Macbeth is a tragedy about a brave and fearsome Scottish general that has a prophecy about him foretold by three witches that he would be next in line for the title of king. Macbeth becomes ambitious seeks the crown through a dark and unforgiving route, this path eventually is what causes his own infamous downfall. Throughout the play, gender is seen to be a major role in setting up acts and scenes in the play, in the sense that female characters have defining characteristics that are traditionally associated with men while the male characters are shown to hold characteristics that are traditional unique to females. Men are traditional seen as the foundation and source of income in a family and women are generally the ones to look after children and care for them. Women are characterized as emotional, caring and kind while Men are characterized as brave, bold, fearless and strong. In the play Macbeth by William Shakespeare, traditional gender roles are challenged by Lady Macbeth and Macbeth throughout the play.
Macbeth is a great representation of a character challenged by the traditional gender role/view of a male. Macbeth takes on feminine characteristics evidentially at the beginning of the play which are traits generally not associated with men, especially men of the medieval era who were generally seen to be war-breed and ruthless. Barbaric characteristics which should apply to any soldier of any army during that time period. The first piece of evidence that Macbeth takes on a feminine role is during the conception and planning of murdering King Duncan to become king of Scotland.
Macbeth is evidently distraught by the murder and is troubled by the thought even before completing their plan. When talking about King Duncan to Lady Macbeth he says, “The king trusts me in two ways. First of all, I am his kinsman and his subject, so I should always try to protect him. Second, I am his host, so I should be closing the door in his murderer’s face, not trying to murder him myself.” (1.7. 13-17) seeing how hesitant and reluctant he is to betray and proceed with murdering King Duncan shows the audience that Macbeth lacks will and motive for his “ambition”. This is seen as being mainly due to the fact that it would go against his duty as a host and kinsman, however despite this being the “main reason” the audience may interpret this as being a cover for his weakness. Nevertheless, this expands on Macbeth’s weakness to commitment.
The second piece of evidence comes after Macbeth murdered King Duncan in Macbeth’s own home. Macbeth is seen by the audience to be perplexed and emotionally distressed when he returns to Lady Macbeth and informs her about what he has done and how guilty he feels. Macbeth is portrayed as being physical and emotional stress, to the point where he refuses to re-enter the Kind Duncan’s sleeping chamber where he lays dead. This is evident when Macbeth says, “I can’t go back. I’m afraid even to think about what I’ve done. I can’t stand to look at it again.” (2.2. 50-51). Lady Macbeth is ashamed and infuriated by Macbeth’s weakness and his foolishness and even proceeds to insult and scold hims. This is seen in the scene in which she scolds Macbeth when he forgets to leave the bloodstained daggers at the scene of the King Duncan’s murder. This is evident when she says, “Coward! Give me the daggers. Dead and sleeping people can’t hurt you any more than pictures can. Only children are afraid of scary pictures.” (2.2. 52-55). These quote show the audience how Macbeth has become afraid of his own actions and is cowering down to the point where he is seen as a small child. Macbeth could not bear to will himself to collect the daggers and hide them from the scene of the crime because he wanted to be part of his crime no more and retreat to his “innocence”. His display of fear is seen as weakness to other and had he ever acted like this in public, he would be made a fool of. Macbeth is displaying characteristics of fear when approached by the topic of death, which are not typically not associated with soldiers but to housewives in the medieval era.
The finally piece of evidence that Macbeth displays characteristics not associated to man is when he is reluctant to fight Macduff. When Macduff finally arrives in the castle to kill Macbeth for his crimes against the crown and for killing Macduff’s family as well as his kinsman, Macbeth states that only a man not woman born would be able to beat him. Macduff responds by saying he born through c-section. Following this statement, Macbeth is shocked and attempts to refrain from combat and flee. This is evident when Macbeth says, “Accursed be that tongue that tells me so, For it hath cow’d my better part of man! And be these juggling fiends no more believed, That palter with us in a double sense; That keep the word of promise to our ear, And break it to our hope. I’ll not fight with thee” (5.8.17-22). This quote shows how Macbeth is abandoning all of masculinity as he does not wish to fight for his life anymore knowing that he may lose. Macbeth is seen as a prideless coward by Macduff and the audience and all respect that anyone had for him or he for himself, had been cast away. A man in medieval times and even nowadays fight for their pride and their own lives as well as others’ lives no matter what the outcome, predetermined or not.
Lady Macbeth is not displayed as the traditional medieval era women. This is evident in several scenes and frames of dialogue where Lady Macbeth is seen to adopt more male characteristics than stereotypical woman characteristics. An example of this is when Lady Macbeth is being introduced in the play. The audience is introduced to Lady Macbeth’s sense of dominance and power which is not the average stereotypical trait of a woman. Lady Macbeth blatantly distinguishes herself as the dominant force in her relationship with Macbeth throughout majority of the play. For instance, when Macbeth is hesitant and perplexed of how to manage King Duncan’s visit to their home, Lady Macbeth instantly seizes control of the situation, demanding that Macbeth lets her take control of the situation as shown when she says, “Let me handle tonight’s preparations, because tonight will change every night and day for the rest of our lives.” (1.5. 57-60). This is an example of how the gender roles are reversed as the men/husbands of our society are usually portrayed as being assertive or dominant to handling situations, not the women/wives.
Lady Macbeth is also shown as being the motivating force her relationship with Macbeth. Her intentions are purely directed toward obtaining immediate power and status for Macbeth and herself. This is first seen after learning about the weird sisters’ prophecies. Lady Macbeth receives a letter from Macbeth telling of the weird sisters’ prophecies about him becoming king. Macbeth also mentions to Lady Macbeth that he plans on achieving the title of king through the murder of King Duncan. Lady Macbeth immediately starts the conceiving the murder of King Duncan and plans on how to act it out. She tell Macbeth to rest and let her take charge of the situation. This is made evident when Lady Macbeth says, “You should project a peaceful mood, because if you look troubled, you will arouse suspicion. Leave all the rest to me.” (1.5. 63-65).
Lady Macbeth isn’t bothered at all by the thought of murdering King Duncan in her own home and even directly after King Duncan’s death, she remains carefree, calm and untroubled by Macbeth’s treacherous deed. This is seen in the scene in which she scolds Macbeth when he forgets to leave the bloodstained daggers at the scene of the King Duncan’s murder. This is evident when she says, “Coward! Give me the daggers. Dead and sleeping people can’t hurt you any more than pictures can. Only children are afraid of scary pictures.” (2.2. 52-55).
The gender reversals of the Macbeth’s throughout the play are evidently represented in multiple ways such as, their amount of ambition, dominance and assertiveness in their marriage, guilt, and personalities. Shakespeare’s tragedy “Macbeth” explores and de es the idea of traditional gender standards through the plot progression within Macbeth, in which the roles of Lady Macbeth and Macbeth are reversed. Macbeth challenges the explicit gender norms that society has placed on, both past and present, men and women. Lady Macbeth and Macbeth switch gender roles and explicitly show the dominant traits that the other gender clearly possess. Lady Macbeth clearly breaks several gender norms and expectations with her heartless and evident masculine nature as Macbeth did the same with his more feminine characteristics. Yet, the plot progression throughout the play negatively shows how the characters transition into more of their gender roles and how it leads to their downfall.