Gender Roles in Macbeth
Although written long ago, Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Macbeth still has themes relevant for contemporary society. Murderous ambition, political intrigue, crafty social alliances, the disintegration of marriage – these could be headlines from any daily news program. It comes as no surprise, then, that we also find a significant number of moments in the play where gender seems to be an issue. More specifically, we might say that Shakespeare's dramatic investigation into proper uses of power consists, in part, of a rigorous critique of the disparities between the respective roles assigned to men and women. Shakespeare seems especially interested in the moral and ethical implications of such discrepancies. In the interest of space and time, I will focus here on only a few brief moments from act one. However, I encourage you to note the further development of these points as the drama unfolds in subsequent scenes.
In the very first scene of Macbeth we learn what Duncan and his people value in masculine identity. When the sergeant staggers in to report what he has seen of Macbeth in battle, we are given an image of a thane who is steeped in gore:
For brave Macbeth (well he deserves that name),
Disdaining Fortune, with his brandish'd steel,
Which smok'd with bloody execution,
Like Valour's minion carv'd out his passage,
Till he fac'd the slave;
Which ne'er shook hands, nor bade farewell to him,
Till he unseam'd him from the nave to th'chops,
And fix'd his head upon our battlements. (1.2.16-23)
The king's response to this account is especially telling: "O valiant cousin, worthy gentleman!" (1.2.16-24) demonstrates as much appreciation for the manner in which Macbeth overcame his opponent as for the victory itself. Macbeth's "doubly redoubled strokes" and his bath "in reeking wounds" is a curious mixture of the hideous and the heroic -- a combination which the other characters read as demonstrative of admirable manly service. In fact, we expect men to be bloody and violent in the play, and their "bloody deeds are sanctioned because they are directed at enemies" (Marilyn L. Williamson, "Violence and Gender Ideology," Shakespeare Left and Right, ed. Ivo Kamps [New York: Routledge, 1991], p. 194).
Several critics have discussed the provocative movement from the sergeant's account of a gore-splattered Macbeth to Macbeth's encounter with the three Weird Sisters: we can assume that the dramatic juxtaposition is intended to provoke a recognition of kind. Others have pointed to Macbeth's habitual echoing of the witches, another device which links him to what appears to be a source of evil in the play. With these observations in mind, we ought also to note the explicit reference to gender-markers in the third scene. The ambiguity brought about by conflicting male and female signs clearly troubles Banquo:
You seem to understand me,
By each at once her choppy finger laying
Upon her skinny...