth indicates her desire to lose her feminine qualities and gain masculine ones. She cries, ‘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’. Clearly, gender is out of its traditional order. This disruption of gender roles is also presented through Lady Macbeth’s usurpation of the dominant role in Macbeth’s marriage; on many occasions, she rules her husband and dictates his actions.

Lady Macbeth puts her husband before herself, tries to kill her own better nature for his sake, and finds that the cost has been too great. Love, rather than ambition, is the centre of her world. Macbeth promises her greatness, but it is his greatness that she is more concerned about. “Glamis thou art, and Cawdor, and shalt be What thou art promised. Yet do I fear thy nature; It is too full o’ th’ milk of human kindness To catch the nearest way. Thou wouldst be great, Art not without ambition, but without The illness should attend it.”  Here’s another count against ambition: After reading the letter from her husband (which he explains the witches’ prophesy), Lady Macbeth’s thoughts immediately turn to murder. The only problem is that even though Macbeth has ambition, he doesn’t have the strength to see it through. Luckily Lady Macbeth is man enough for both of them. She knows that deep down Macbeth wants to be King, and she sets about fulfilling that need in him by whatever means necessary.

She knows that unless she can stop the pity and tenderness within her, Macbeth will never be king. She must act a part for herself and Macbeth. She tries taunting, coaxing and flattering him, using his love for her (and hers for him) as a weapon. “Have given suck, and know how tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me. I would, while it was smiling in my face, have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums; and dashed the brains out, had I so sworn as you have done to this.” As a desperate resort she says that she would rather kill her own baby than break her word as Macbeth has done when he announces that he can’t commit the murder after all. Macbeth, sensing what this must cost a woman who is usually tender, is shamed. Lady Macbeth takes breastfeeding, one of the fundamental biological traits of women, makes it inhumane. She says that she’s so good at keeping promises that she would kill a nursing child if she’d promised to do it.

She has doubts about Macbeth’s resolve, but she knows that she would be unable to commit the murder herself and is terrified as she awaits the outcome. When Macbeth returns from the deed, she must control any horror that she feels, because he is so close to collapse and needs her support, her realism and her calmness. She coaxes and rebukes him, trying to hold him together. Perhaps she finds smearing the guards with Duncan’s blood hateful, but it has to be done for Macbeth’s safety as well as her own. She must keep being strong, or all will be lost. 

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