Friday, November 23, 2012

The Importance of Being "Manly"

It is hard to believe that this is my last blog post of the semester!  Where did the time go?  Being that the majority of my posts explore the characteristics of a patriarchal society, I am going to revisit the topic of gender in this final entry.  I cannot help but note that the characters in Macbeth frequently refer to gender issues, especially regarding the power of one’s masculinity.  Through an examination of its major characters, it becomes evident that there is a strong connection between cruelty and masculinity throughout the play.  What is Shakespeare trying to exhibit through this link?  Is he further questioning a patriarchal society?

In order to get her way, Lady Macbeth manipulates her husband to kill by questioning his manhood.  As she questions Macbeth, “Art thou afeard to be the same in thine own act and valour as thou art in desire?” (1.7.39-41).  Her technique works, and Macbeth carries out the murder.  According to Macbeth, “I dare do all that may become a man; who dares do more is none” (1.7.46-47).  Perhaps this portrays the significance of one’s masculinity during Shakespeare’s time.  I am guessing that the male members of Shakespeare’s audience would have been able to relate to Macbeth.  More than likely, just like a woman’s chastity, a man’s masculinity was extremely important.  Interestingly enough, in the exact same way that Lady Macbeth provokes her husband to murder, Macbeth also instigates his hired murderers to kill Banquo by questioning their manhood.  He states, “Now, if you have a station in the file, not I’th’ worst rank of manhood say’t, and I will put that business in your bosoms whose execution takes your enemy off” (3.1.103-106).  This further validates my inference that one’s masculinity was highly valued during Shakespeare’s time.  Similarly, as illustrated during the scene where Macduff learns of the murders of his wife and child, Malcolm consoles Macduff by encouraging him to take the news in “manly” fashion.  This involves seeking revenge upon Macbeth.  As Malcolm suggests to Macduff, “Dispute it like a man” (4.3.221).  Macduff replies, “I shall do so. But I must also feel it as a man” (4.3.222–223).     
On another note, it is evident that women are also sources of violence and evil in the play. The witches’ prophecies spark Macbeth’s ambitions, and then consequently encourage his violent behavior.  Furthermore, Lady Macbeth provides the intelligence and the motive behind her husband’s plotting. Arguably, Macbeth traces the root of chaos and evil to women.  Thus, perhaps this is one of Shakespeare’s most misogynistic plays.  While the male characters are just as violent and prone to evil as the women, the aggression of the female characters is more striking because it goes against prevailing expectations of how women were expected to behave.  As illustrated when she instigates Macbeth to kill, Lady Macbeth’s behavior certainly shows that women can be as ambitious and cruel as men.  Whether it is due to the constraints of her society, or simply because she is not fearless enough to kill, Lady Macbeth relies on deception and manipulation rather than violence in order to achieve her goal.  Therefore, with that said, it is difficult to understand Shakespeare’s message.  Is he equating masculinity with violence, or is he validating a patriarchal society by portraying women as the source of evil?  I would love to have a chat with Shakespeare about this play!  It is truly a fascinating, mind-boggling piece of literature.    


Vanessa Pavelock said...

I enjoyed how you explored the connection between the ideas of masculinity and taking violent action. While this play does address the possibility of evil characteristics in women, these characters merely have the ability to manipulate others with their language. They are able to have evil thoughts and desires, but they are not able to bring themselves to act on them. Instead, both Lady Macbeth and witched use men as agents by which their evil desires may be performed. We see that Shakespeare’s male character’s associate action with manliness, and therefore easily fall into the trap of manipulation as soon as their masculinity is in question. While the female character’s are shown as conniving, manipulative figures, the men of this play are much more simple-minded figures who are impulsively driven.

Cyrus Mulready said...

We've talked a lot about gender in terms of femininity in this course, but not as much about masculinity, which is why I really appreciate your post! I agree that there is a kind of crisis of masculinity at the center of the drama, one that is pushed along by Lady Macbeth. One of my favorite lines in the play is hers, when she tells her husband "Screw your courage to the sticking place," a metaphor that is drawn from warfare--crossbows were strung with "screws" that would pull back the bolt to the holding place before firing. I love it that Lady Macbeth uses the language of the battlefield to drive her husband along, suggesting as Krystal points out, that he is not being manly enough!