Power and Ambition

William Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’, is the story of a usurping General, Lord Macbeth, and his wife Lady Macbeth who are driven to murder their king in pursuit of the throne and power. The tragedy has multiple reoccurring themes and motifs, of which Shakespeare uses many aesthetic features to effectively develop and enhance. One such theme is Masculinity vs. Femininity which resounds throughout the entirety of the play and is a central focus point during many events.
Shakespeare uses imagery, symbolism and metaphor very effectively during the course of the play to augment and pinpoint important developments and changes to the characters and their states of masculinity and femininity. At the time that Shakespeare wrote his plays the values and attitudes were vastly different to those of modern society. Women were considered the fairer sex while men were considered the dominant sex.
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In Macbeth, this view is approached with the idea that masculinity carried with it the ability to kill and commit sin while femininity in its ideal was softer, gentler and comprised of virtue. Shakespeare demonstrates this ideal very early in the play when, in Act 1, Scene 5, Lady Macbeth calls out, “Come you spirits that tend on human thoughts! Unsex me here, and fill me from the crown to the toe top full of direst cruelty. ” This happens directly after receiving notice from her husband that the witches’ prophecy had come true and that the king was to be joining them in their castle.
At this point in the play she is asking the spirits to take away her femininity, a literal unsexing, and fill her with a ‘direst cruelty’ that she, as a woman, did not already possess so that she could have the ability to kill her king. This idea of femininity causing an inability to kill, indeed needing to become masculine to be able to commit the crime demonstrates Shakespeare’s ideal of women being pure while men have evil in their very being. The use of this imagery and figurative language, ‘direst cruelty’ and ‘unsex me now’, in this scene underlines this ideal and highlights Shakespeare’s view on femininity and masculinity.
Another aspect of Shakespeare’s portrayal of women as incapable of sin relates directly to the view of women at the time the play was written. The medieval view of women, in that they were weaker, less intelligent and meant for menial work and child rearing; and the subsequent opposite view of males, being that they were the money earners, the soldiers, and thus full of courage and honour is very easily seen through Shakespeare’s language throughout Macbeth. In Act 4 Scene 3, Macduff says, ‘O!
I could play the woman with mine eyes’ after being informed that his children and his wife had just been murdered in the home that he had run from. By implying that weeping is a womanly attribute and saying that he as a man should not do it, it again highlights the idea that women were weaker and softer in their femininity then men were in their masculinity. This weakness and its symbolized lack of physical strength, shows again, Shakespeare’s view of women as the weaker sex and their subsequent inability to commit murder or other atrocious acts.
Yet another instance of Shakespeare’s obvious separation of femininity from sin is in the scene where Lady Macbeth is convincing Lord Macbeth to kill King Duncan. Lady Macbeth cows Lord Macbeth by asking him “With thou esteem’st the ornament of life, and live a coward in thine own self-esteem, letting ‘I dare not’ wait upon ‘I would’, like the poor cat I’ the adage? ” This line and its subsequent imagery of a cat wanting the fish but afraid of the water shows that Shakespeare believes that to be a man is to go after his true desires regardless of the consequences.
At this point in time, Lady Macbeth has been unsexed and is using her new found masculinity to manipulate and force Lord Macbeth into fulfilling her own desires, something that she was not capable of when she was a woman. This is a doubled example of masculinity’s ingrained sin; Lady Macbeth is manipulating Lord Macbeth by questioning his manhood and as a result to prove his virility and strength he will commit murder. By proving his masculinity in this way, through murder and evil, it shows that Shakespeare believed men to be the only ones capable of sin.
Throughout Macbeth, the theme of Masculinity vs. Femininity is developed and expanded upon using imagery and symbolism. Shakespeare manipulates language conventions to demonstrate the idea of the feminine sex being incapable of murder and sin while men and their subsequent masculinity is the root of such evil acts. At the time that Shakespeare wrote his plays the values and attitudes were vastly different to those of modern society and as such his ideals and views reflect these medieval interpretations of women being the weaker sex while men were dominant.
From Lady Macbeth’s plea to be unsexed, to Macduff’s implication of crying being a weak response of women and then to Lady Macbeth’s manipulation of her husband after being filled with the ‘direst cruelty’ of masculinity, Shakespeare’s language shows his view on Masculinity vs. Femininity. Through his imagery and symbolism, his opinion that women are incapable of evil in their feminine state becomes very clear and Macbeth becomes almost a warning to the fairer sex; do not lose your femininity and thus your purity.

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