Macbeth was written by William Shakespeare between 1603 and 1607, and it was performed at the Globe Theatre in 1611. It is considered to be one of Shakespeare’s most poignant and powerful tragedies, telling the story of Macbeth’s murder of the King of Scotland, Duncan, and his own subsequent downfall. Many critics have claimed that, because women seem to be the driving force of all the play’s tragic events, it is Shakespeare’s most misogynistic play. However, for a number of reasons (including Lady Macbeth’s remorse and Shakespeare’s attacks of the patriarchal society) this is highly debatable.
Lady Macbeth is certainly one of Shakespeare’s most infamous female characters, exerting a great deal of influence over her husband. She encourages her husband’s murder of Duncan, and many critics have suggested that she is the one who is to blame for Macbeth’s tragic downfall. Her husband begins the play as an admirable, faithful man. However, as events unfold, and as his wife exerts her authority over him, he becomes a power-thirsty murderer. She says to him:
But screw your courage to the sticking-place,
And we’ll not fail…”
Macbeth is unwilling and anxious, but his wife is nonetheless able to cajole and persuade him into doing it. In this way, Lady Macbeth is a sort of Eve figure; in Book 9 of Milton’s Paradise Lost Adam is depicted with “horror chill” in his veins when he hears of Eve’s sins, but she is soon able to persuade him to eat the fruit as well. Is this Shakespeare’s way of painting a picture of women as untrustworthy and manipulative, just as Eve is considered in the Bible?
Lady Macbeth’s most effective method of influencing her husband is by questioning his manhood. She says to him:
“What beast was’t then,
That made you break this enterprise to me?
When you durst do it, then you were a man;
And, to be much more than what you were, you would
Be so much more the man.”
In Macbeth the ideas of violent courage and aggression seem to be related to masculinity. Macbeth too uses this technique. He is able to persuade the murderers (“murtherers”) to kill his friend Banquo by questioning their manhood. When the murderers claim that they are men, he says to them, in the same vein as Lady Macbeth:
“Ay, in the catalogue ye go for men;
As hounds and greyhounds, mongrels, spaniels, curs,
Shoughs, water-rugs and demi-wolves, are clept
All by the name of dogs: the valued file
Distinguishes the swift, the slow, the subtle,
The housekeeper, the hunter, every one
According to the gift which bounteous nature
Hath in him closed; whereby he does receive
Particular addition, from the bill
That writes them all alike: and so of men.
Now, if you have a station in the file,
Not i' the worst rank of manhood, say 't;”
He is suggesting that, although the murderers may be male, they are not true men, and in this way he manipulates them into murdering Banquo. In fact, whenever Lady Macbeth or Macbeth discuss manhood, violence soon follows as a result, and this inevitably leads to the play’s descent into chaos. Shakespeare could indeed be attacking the macho attitude of the 17th Century, and indeed of any patriarchal society. This leads to this essay’s next point.
Lady Macbeth is considered by many to be a woman trapped by the restrictions of a male-dominated culture. She was born to lead, but she cannot do so in a patriarchal society. She plans to kill Duncan, but is unable to without her husband’s help – thus she is forced to manipulate him. Moreover, she is so restricted that she even wishes to be “unsexed”, and indeed she condemns her own breasts, wishing her “milk” to be taken for “gall”. She wishes that she could leave her femininity behind so as to become more manly and dominating. The fact that she is willing to kill the King to get her way only goes to show how extensive her feelings of entrapment are. Lady Macbeth could therefore be seen as misogynistic. The three Witches, too, are only listened to because of their androgynous appearance. Banquo says to them:
“You should be women,
And yet your beards forbid me to interpret
That you are so.” (1.3.)
Would the Witches have been listened to if they displayed more female characteristics?
Macbeth cannot be heralded as a misogynistic play until all of its female characters have been considered. The Witches also contribute to Macbeth’s inevitable downfall by prophesising his fate to Banquo and him. If he had not been told their prophesy, he would never have been persuaded by his wife to kill Duncan, and he would never have become the tragic hero that he is. Another female character, Hecate, the goddess of Witchcraft, controls the Witches, and so she could also be blamed for Macbeth’s downfall. Hecate and the Witches encourage Macbeth’s violent behaviour, and so one could claim that Macbeth traces the root of chaos and evil to women. However, this is not the whole story; the witches did not create Macbeth’s ambitions, and nor did Lady Macbeth, they simply encourage it and enflame it. It is true that the women of the play have a causative role, but they are not entirely to blame; Macbeth is responsible too. After all, there are few tragic heroes who are entirely faultless.
The only other female character is Lady Macduff, husband of the murdered nobleman. Her role in the play is very insignificant except for perhaps being an accolade of female virtue. She is the play’s one female who does very little wrong, and indeed she is one of the play’s innocent victims. She is shown as the traditional mother and kind wife, caring for her children while her husband is away fighting. It seems that her only true roles in the play are to make Macbeth seem even more of a monster (for having her killed), and indeed to suggest that not all women are bad. In this way, Shakespeare is very equal-handed, and does not stereotype all women as wicked or all men as violent. Lady Macduff’s adhering to masculine stereotypes of how women ought to act could suggest that Shakespeare is again attacking his patriarchal society.
Despite Lady Macbeth’s manipulative character and thirst for power, she is not wholly evil. In fact, by the end of the play the audience sympathises with her. After Duncan’s death, she no longer plays a role in Macbeth’s killing spree, which implies that she cannot be held totally accountable for his questionable actions. Moreover, in Act 5 she becomes extremely remorseful when she discovers that Macbeth has murdered Lady Macduff. She complains about the “spot” on her hands, and cries:
“Out, damned spot! out, I say! – One; two:
why, then, ‘tis time to do’t. – Hell is murky. – Fie,
my Lord, fie! a soldier, and afeard? – What need
we fear who knows it, when none can call our power
to accompt? – Yet who would have thought the old
man to have had so much blood in him?”
And she continues: “The Thane of Fife had a wife: where is she / now? – What, will these hands ne’er be clean?” It is easy to discern her panic from her broken up sentences and frequent exclamations. Because she regrets her responsibility for Macbeth’s actions, she is not seen as a wholly cold-hearted, wicked character; rather, she is presented as remorseful and sympathetic, despite her flaws; this becomes particularly apparent at her tragic death, reported by a messenger.
Therefore, Macbeth cannot be labelled an absolutely misogynistic play. It may have some sexist concepts, but it seems to be more aimed at attacking patriarchal societies and indicating their problems. Shakespeare also seems to be ridiculing masculine stereotypes of violence and bloodthirsty courage. Although Lady Macbeth hates being a female, and although it is she that leads Macbeth to his tragic end, her remorsefulness suggests that Shakespeare was not trying to depict women as fundamentally wicked or weaker than men; she simply plays a role in another one of his tragic masterpieces.