Read in high schools and colleges around the world, Macbeth is one of the most well known tragedies written by William Shakespeare. More gruesome than its other famous counterpart Hamlet, Macbeth also features stronger characters overall and uniquely features stronger female characters too. At first glance this is a positive addition to the story. In fact, Shakespeare’s Macbeth exemplifies how women were defined and controlled by the patriarchal society that they lived in, and mirrors issues even back then that women in today’s modern society still have to contend with.
The story of Macbeth is male-character dominated: it focuses on one man fighting against other men in his court in order to secure his own position as ruler. However the catalyst of the story, why it all begins, lies in thanks to three women.
The three witches in Macbeth, commonly referred to as the Weird Sisters, are powerful and prophetic, and there appears to be more to them as well. They are described as having beards, something that is genetically a male feature. While it is not explicitly demonstrated in presentations and adaptations of the play with the witches having facial hair, it helps them display a form of masculinity, which allows them to convey their power. They appear to be almost androgynous, non-binary gendered creatures. Dr. Caroline Cakebread quoted Marilyn French in her piece on feminism and how with the witches:
“… are female, but have beards; they are aggressive and authoritative, but seem to have power only to create petty mischief. Their persons, their activities, and their song serve to link ambiguity about to gender to moral ambiguity.”
In Katharine Briggs’ article, “The English Witch Belief,” she describes English witches to be “generally old, almost invariably poor and ignorant, and usually of an ill life” (Briggs 22). This description of being poor does not seem to fit entirely with Shakespeare’s witches in the play, but the idea of women in general being on the outskirts of society due to their strange behavior and personalities, as well as ugly features, fits.
At the same time though, the women (or witches in this case) are heavily connected to nature. Brigg’s describes in her piece, that regarding nature, “the power drawn by witches from the earth is particularly suggestive.” While this deviates some from the witches in Macbeth, it does connect many feminist interpretations of witchcraft and the view of women then and even now. “Ritual purity and fertility are both important in magic,” a connection that is also made with nature (Briggs 25). Nature’s elements are often described as “Mother Nature,” giving a maternal human characteristic to the earth, weather and the environment. Dr. Cakebread described the witches as “the most fertile force in the play” and that they “inhabit an anarchic, richly ambiguous zone … [as] poets, prophetesses and devotees of female cult, radical separatists who scorn male power” (Cakebread). This is a powerful statement and identifies well with the feminist tributes of the witches. Within the story they establish themselves as a source of power. They remain united yet separated from anyone else throughout the play, showing up when they desire and then vanishing once they have shared their warnings.
Compared to how Briggs describes the historical context of English witches, Shakespeare’s witches do appear to be almost romanticized. Briggs does offer an interesting look into the historical accuracy of witchcraft origins and the identity of the English witch, which falls short when it comes to understanding the witches in Macbeth. Her connections, while accurate historically, fail to make correlations back to the play. Like many plays and stories, characters often created from stereotypes and are not always based on factual evidence. Janet Adelman describes in her piece from Shakespearean Tragedy and Gender that:
“… for despite their numerous and infinitely suggestive indefinability, insofar as they are witches, they are distinctly English witches; and most commentators on English witchcraft note how tame an affair it was in comparison with witchcraft belief on the Continent” (112).
So while these witches in Macbeth seem to be strange characters, Shakespeare did seem to side with a blander side of witchcraft to dealing with the English v. Continental witches that Briggs also described in her book.
Despite these literary comparisons and descriptions, it is difficult to see how these women are inspiring or that they are good examples of female characters. Terry Eagleton, a British literary theorist, states his belief that “the witches are the heroines of the piece” (Cakebread). It’s hard to believe that this is an accurate statement though, if even at least a hopeful one. While the three witches represent women at their core—free of male control, deeply rooted in nature and sisterhood—they are far from depicted as heroines. In both screen and stage adaptations, they are usually shown as peculiar, sometimes scary, thus their given title, “The Weird Sisters”. If people are unable to see past these three characters being witches, then they will fail to ever appear as positive female characters. And their power diminishes as the play goes on and the character Macbeth grows in power. Adelman noted this, commenting that:
“There is a distinct weakening of their power after their first appearances: only halfway through the play, in 4.1, do we hear that they themselves have masters (4.1.63). The more Macbeth claims for them, the less their actual power seems” (111).
That as a man’s power grows, a woman’s power weakens? Is this the message that we are supposed to receive from the witches? It is problematic to look at these witches as strong when their portrayal is both weird and weakens over time. Are we to believe if a woman succeeds in life, and also helps a man achieve what he is capable of accomplishing, in the end it will lessen her power until she is nonexistent while the man reaps the rewards? This lack of acknowledgement of female power continues today, as women still struggle to find recognition in the work force. While comparing witches to businesswomen seems far-fetched, they in fact share similar characteristics. Alienated for not fitting their gender (the bearded witches and the businesswomen working in male-dominated careers), they are scorned and ignored as men attain bigger and greater achievements, even though women may have initiate and contribute to man’s success.
