Is any theme in literature more provocative than the differences between men and women? Countless artists draw inspiration from the nature of masculine and feminine identity, and the variety of sensibilities that characterize each gender. Such issues resound with particular force in Shakespeare’s plays, even though they were written when women were forbidden to appear on the English stage, and all female roles were portrayed by young men or boys. Although we may assume that Shakespeare’s audience accepted the illusion, his writing under such a constriction must have shaped his vision. Furthermore, many of his plots involve female characters dressing up as males, a deception that leads to all sorts of intriguing situations in which the intrinsic biological differences between men and women, as well as those created by society, come to the fore. To encapsulate Shakespeare’s views on this subject in a sentence or two is impossible. We can say with assurance, though, that in his plays, the categories of what we call “masculine” and “feminine” are hardly absolute. Rather, they tend to overlap within characters, at times indistinguishably, and sometimes clashing violently.
No play better epitomizes the war between masculine and feminine instincts than Macbeth. Indeed, the first characters we meet, the three witches, are described later as women with beards (I, iii, 46), and thus from the outset the genders mix uncomfortably. Macbeth is soon introduced as a soldier of pure brutality: “Valor’s minion” (I, ii, 19), a stereotypical masculine image, but we soon learn that he has no children. The witches predict that one day he will have the crown of Scotland, but also that it shall be passed on to his rival Banquo’s children. We may surmise, therefore, that Macbeth has failed in the most fundamental responsibility of a man: to be a father. The question therefore arises as to whether his battlefield exploits are some form of compensation to prove the manhood that is suspect because of his failure to sire offspring.
Our first impression of Lady Macbeth intensifies the issue of gender.