Monday, November 26, 2012

Lady Macbeth—unfortunately, just another one of Shakespeare's weak female characters

As we all might know, Shakespeare’s famous tragedy, Macbeth, is perhaps best known for the ambition and tyranny of its protagonist of the same name. But perhaps the most notable feature of the play is his wife, Lady Macbeth. Her manipulative influence over her husband is tremendously effective; she challenges her husband’s masculinity and chides him into murdering Duncan in order to fulfill the witches’ prophecy. In fact, it can be argued that Lady Macbeth is the impetus of all of the play’s action. (Upon meeting her in Act I, scene v, we find Lady Macbeth already planning to persuade Macbeth into killing Duncan—“He that’s coming / Must be provided for” [I.v.64–65].) Lady Macbeth’s power at first glance may seem like a stark change from the weak female characters we've been used to in Shakespeare’s other works, but in actuality, Macbeth is just another play highlighting the frailty of the female race—in Shakespeare’s eyes, anyway.
For one, in order for Lady Macbeth’s plans to kill Duncan to come to fruition, they must be acted on by her husband, a man—hence why Lady Macbeth must persuade Macbeth, rather than take it upon herself, to perform the murder. Lady Macbeth influences her husband by attacking his manhood—note the passage, “What beast was’t then… As you have done to this” (I.vii.48–59)—to which Macbeth concedes, acknowledging Lady Macbeth’s “undaunted mettle” which “should compose / Nothing but males” (I.vii.74–75). Despite her seemingly masculine way of conceptualizing the murder of Duncan, she still relies on Macbeth to carry it out, which he does, albeit with much trepidation. It is very interesting to note that Lady Macbeth claims she would have killed Duncan herself, “had he not resembled / [her] father as he slept” (II.ii.12–13). Once again, this shows a woman cowering at the idea of killing a dominant figure herself—not only a man, but one that looks like her father, another obvious dominator.
It’s not to be mistaken that Lady Macbeth’s powers of persuasion come from an entirely feminine source, for women alone are much too weak to think of such nefarious plots on their own, Shakespeare believes. Lady Macbeth must first ask spirits to “unsex [her] here, / And fill [her] from the crown to the toe top-full / Of direct cruelty” in order to gain the strength to harbor such evil intent (I.v.39–41). Apparently, even a gender-neutral individual is capable of more than what a woman is. The idea that Lady Macbeth would want to be “unsexed” in a way relates to the Weird Sisters who appear earlier in Act I. As Banquo observes, “You [the witches] should be women, / And yet your beards forbid me to interpret / That you are so” (I.iii.43–45). Should the Weird Sisters harbor ill intent themselves,we can logically deduce that they can only do so by being manlike, just as Lady Macbeth wishes to be. (The idea that Lady Macbeth is herself a witch is one that scholars have argued, but that is a topic for another blog post.)
There is other evidence that suggests Lady Macbeth typifies a weak woman character despite her apparent strength. Her susceptibility to insanity is often attributed as a distinctly female trait in Shakespeare’s time. Her swift submission to guilt and uneasiness is also typical of Shakespeare’s women characters. Yet another parallel to weak female characters is the fact that Lady Macbeth ends up killing herself in the last act of the play. Like Ophelia, we only hear of Lady Macbeth’s suicide from a secondary source, as both take place off-stage. As we know from Ophelia’s self-imposed demise, there was a stigma attached to suicide during Elizabethan times, and it was a very un-Christian thing to do (think about the Gravediggers’ conversation in Act V, scene i of Hamlet).
Taking a look at these several examples certainly shows that, despite the credit we typically give to Lady Macbeth for being such a strong, influential character in the play, she’s really just another weak female character, the kind we are accustomed to when reading Shakespeare. It’s interesting how looks can be deceiving, for the same qualities we usually attribute to Lady Macbeth as a strong woman are really only possible through (1) Macbeth doing her dirty work, and (2) her abandonment of femininity and acquisition of masculinity. It’s a shame that, in all of our readings this semester, there hasn't seemed to be one female character that was truly strong in her own right and, more so, for being a woman independent of men while maintaining her femininity. Lady Macbeth, despite being a tragic character, looked as though she might have fit the bill until I discovered otherwise. I wonder if that female character exists in Shakespeare’s world. If she does, I haven’t read about her yet.


Erika Pumilia said...

Tom- This was an excellent post to read! I loved your line "attacking his manhood"! I feel like this is just so true, and I never saw it this way, but it is true! This was my first time reading this play, but I feel like you got Lady Macbeth 100%. She is such a strong character and yet so weak...This is very interesting to me, and I am now wondering how many of Shakespeare's other female characters were also falling into this category. Excellent job!

Jess said...

Tom, I agree with Erika--this is an excellent post. I must say, your title caught my eye as it counters my original view of Lady Macbeth as being one of Shakespeare's stronger female characters. I still see her as being a fairly strong female character (especially in comparison to the women in Shakespeare's other plays that I have read)given the power that she has over Macbeth, but your post has opened my eyes to her weaknesses; particularly her reliance on men to do "her dirty work," and her desire to be more masculine or to be unisex as she sees the suppression of her femininity as the only way of enabling her to "harbor such evil intent." I also found your mention of the possibility of Lady Macbeth being a witch to be intriguing. After all, it is the combined actions of the witches and Lady Macbeth that lead to the murder of the king.

Cyrus Mulready said...

Your post raises a really good question, Tom--why has Lady Macbeth come to us through history as an example of a powerful female character? Are we trying too hard to make Shakespeare align with our modern values? Or does this characterization actually reflect an older morality that sees ANY violation of feminine roles as necessarily "progressive" (or damnable, depending on the perspective of the critic). Fascinating to think about!