Type: Response Essays
Sample donated: Dorothy Kim
Last updated: February 13, 2019
‘Explore the presentation of masculinity throughout Macbeth’Throughout Macbeth, Shakespeare presents Masculinity in a variety of ways. In this play, Shakespeare presents a lead character who adheres to traditionally masculine codes of violence and ambition, but is also accused of being too feminine by his wife. However, he also presents us with women who are unexpectedly powerful. Shakespeare never gives his opinion, but implies gender is more complex than we think. At various points through the play, Shakespeare presents stereotypical Jacobean masculinity. This is shown by, “What bloody man is that?” “O valiant cousin! Worthy gentlemen.
” Here, the use of violent adjectives and direct words emphasise the ‘heroic’ men at the start of the play, as to a Jacobean audience, violent adjectives would be associated with men. The old Thane of Cawdor ‘confess’d his treasons,’ and this again highlights the presentation of stereotypical men, as it was seen as a ‘manly’ thing to do to tell the truth and be direct, unlike women who were associated with sly and underhand comments. “I am so much a fool, should I stay longer/ it would be my disgrace and your discomfort,” here Ross is explaining to Lady Macduff that he should go. Otherwise he would cry, and that would be seen as an unmanly thing to do, and a ‘disgrace,’ and would make Lady Macduff feel uncomfortable.
The fact that it would make Lady Macduff uncomfortable underlines how women at the time Shakespeare was writing were used to stereotypes that men should be unemotional. This is also significant, as it is a contrast to Macbeth and his wife, as Ross is a true man that follows custom. This means that to a Jacobean audience, it would make Lady Macbeth and Macbeth disrupting gender roles later on even more shocking. However, in contrast, Lady Macbeth rejects her feminine and maternal qualities and wants to adopt masculine traits. She shouts, “unsex me here” and the use of ‘unsex’ shows she is willing to give up her femininity, and wants to become a man which opposes the Elizabethan idea that woman are the givers of life.
Shakespeare is presenting masculinity as advantageous, as a way to gain agency. This is also partly due to the Great Chain of Being at the time, which meant that women had less power than men. She also calls upon evil spirits to “come to my woman’s breasts/And take my milk for gall, you murd’ring ministers.” Shakespeare uses the word ‘milk’ which was previously used in association with Macbeth’s kindness, and ‘milk’ has connotations of women. By Lady Macbeth saying she wants them to “take my milk,” shows how she wants to become less of a women, to gain agency, presenting masculinity as desirable. Here, she is also being very aggressive, and this would have shocked a Jacobean audience, who expect women to be calm and passive. She then goes on to say, “I would, while it was smiling in my face/Have plucked my nipple from its boneless gums/And dashed the brains out, had I so sworn as you.
” Here, the use of violent masculine imagery such as ‘plucked’ and ‘dashed’ emphasise her opposition to femininity, and desire for masculinity. She is also using pronouns such as ‘I’ and ‘my’, which shows how commanding she is, and also showing she has agency, which again would have shocked a Jacobean audience. Shakespeare also uses the witches to show the shifting of gender boundaries throughout the play. Firstly, the play starts with the witches, who are women, which would have been unusual to a Jacobean audience.
This shows how masculinity is starting to be questioned. The witches say, “Fair is foul, and foul is fair/Hover through the fog and filthy air,” and here this symbolises the reversal of the hierarchy, and the fog has connotations of confusion, showing the uncertainty of gender boundaries at the time. Banquo then says, “Upon her skinny lips: you should be women/Yet your beards forbid me to interpret,”which highlights that the witches gave up their femininity (as beards are associated with men) to gain agency, and that boundaries are starting to shift between the genders.
Yet Banquo still has the fixed notion that women cannot have beards, again showing how at the time there was an air of confusion over gender. Another reading of play could be that gender and power could operate in a more fluid way than once thought, which would have shocked a Jacobean audience, as the Great Chain of Being was still influential. The First Witch then says, “I’l drain him dry as hay,”and one reading of that is that she is going to make him impotent. Perhaps, Shakespeare wants to foreshadow the point that Macbeth wants a male heir, as in 1606 having a male heir was linked to retaining power. Another way that Shakespeare presents masculinity is through the contrast of the two main men. This can be illustrated in Macbeth’s response to Lady Macbeth’s death which is bizarre. Instead of showing remorse, he says “she should have died hereafter,” showing that his concern is not the loss of his wife, but the timing of her death. The first four words are also monosyllables, creating a slow, heavy pace, and the word ‘hereafter’ suggests the death was inconvenient.
He then continues to consider the time, rather than the loss of his ‘partner in greatness,’ deciding that life is a ‘petty’ path to ‘dusty death’ which signifies ‘nothing.’ The use of the adjective ‘petty’ and the word ‘nothing’ emphasises the negativity. However, he does not cry, as men were the providers, so it was seen as ‘unmanly’ to cry. However, Macduff has a completely different reaction, “What! All my pretty chickens and their dam at one feel swoop?” Here, Macduff is letting his emotions out, and really mourning about his children dying, and shows this by referring to his children as ‘pretty chickens.’ Malcolm then says “Dispute it like a man,” as it would have been seen as unmanly to cry, but Macduff then replies “I shall do so; but I must also feel it like a man.
“One interpretation of this is that Macduff is saying he could ‘play’ a woman’s part and weep, while at the same time boasting the manly revenge he will take on Macbeth. So, what he means is that any emotions can be faked, but his emotions are real One interpretation of that could be that pre-1600, men were the ones who were emotional. Therefore, what Shakespeare is suggesting is how gender roles and stereotypes are shifting, as here men are not being presented as emotional. In conclusion, Shakespeare does present masculinity in a variety of ways; both as stereotypically brave and emotionless, but emotional and weak. However, Shakespeare also presents it as very appealing, as throughout the play the Witches and Lady Macbeth try to adopt male characteristics.
This links to the Great Chain of Being at the time, as they want to gain some agency, which showed how fixed hierarchies had been in society. Finally, with Shakespeare presenting all these different versions of masculinity, it asks an interesting question; what did Shakespeare actually think of masculinity at the time?