Women in Literature: Reading through the Lens of Gender

By Jerilyn Fisher; Ellen S. Silber | Go to book overview

Unnatural: Women in William Shakespeare’s Macbeth (ca. 1606)

Elizabeth Klett

Macbeth has a woman as a leading character, making it unusual among Shakespeare’s great tragedies. Often labeled an “unnatural” woman because she manipulates her husband into killing the king and seizing his crown, Lady Macbeth is allied with the three witches: they all represent the feminine forces of darkness that turn Macbeth to murder. Lady Macbeth stands in strong contrast to Lady Macduff, the good wife and devoted mother. But such characterizations are overly simplistic and do not portray the complexities of Shakespeare’s script. The women in Macbeth are all, to varying degrees, “unnatural,” not because they are necessarily evil, but because they critique their roles, either directly or indirectly, in an oppressive patriarchal world.

Set in medieval Scotland, the play depicts a violent society in which gender roles are rigidly defined: men are judged by their ability in combat, and women by their docility and obedience. Conformity to these roles is of utmost importance, as demonstrated by the character progressions of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. Although a soldier, Macbeth shows himself, initially, to be weak-willed and conscience-stricken about the deadly deed. Lady Macbeth takes the more “manly” role, providing an example of courage and resolve that he must follow if he wants to fulfill his desires. Yet as the play continues, Macbeth becomes cold, remorseless, and emotionally dead, a caricature of the violent warrior-king. Conversely, Lady Macbeth gradually falls apart, consumed by guilt, and eventually commits suicide.

Given the stark split between masculine and feminine behavior in this world, it is not surprising that Lady Macbeth’s main persuasive tactic is to question her husband’s manhood. “When you durst do it, then you were a man,” she rebukes him as he vacillates over the murder, “And to be more than what you were, you would / Be so much more the man” (1.7.49–51). Later, when Mac-

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