Problematization of Female Power in Shakespeare’s Macbeth

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 “The Problematization of Female Power in Shakespeare’s Macbeth.”

Fundamental to William Shakespeare’s 1606 play, Macbeth, is the exploration of various views of female power. The idea of female power being attached to destructive power is shown to be problematic. Shakespeare includes the conflict of female power to show that it has the power to challenge all patriarchal powers in the play. In turn, Shakespeare exposes the social insecurity related to the power of desire. Consequently, the Macbeth play is controversial, with experts claiming that the play is about destructive women in search of power (Greenblatt 111), or that women who defy the patriarchal society must become destructive to obtain power. This essay will explore female power associated with destructive power in Macbeth and simultaneously examine the power of the witches, the power of Lady Macbeth and lastly, the power of desire. Shakespeare allows the audience to observe the “black and deep desires” (1.4.52) of human nature within the Macbeth play.

Macbeth’s audience is exposed to the presence of supernatural control (1.1.9-10). Shakespeare includes the paradox, “fair is foul and foul is fair,” (1.1.9) right at the start of the play to show that things are not always what they seem, “to be uncertain” (xxii). The play is indeed metadramatic, implying that males can be feminine and females can be masculine (Alfar 121). Moreover, that good can be destructive and being destructive can be good. Ye Lizhi points out that “The witches’ prophesies are intentionally ambiguous, and the alliteration and rhyming couplets with which they speak their omens contribute to the effect of instability and confusion in their words” (50). Shakespeare includes the idea of the female as having destructive powers to play on the existent social fears of what is seen as unnatural.

Moreover, Shakespeare includes the idea of the unnatural (1.3.13) within the Macbeth play as a social fantasy (I.3.46-7), “[s]o, in a world where things seem plausible, you may begin to see how vulnerable people might be, to superstitious accusations” (Angus 2). Indeed, the witches gender ambiguity is a concern for Banquo, who cannot determine their sex; “[y]ou should be women” (I.3.44); this line shows his perception of women being destructive, “Yet your beards forbid me to interpret” (I.3.45). The witches are, potentially, from another world where culture does not exist, in a realm without any psychological restraint or social rules. For both Macbeth and Banquo return from the battlefield, “still in sensory overload from the violent battle,” (Dungey 3). Their senses produce ambiguous data, and they are perplexed by what they perceive (I. 3. 38-41) (Dungey 3). Thus, the explanation that “[c]ompound imagination is the combining of different images to create new possibilities (Dungey 3). Caitlin Higgins notes that “the Bearded women would not have had any place within the male hierarchy and their presence produces an “uncertainty” of gender for both the audience and [other] characters in Macbeth” (1). Angus notes that “In the pseudo-scientific discourse of Shakespeare’s’ world, all women were thought to be fundamentally untrustworthy” (4). Thus, the gender structure is a theatrical fiction within the play, “[a], “shadow or “dream” (Greenblatt 20), meaning that the witches’ power should not be seen as real but as a mask for the society’s fears and desires.

Stephanie Spoto remarks that “[h]owever, the practice – or the presumed practice – of witchcraft and the witch trials of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries actually disrupted the prevalent gender hierarchies, afforded women unconventional power, and allowed for the increase of power in villages” (53). The witches’ power thus poses a threat to the social order, therefore, emulating the social fear of the destructive power of women. The witches’ powers are considered to be in an “allegiance with the Christian Devil” (Angus 1-2), based on patriarchal beliefs of women in society (2). Alfar states that “female evil… is culturally constructed and depends on binary oppositions deployed by masculinist beliefs” (23), showing societies underlying fear of the supernatural, the binary oppositions being that of male domination or destructive female power.

Indeed, Catherine Thomas asserts that “Lady Macbeth’s cultural value has generally included the sense that she is monstrous[,] she not only has crossed the boundaries of appropriate behavior for a wife and subject, but she has called on demonic forces to help her achieve her goals” (81); “unsex me here” (1.5.39). However, if Lady Macbeth were ‘naturally’ destructive, she would not be asking unnatural forces to help her. Lady Macbeth violates the social norms by invoking the “murd’ring ministers” (1.5) to “fill her womanly breasts with gall” (1.5). “Gall” as in “the secretion of the liver, bile” (OED I.v.45-46). This line means that Lady Macbeth is asking to be so bitter, to be filled with unnatural power and not have any “mortal thoughts” (I.5.39). Ferdous says that “[s]uch decision is dictated by her understanding that only these features will help her to reach [her] [desire] in the male-dominated world “(23).

