Academic journal article The Upstart Crow

(Un)sexing Lady Macbeth: Gender, Power, and Visual Rhetoric in Her Graphic Afterlives

Academic journal article The Upstart Crow

(Un)sexing Lady Macbeth: Gender, Power, and Visual Rhetoric in Her Graphic Afterlives

Article excerpt

As audience members, we need memory in order to experience difference as well as similarity. (1)

--Linda Hutcheon

Lady Macbeth's status as one of Shakespeare's most devious and fascinating characters has been recognized in the proliferation of criticism on and adaptive works of Macbeth over the past 400 years. Of particular concern has been how she achieves her ambitions and advances her and her husband's political interests while working within a stringently patriarchal society. One way critics have explained Lady Macbeth's relative success is through her associations with demonic forces and the fateful powers of the notorious three witches. Others have looked at how in the play she verbally manipulates gender values and expectations to suit her purposes. As Cristina Leon Alfar reminds us, "Lady Macbeth's 'evil' is ... an ideologically inscribed notion that is often linked in our literary tradition to strong female characters who seek power, who reject filial loyalty as prior to self-loyalty, and who pursue desire in all its forms--romantic, adulterate, authoritarian, and even violent." (2)

In Shakespeare's play, Lady Macbeth's portrayal begins with the powerful elements of her ambitious and successful plotting of Duncan's demise, effective rhetorical manipulation of her husband to "be a man" and take action, and her position-potentially--as Macbeth's equal in their relationship, his desired "dear partner of greatness." And yet, for the most part, these powerful moments are all in the service of disorder (of tyrannical usurpation of the monarchy and the usurpation of control within her marriage) and the unnatural (through her affiliations with the supernatural in the "unsex me here" speech). Her guilt-filled sleepwalking scene and later suicide register therefore as bodily signs of her corruption and as (self-)punishment for her transgressive, "evil" ways.

From the beginning, Lady Macbeth's cultural value has generally included the sense that she is monstrous--she not only has crossed the boundaries of appropriate behavior for a wife and subject, but she has called on demonic forces to help her achieve her goals. The play's narrative about her ambition to obtain position and fame collapses into a heavily gendered cautionary tale about tyrannical overreachers and their demise. Shakespeare's Lady Macbeth borrows from earlier "monstrous women" stereotypes but also provides an iconic model for later interpretations of her character.

Are there other productive ways of representing Lady Macbeth without rein-scribing her within traditional evil female stereotypes such as the witch and seductress? Many stage, film, and artistic works to date would seem to reply "no." Her stereotypical representation makes her immediately familiar and thus culturally recognizable. However, what signifies as culturally recognizable becomes more fluid as social stereotypes are challenged and altered, and as more roles for strong women become available. Graphic novel and manga editions of Shakespeare's Macbeth provide a newer critical arena that both places Lady Macbeth in a long artistic and literary tradition and opens the door to different interpretations available from other genres such as superhero comics and science fiction. In this way, illustrators elaborate on and modify the iconic meanings that have accrued around her over the years. (3)

To see how these graphic renditions figure Lady Macbeth's character and the key debates over the relationship between gender and power in the play, I will examine four adaptive works, two of which are graphic novels and two that are manga: William Shakespeare's Macbeth; Macbeth: The Graphic Novel; Shakespeare's Macbeth: The Manga Edition; and Manga Shakespeare: Macbeth. (4) Ultimately, most of these representations fall back into old, cliched stereotypes, thus reinforcing traditional gendered expectations about who is authorized to use power, express ambition, and pursue a wider range of desires. …

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