During the Elizabethan age, life for men was about having power. They had authority over everything, they were expected to be the head of the family and expected to be obeyed. The men made all the decisions and women were to obey them. According to a website named “Renaissanceman Journal”, The Renaissance ideal of a man was to try to embrace all knowledge and develop themselves as fully as possible. A man should possess the skills of many different areas which include intellect, artistic, social and physical attributes. Shakespeare paints a very different image of a Renaissance man in Macbeth. The male who is identified as the head of the family, dominant, powerful is easily manipulated by his female counterpart. The female, on the other hand, who is traditionally associated with qualities such as obedience, nurturance and kindness is transformed into a ruthless, remorseless and heartless demon. The traditional definition of masculinity and femininity are flipped.
This essay will explore the use of symbolism and characters to convey the ideas about masculinity in Macbeth. I will display and analyse the use of symbolism that Shakespeare uses to convey notions of Masculinity as well as characters that embody masculine stereotypes. The topic of gender roles is important even today as women are still undermined. Gender roles in a society mean how one is expected to typically act, dress, speak and conduct themselves according to their assigned sex. Women are expected to act in a feminine manner in which they are supposed to be soft and kind and caring while men are expected to show more male traits of power, aggression and boldness. This global issue was just the same then during the Renaissance period as it is now. By switching the roles of gender in Macbeth, Shakespeare touches upon this idea of Gender equality.
Symbolism of Masculinity
Ideas of stereotypical masculinity are overturned in the character of Lady Macbeth. From the beginning of the play, Lady Macbeth exhibits typical male qualities.
‘Glamis thou art, and Cawdor, and shalt be
What thou art promised. Yet do I fear thy nature;
It is too full o’ th’ milk of human kindness
To catch the nearest way. Thou wouldst be great,
Art not without ambition, but without
The illness should attend it.
… Hie thee hither,
That I may pour my spirits in thine ear
And chastise with the valoor of my tongue
All that impedes thee from the golden round,
Which fate and metaphysical aid doth seem
To have thee crowned withal.’
Lady Macbeth plans to “Castiche” Macbeth through the “Valoor of her tongue”, which means that she will mock and manipulate Macbeth to convince him to kill Duncan so that Macbeth can become King. The following speech establishes their relationship status and symbolises that Lady Macbeth is the dominant one in their relationship. This inverts the typical gender and societal roles during the 17th century. Since men made all the decisions and women were to obey them, Lady Macbeth symbolizes the ambition for taking power over something that doesn’t belong to her, similar to how she wants Macbeth to take over the throne that does not belong to them. “The milk of human kindness” symbolises the nature of a typical loyal man. In this case, Lady Macbeth is referring to Macbeths trustworthy behaviour towards the king. In the renaissance period, a renaissance man was to obey the order of his king and to follow his lead instead of going behind his back. Lady Macbeth wants to make clear of his loyalty and this shows that Macbeth was a man to be trusted, until he was manipulated by Lady Macbeth.
‘… Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full
Of direst cruelty. Make thick my blood.
Stop up th’ access and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
Th’ effect and it. Come to my woman’s breasts,
And take my milk for gall, you murd’ring ministers,
Wherever in your sightless substances
You wait on nature’s mischief. Come, thick night,
And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell,
That my keen knife see not the wound it makes,
Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark,
To cry “Hold, hold!”‘
This speech by Lady Macbeth is startling and disturbing. Upon reading Lady Macbeth’s soliloquy, she asks the demons to rid her of her feminine frailty and become more manly by taking away her kindness, nurturance, and mother like nature and exchange it with cruelty and merciless behaviour to give her the strength and willpower to accomplish the deed that she had pushed Macbeth into exploiting. She asks for “visiting nature” to not disturb her from her actions. She asks for her menstrual cycle to be stopped from hindering her actions and be neutralised of its effects. This also goes against the typical social and gender roles of a women during the Elizabethan era.
‘I have given suck, and know
How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me.
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums
And dashed the brains out, had I so sworn as you
Have done to this.’
Lady Macbeth proclaims that she would have dashed the head of the baby that had suckled on her nipple if she had ever promised to do so. And then she follows up by taunting Macbeth to do the same as he had sworn to kill Duncan to take over. During the Elizabethan era this was not typical of a women’s behaviour. This goes to show Lady Macbeth’s ambition for power and she is willing to sacrifice her feminine traits which she believes has been holding her back from being able to stab the backs of a loyal king in a traitorous fashion which is unlikely of a renaissance man. Bashing the babies head symbolises her ambitious traits, similar to a man’s eagerly desirous of achieving or obtaining success, power, wealth or a specific goal.
But Lady Macbeth is not the only female character in this play that show notions of masculinity. The other female forces in the play are the three Witches, yet Banquo describes them otherwise.
‘… By each at once her choppy finger laying
Upon her skinny lips. You should be women,
And yet your beards forbid me to interpret
That you are so.’
Banquo has painted the appearance of a male. Much like Lady Macbeth who is commonly seen as masculine due to her lack of emotion and is often considered influential due to her lack of emotion. It could be seen that the witches are influential due to their masculine traits, for example their beard. Banquo is unable to ignore the three witches due to their masculine appearance similarly to how Lady Macbeth is unavoidable due to her masculine traits. During the period of the play the common impression of a women was passive and incapable of behaving in a cruel and destructive manner. It could be interpreted that the play is misogynistic as it may suggest that in order for females to be influential they must behave like males, both physically and psychologically.
Character of Masculinity
King Duncan is one of the smaller yet very important characters in the play. A good king is intelligent, generous, trustworthy, noble, humble and down to earth all of which Duncan has. Duncan compliments the nobility of the people, which demonstrates Duncan’s love for his people around him, which effects their compassion for him. He is a good representation of a great renaissance masculine king.
‘O valiant cousin! Worthy gentleman!’
During Act 1 Scene 2, Duncan responds to an anonymous person, ‘My brave relative! What a worthy man!’ This shows that Duncan’s response to someone he has no knowledge of shows that Duncan is content with the news of a victories view on the battle. However Duncan’s politeness towards a man who had only passed positive news of an event and calling them a valiant cousin and a worthy gentleman shows that Duncan’s respect to a man who is of much lower class than himself. This gives the audience the impression that Duncan is a man who rules in a peaceful country rather than in a country that clashes into confliction for land.