At times it’s difficult to read Shakespeare through a feminist lens. His female characters often fall flat, or simply just fall in love. They are typically two-dimensional and are repressed by fathers or other male figures within the play. At times we are lulled into thinking that many of them are strong, fighting to marry whom they want, while forgetting that a happy ending for them is usually only found in marriage and male companionship. For example, many of the same-sex relationships in the plays, two women who have become better friends than that of sisters, are torn apart at the end by the realization that marriage annuls these links. Sometimes though a female character comes along that shows strength in herself and isn’t simply a pawn to push around to move the plot forward. Lady Macbeth, the wife of the title character in Macbeth, is such a character. But the danger in celebrating her character is that while she is strong, she is also violent and murderous, cunning and deceptive. Is this type of strong female character our only other option? Looking past the damsels in distress and love-struck heroines, is someone like Lady Macbeth, a woman consumed by power and considered an anti-hero, our best and only other female role model?
Literary scholars often debate the argument, who is the lesser of two evils in the story, Macbeth or Lady Macbeth. Each character certainly has his or her own villainous streak to them, but which one is truly to blame for their heinous actions. We seek to find someone to lay the blame on, to be able to point our finger at a single person who is at fault in this story. Without question, many point to Lady Macbeth, accusing her to be worse than the tyrant king Macbeth. As Dr. Cakebread states in her article, “Macbeth receives the title of ‘brave Macbeth’ amongst his peers for his role as butcher and killing machine. His ruthlessness is welcomed as valorous and wins him the accolades of his male peers” (Cakebread). While this masculine brutality is celebrated in Macbeth’s character, readers today find the similar passionate drive in Lady Macbeth to be vile and horrible. It’s one thing for a man to have these personality traits but if a woman has them, problems arise and people begin to have issues with her and begin to question her character and motives.
In order to follow through with the murders and deception, Lady Macbeth pleads with spirits to “unsex” her and “fill [her], from the crown to the toe, top-full of direst cruelty.” She follows it up by encouraging the spirits to “come to [her] woman’s breasts and take for gall” (1.5.47-48). Dr. Cakebread saw this as confirmation that Lady Macbeth is “trading her traditional feminine role as mother and nurturer in exchange for a power which accords with the violent, masculine world of which her husband is a part” (Cakebread). Lady Macbeth must shed her feminine nature, one that is considered weak, in order to succeed; to become a dominating force and enable her to follow through with convincing her husband of to commit murder and then become king.
While Adelman’s interpretation of Lady Macbeth is that of a “female temptress,” I believe that Lady Macbeth uses her wits more than her sexuality as a means of accomplishing what she wants (Adelman 111). In the case of convincing her husband to go through with murdering the then current king, she pokes and prods him, taunting his masculinity and that if he fails to go through with it, he is less than a man. Although these scenes may support the idea that Lady Macbeth is the villain at fault here, there is more to it. Lady Macbeth understands that in the society she lives in, she must transform herself from woman to man to get ahead. Dr. Cakebread explained it best, describing this as “further highlight[ing] the importance of the acceptance of traditionally masculine qualities in order to achieve power in the play” (Cakebread).
This idea that masculinity is stronger and better than feminine qualities, is a foundation that transfers to how men were expected to behave. Lady Macbeth is able to convince her husband to commit the murder by questioning his manhood and mocking him. These standards force the societal idea that the more masculine somebody is, the better and stronger they are. For Lady Macbeth to succeed, she needs to be more masculine. For Macbeth to succeed, it’s not enough to simply be a male. He must take on the personality of being aggressive and violent, an extreme of his gender and perceived male traits. And if Lady Macbeth remains complacent as a female, she has to accept that as a woman she has no stature or power. This issue transcends to modern day as well. Masculinity is the prized trait in people versus the supposedly weaker feminine side. This pushes unrealistic expectations and standards, creating a society that values only the extreme of both sides for women, and only one for men.
On the surface, Shakespeare’s plays are extremely problematic to look at from a pro-feminist viewpoint. While some of his plays were written to provide amusement and madcap romantic adventures through switched identities and hidden feelings of love (lost and won), many of his plays have a darker thread and theme, especially for his female characters. They can be cunning or scheming, or even evil at times. Or sometimes they have themselves dying for love, in the cases of Ophelia and Juliet, in Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet respectively. There is rarely an in-between.
Must a woman display characteristics or interest and traits similar to a man if she wants to be successful? If so, will she be shunned for her actions or intent? I feel that Shakespeare developed strong female characters in his plays and in the play Macbeth. He believes that the female gender is strong, sometimes sensual, sometimes caring, cunning and even diabolical at times. He was a poet and a playwright in the late 1500s during Queen Elizabeth’s reign, a strong woman in her own right who displayed her authority by leading her country and using her image as the “Virgin Queen” as a power tool. His plays portrayed sentiments of his time under a female ruler and for centuries and women to come. While Macbeth is a troublesome play that lacks positively strong female roles, it does possess Lady Macbeth, and while she is a dark character, is still a beacon of light for another dimension to Shakespeare’s women.