Thus, Lady Macbeth’s desire for power is an undeniable threat for those who fear the supernatural. Lady Macbeth evokes the unnatural spirits by saying, “[c]ome, you spirits / That tend on mortal thoughts! Unsex me here, / And fill me from the crown to the toe top [-] full / Of direst cruelty” (I.5.38-42). The line, “unsex me here” (1.5.39), is the climax in the play, as it shows Lady Macbeth asking the supernatural forces to change her femininity to that of asexual and then she asks, “And fill me from the crown to the toe top” (1.5.40), asking the supernatural forces to make her masculine. This line could also mean that Lady Macbeth is talking about battle and war as Macbeth and Banquo just returned from a blood massacre (1.2) and that she wants to be like them, “villainies of nature” (1.2.11). Thus, demonstrating the male-dominated society, she lives in, where women must “unsex” themselves to have power. Janet Adelman articulates that, “the metaphors in which Lady Macbeth frames the stopping up of remorse. “[s]uggesting that she imagines an attack on the reproductive passages of her own body, on what makes her specifically female” (40),. Lady Macbeth asks the unnatural forces to stop her menstrual cycle in line (1.5.43), she does this so that she can embody the masculine role played in patriarchal structures, thus, eliminating all the sensitive feminine traits attached to the female body. As Stallybrass notes that “These standards force the societal idea that the more masculine somebody is, the better and stronger they are” (68).

Lady Macbeth defies “the patriarchal order, not embodied in a father or a husband, but a king” (Angus 4). Lady Macbeth believes that if she was to be more masculine, she stands a better chance at pushing Macbeth in his desire (2.4.28) and become the queen she so desires. Lady Macbeth tells Macbeth, “When you durst do it, then you were a man” (1.7.49), saying that if he can kill King Duncan, then he is a real man. Lady Macbeth debilitates Macbeth’s manhood, “And chastise with the valour of my tongue…” (1.5.23), hence, her method to overpower and manipulate him, demonstrating her destructive power in a patriarchal society. The scene (1.5.23), displays a world where social structures are unsettled, “if not outright a metadramatic connection,” (Angus 3). Lady Macbeth continues to have power over Macbeth by eliminating her femininity and threatening his masculinity (1.6. 49-51).

Indeed, Lady Macbeth’s desire for power is visible in Act 1 of the play (1.5.26). When she reads Macbeth’s letter about the witches predictions (1.5. 51–53), she immediately takes on the role of a villainess who is determined to disrupt the social order. However, to do this, she must defy all obstacles (1.5.24), and use all means of persuasion (1.7.38–41), to get what she wants; “to tend on mortal thoughts” (I.5.39), means that Lady Macbeth is determined to become destructive if she must to have the power she desires. Lady Macbeth continues to attack Macbeth’s gender by mentioning a “dead child” (1.7. 56), referring to his failure as a man, or perhaps that Macbeth does not have a female body and cannot bear a child, yet, his gender is the dominant group in society (1.5. 48). As Janet Adelman, “repeated seven times, the phrase ‘born to [a] woman’ with its variants begins to carry for Macbeth the meaning ‘vulnerable,’ as though vulnerability itself is the taint deriving from [a] woman” (45). I do fear thy nature, and it is too full o’th’ milk of human kindness” (I.v.14-18). This line states that Macbeth is too kind to kill Duncan (1.7.1-28), bringing in the line of “[f]air is foul and foul is fair,” (I.1.11); that desire can be good and desire can be bad. Lady Macbeth’s power for desire is destructive since she is willing to do anything that Macbeth fears to perform (1.7.46-48). The line, “Thou wouldst be great, [a]rt not without ambition, but without/ [t] he illness should attend it” (1.5.16-18), shows Macbeth’s weakness to carry out the killing and also Lady Macbeth’s desire for female power to the point that she will ask the unnatural powers for help (3.4.67-68). Thus, “it is Lady Macbeth who poses a threat to the hegemony of patriarchy” (Stallybrass 190). She disrupts the natural order of society by asking to be “unsexed” (I.5.39). Shakespeare introduces his audience to the idea that to have female power; Lady Macbeth must deny herself as a wife to Macbeth and take on the role of a female with destructive powers to bring about the social fears of women in power (Alfar 127).

As Alfar mentions “Shakespeare’s genius… [is] his ability to capture the ideological particularities of his culture and problematize them, put pressure on them, and provoke their re-examination” (189). Lady Macduff, too, can be viewed as a victim of patriarchal structures. When her husband fled she questioned his actions (IV.ii.3-5), however, as a woman in her society she is expected never to question her husband (Angus 4). Lady Macduff is thus unable to protect herself and her children from the patriarchal structures that refuse women power, “Why then, alas/Do I put up that womanly defense/To say I have no harm?” (IV.ii.75-78). Russ Macdonald supports this by saying that “In a patriarchal society [men] had dominant roles and they had … male heir[s] and women were not expected to go against patriarchal ruling; authority rested with the father, and the wife’s authority was over children and the servants.” (256). Macbeth tells Lady Macbeth that she will only produce male heirs, “Bring forth men-children only, / For thy undaunted mettle should compose / Nothing but males.” (2.173-75). This line is also evidence of the patriarchal structures wanting to control women. This statement is Macbeth’s way of saying that desire, violence, and destructive powers are all connected to masculinity (I.7.73-74). Furthermore, Lady Macbeth’s power makes her feel the impact of the male solidarity she so desires (1.7.16-20); she knows that she can only acquire absolute female power by convincing Macbeth to kill Duncan. Thus, creating a binary opposition of desire or destructive power. Paradoxically, Lady Macbeth has absolute power by becoming masculine; thus her desire for power is masculine, but because she is female it is not heroic it is destructive.

