Masculinity and Femininity

  • Traditional ideas of what makes a man and how men should act hugely influence Macbeth as a play. Competing ideas of what makes a ‘man’ hugely influence characters’ actions, from Macbeth’s willingness to kill Duncan to Macduff’s insistence on grieving for his family.

  • During Jacobean times, typical gender roles were deeply ingrained.   Women were seen as fragile and innocence denizens of the home, unsuited to ambition or politics.  In turn, men were ideally strong, brave and powerful.  Correspondingly, the mark of Macbeth’s masculinity is often seen by Lady Macbeth to be his willingness to commit atrocities without weakness.

  • Masculinity is seen to be such a concern for Macbeth, that any threats toward it propel him towards acts of cruelty and violence.  Thus, Macbeth is goaded by Lady Macbeth into protecting his masculinity by murdering Duncan, and digs at his identity as a man are Lady Macbeth’s primary technique for manipulation.

  • Lady Macbeth, in turn continually rejects her femininity, seeing it as a source of weakness and disempowerment.  Mirroring the witches, who are seen as extremely masculine corruptions of the feminine, she begs evil forces to rid her of her womanliness in order to fully unleash her cruelty.  Ironically, however, Lady Macbeth cannot escape the guilt inherent to her actions. By the end of the play Lady Macbeth is in the idealised image of a female penitent, dressed in white, carrying a candle usually with her hair down, shown ultimately as incredibly fragile character who repents for what she has done.

  • An audience may also infer that Lady Macbeth’s rejection of the feminine and insistence on Macbeth’s masculinity destroys her relationship with her husband.  Their lack of children is also an intriguing facet of their relationship.  Whether they have had children in the past is unclear, but the lack of fertility in their relationship may be seen as a metaphor for the fruitlessness of their ambitions, or even perhaps of Lady Macbeth’s rejection of her femininity. 

  • Yet as the play continues, masculinity is redefined.  Macduff rejects the idea that masculinity involves an unfeeling disregard for tragedy.  When he discovers that his family have been murdered, he protests that he must ‘feel it as a man’. His grief is not a barrier to his masculinity, but a key part of this. 

  • Malcolm also shows this, when he rebukes Siward for not mourning properly for his son, showing that he has accepted this redefinition of what it is to be a man.  A good king, therefore, is not a purely ‘masculine’ figure capable of ruthlessness, but one capable of feeling as keenly as he can act. 

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