Essay on Changing Gender Roles in William Shakespeare's Macbeth

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Changing Gender Roles in William Shakespeare's Macbeth

Much attention has been paid to the theme of "manliness" as it appears throughout Macbeth. In his introduction to Macbeth in The Riverside Shakespeare, Frank Kermode contends that the play is "about the eclipse of civility and manhood, [and] the temporary triumph of evil" (1307). Stephen Greenblatt emphasizes the same idea in The Norton Shakespeare, crediting Lady Macbeth for encouraging her husband through both "sexual taunting" and "the terrible force of her determination" (2557-58). Macbeth responds to his wife with "a clear sense of the proper boundaries of his identity as a male and as a human being, [telling her] 'I dare do all that may become a man;/Who dares do
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(16-23)

The Captain's enthusiastic description of Macbeth's courage in the battle with Macdonald, and Duncan's agreement that his "valiant cousin" is a "worthy gentleman" (24), belie any notion that charges of "unmanliness" are levelled against Macbeth by his seemingly respectful male colleagues. Measuring masculinity in terms of military prowess, Duncan and his men perceive no inherent weakness in Macbeth, and they have little reason to suspect him of the treason and disorder he will ultimately initiate. If Macbeth is to be charged with "unmanliness," the accusation must necessarily appear from beyond the relative safety of this decidedly masculine domain.

It does. Although Macbeth's violence against Duncan is frequently attributed jointly to the "inspiration" of the witches and Lady Macbeth,1 the play carefully refrains from having the witches openly encourage Macbeth to take action, whether lethal, passive, or otherwise. Despite critical contentions that Lady Macbeth "'replaces'" the witches following the first act,2 it is crucial to note that her persuasions, unlike the sisters', are decidedly proactive. The witches merely report their prophecy; Lady Macbeth effectively pushes her husband into forcing it to become a reality. The difference in her influence lies in its kind as well as its degree: whereas the sisters act only as the instruments of evil, Lady Macbeth actively promotes her elected role as her husband's