Bill Angus notes that “desire is articulated through fantasy… [and] is driven to some extent by its own impossibility” (Lecture 2). Lady Macbeth cannot achieve male power; she can only achieve female power which is destructive and feared, like the witches. To obtain this power, she must emasculate her husband, Macbeth. Moreover, it can be assumed that the very threat to female power in the Macbeth play comes from desire, then it is Macbeth’s desire for power which causes him to choose a path to his demise (i.iv). “When Macbeth’s senses and the images they create are combined with his natural desire for power, the consequences become problematic ” (Dungey 3). The witches are [thus] the phantasms of Macbeth’s imagination and desire, signifying what is in his heart and mind, what his passion and vanity already [aspires]” (Dungey 3). “Lady Macbeth took the leading position in the couple and started to dictate the actions of her husband to realize her ambitions to become a queen” (Ferdous 23), and by “unsexing” herself, became her destructive power. The audience of the play is faced with the question of whether the women in the play, with their destructive powers, are responsible for disturbing the natural social order or whether the unnatural desire of the characters in the play is to blame. Consequently, desire for power in the Macbeth play is not just demonstrated as an ambition, but it is intricately connected to female power.

Additionally, women in the early sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were described as having “too much blood and were therefore bound to be excessively prone to passions, and strange temptations” (Angus 1). Such, revealing the conflict in the play in itself as to why “The blending of masculine features with ambitions and thirst for blood reveals the darkest features of one’s nature and is a source of evil” (Ferdous 25) when women are the ones who are called destructive because of “having too much blood”. It must be Macbeth who gives in to the witches’ prophecies and his desire, and it is the males in the play who are in the bloody battlefield (I.2).

In conclusion, the Macbeth play does not support patriarchal ideologies nor is the play about destructive women in search of power. Shakespeare purposefully problematizes female power exhibiting dual meanings of the social structures and female power to create an examination of the destructive forces within the Macbeth play. Moreover, Shakespeare exposes the social fear that is connected to the destructive forces of female power. The witches in the play can be seen as a mirage for desire and fear. By looking at Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s desire for power we are exposed to the slightest possibility of just maybe within every human being exists bloody temptations connected to ambition which we often do not have control over. Moreover, female power is the very threat to patriarchal social structures who believe that all women are destructive; fundamentally untrustworthy” (Angus 4). Presumably, underneath all these layers of conflict of female power within the play is the underlying consciousness, that the psychological and social restraint on females is the real ‘devil’ at work, playing on the emotions of the most vulnerable and superstitious society to keep patriarchal power.

Works Cited

  • Adelman, Janet. “Born of woman: Fantasies of maternal power in Macbeth.” William Shakespeare’s Macbeth (2010): 33-60.
  • Alfar, Cristina Leon. Fantasies of Female Evil: The Dynamics of Gender and Power in Shakespearean Tragedy. London: Associated University Press. 2003.
  • Angus, Bill. “Study Guide: World 4: Bloody Murder and the Magic of Women” 139301 Shakespeare’s Worlds. Massey University Press: Manawatu Campus. 2015.
  • Angus, Bill. “Lecture 2” from “World 4: Bloody Murder and the Magic of Women” 139301 Shakespeare’s Worlds. Retrieved from http://stream.massey.ac.nz/course/view.php?id=30430.
  • Bradley, Andrew Cecil. “From Shakespearean Tragedy.” Macbeth. Routledge, 2015. 45-57.
  • Higgins, Caitlin H. “But I must also feel it like a man”: Redressing Representations of Masculinity in Macbeth.” The Review: A Journal of Undergraduate Student Research.17.1 (2016): 6: 1-5.
  • Dungey, Nicholas. “Shakespeare and Hobbes: Macbeth and the Fragility of Political Order.” SAGE Open, Apr. 2012, doi:10.1177/2158244012439557.
  • Ferdous, Mafruha. “The Values of Masculinity in William Shakespeare’s Macbeth” Advances in Language and Literary Studies, 8:2, 22-25. 2017.
  • “gall, n.1.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, December 2016. Web. 26 February
  • 2019.
  • Greenblatt, Stephen., Walter Cohen., Jean E. Howard., and Katharine Eisaman Maus, editors. The Norton Shakespeare, Second Edition. Oxford University Press, 2005.
  • McDonald, Russ. The Bedford Companion to Shakespeare: an Introduction with Documents. Boston: Bedford Books of St. Martin’s Press; Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1996. Print.
  • Stallybrass, Peter. “Macbeth and Witchcraft” Focus on Macbeth. Ed. John Russell Brown. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul. 1982.
  • Spoto, Stephanie Irene. “Jacobean Witchcraft and Feminine Power” Pacific Coast Philology, 45, 53-70. 2010.
  • Thomas, Catherine E. “(Un)Sexing Lady Macbeth: Gender, Power, And Visual Rhetoric In Her Graphic Afterlives.” The Upstart Crow (2012): 81. Literature Resource Center. Web. 31 May 2016.
  • Ye Lizhi, School of Foreign languages, Wuhan University of Science and Technology, Wuhan, Hubei 430081, P. R. China.
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