A Brief Look at Feminism in Shakespeare's Macbeth
In Shakespeare’s play Macbeth, he presents the conflicting character of Lady Macbeth. Upon receiving her husband’s letter about the witches’ prophesies, she attempts to be like a man in order to exude the strength needed to gain additional social status as royalty. Lady Macbeth appears to be very influential in planning – deciding when and how they should kill King Duncan – and chiding her husband for not acting more like a man; yet, despite these capabilities, she is the main reason for the revealing of the Macbeth’s part in the usurpation of the throne.
First shown as an iron-willed character willing to “[pluck] my nipple from [my child’s] boneless gums, And [dash] the brains out, had I so sworn as you Have done to this” to later being shown as possessed by nightmares of guilt (I. vii), how could such a strong character so quickly fall prey to uneasiness? According to materialist feminism theory, despite her earlier show of strength, Lady Macbeth’s eventual weakness is a result of a patriarchal portrayal of her gender.
A popular speculation on why the oppression of women is not more commonly recognized than the oppression of certain ethnic or religious groups, is that “women’s allegiance to men from their own [background] always supersedes their allegiance to women from different classes” (Tyson 97). While certain social and economic factors separate people from different walks of life, within these groups women are also separated from each other. Women remain isolated which prevents them from making significant changes because they have no strength in size.
Similarly, Lady Macbeth, while being notably strong compared to other members of her gender, has no way to enact her schemes as she is kept isolated from other women during the course of the play. While her strength is great, she is not powerful enough alone to deal with a murder. She does not reveal the secret of their murderous deeds because she is a woman and thus inherently weak, but she reveals the secret because she is a woman and thus has been selectively isolated from finding strength in number.
From the very beginning of Macbeth, Lady Macbeth is shown as a character is relents in creating rebellious plots. According to Lois Tyson, “women [invest] themselves…in the accomplishments of their husbands and sons” (97). Lady Macduff – the epitome of motherhood – does not concoct some evil plot because she invests all of her intellectual powers into the achievements of her husband and children.
On the other hand, Lady Macbeth, not as bound to domestic duties as Lady Macduff, sharpens her intellectual capabilities for her own use. While intelligence from a male character would be seen as a beneficial trait, patriarchy defines Lady Macbeth’s intelligence as a flaw and as an indicator that she is unnatural and “unfulfilled” as a woman.
Patriarchal society encourages Lady Macbeth to invest herself in the role of mother. Lady Macbeth is seen as selfish and abnormal when she confesses that there is a situation in which she would “[dash] [her child’s] brains out” (I.vii), a very unnatural statement according to patriarchy’s belief that women’s desire to have and protect children is a part of “their natural biological makeup” (Tyson 97). Though intelligent and strong at the beginning of Macbeth, Lady Macbeth is reduced to an insignificant person haunted by nightmares and guilt as a result of a patriarchal portrayal of her gender.
Shakespeare, William. William C. Carroll, ed. Macbeth. New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1999.
Tyson, Lois. Critical Theory Today: A User-Friendly Guide. New York: Taylor & Francis Group, 2006.