'Unnatural Hags': Shakespeare's Evil Women in Titus Andronicus, King Lear and Macbeth

By Sentov, Ana | European English Messenger, Summer 2014 | Go to article overview

'Unnatural Hags': Shakespeare's Evil Women in Titus Andronicus, King Lear and Macbeth


Sentov, Ana, European English Messenger


In Shakespearean England the social status of women had declined: both Protestant theology and the teachings of ancient philosophers and physicians re-discovered by the Humanist scholars, considered women weak and sinful, lesser than men. Sixteenth century theologians and scholars saw women as weaker than men both in reason and in physical strength; moreover, they were more likely to prone to irrational fears and figments of their over-active imagination. As he was made in the image of God, the man was perfect, while the woman was created from his rib, to be his companion and helper. As the woman was to blame for the Fall, her duty by nature and by law was to obey her husband, as well as her God. Only if the husband strayed from the righteous path was the wife allowed to disobey him; even then, she was expected to be loyal and bring her husband back to virtuousness (Klein 1980: 240).

Kristina Leon Alfar (2002: 15) says that "woman in the period is frequently represented by evil, sickness and death", as can be seen in the works of Spenser, Shakespeare, and Milton. In the sixteenth and seventeenth century medical treatises, the female body is treated as an imperfect, 'mutilated' version of the male body. Therefore, the woman is physically and, by implication, mentally inferior to the man. Still, scholars and theologians agreed that, if women were quiet, industrious and devoted, their sinful nature could be controlled; if left unchecked, they were certain to stray. This view can often be found in Shakespearean tragedy: when Juliet protests against the arranged marriage, her father curses her, calling her "green sickness carrion" (III.5.156); Tamora is a "beastly creature", (II.3.181), a disgrace to all women. Lear calls Goneril "a disease that's in (his) flesh" (II.4.221), and he denounces both elder daughters as "unnatural hags", (II.4.277); Lady Macbeth calls on evil spirits to "unsex" her (I.5.38) and "take (her) milk for gall" (I.5.45).

This paper will analyse the characters of evil women in Titus Andronicus, King Lear and Macbeth, their common features and the ways they are presented. Several common features are immediately recognizable: all these women attempt to win male prerogatives, such as the power to rule the land or make decisions; they fight the constraints of gender roles and behaviour patterns; they exhibit either ambition or desire for vengeance, which jeopardizes male authority; finally, their sexuality escapes the male control. Consequently, their power is ascribed (by the male characters) to the supernatural and demonic forces. While studying the characters of Goneril, Regan, Lady Macbeth, and (in some cases) Cleopatra, many Shakespearean scholars

"have taken the denunciations of male characters at their word. Because Lear, Albany, Macbeth, Caesar and Antony accuse their women variously of monstrosity, manliness, salaciousness, and betrayal, scholars have assumed that Goneril, Regan, Lady Macbeth and Cleopatra are in fact unnatural women, manipulative deceivers, and by association 'evil'." (Alfar 2002: 15-16)

Other critics have claimed that, by describing the evil deeds of these women, Shakespeare himself exhibits his mysogyny and fear of female power, and resolves this by eliminating the female characters which jeopardize the masculine identity and rule (2). Therefore, this paper will try to explain how the characters of evil women simultaneously reflect and undermine the traditional view of women in the early modern period.

Titus Andronicus is a traditional revenge tragedy in which the titular protagonist, Titus, a Roman general, who had lost twenty one of his sons in the wars against the Goths, seeks vengeance. In the beginning, he is determined to execute the eldest son of Tamora, queen of the Goths, to appease his sons' spirits. Tamora is first seen pleading for her son's life:

   Victorious Titus, rue the tears I shed,
   A mother's tears in passion for her son;
   And if thy sons were ever dear to thee,
   O, think my son to be as dear to me! … 

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