Throughout Macbeth, Shakespeare constantly refers to different concepts of masculinity. Many of the characters, particularly Lady Macbeth, present their concepts of masculinity and through this Shakespeare explores the idea of what it means to be a man. The stereotypical gender roles at that time are also reversed often in the play. This would have shocked the Jacobean audiences that first saw Macbeth- they had a very clear idea of what masculinity was and they felt that no woman should have the right to challenge that. However, Shakespeare does not answer the questions about masculinity he explores in the play. Shakespeare begins the play by showing Macbeth and Banquo as two stereotypical male warriors. The play starts with them coming back from winning a war. When Duncan and the messenger talk about how well Macbeth and Banquo did in the war, they use adjectives like ‘bloody’, ‘brave’, ‘valiant’ and ‘worthy.’ In Jacobean England, winning a war and being described using these adjectives were seen as a masculine trait, and it would have made the audience like Macbeth and Banquo. Throughout the rest of the first act, Shakespeare continues to follow the traditional gender stereotypes. Referring to the former Thane of Cawdor being executed for treason, Malcolm praises him, saying: “Nothing in his life / Became him like the leaving it… To throw away the dearest thing he owed / As if it were a careless trifle.” Jacobean audiences would have seen emotionlessness as a characteristic that all men should have, so Malcolm’s praise almost implies that showing your masculinity is more important than being guilty of treason. Stereotypical attitudes to women are also displayed in the first act. Banquo refers to one of the witches as ‘the devil.’ For Shakespearean audiences, this had connotations to Eve and Original Sin, and also reinforced the concept that women were cunning and evil. The witches’ implication that they have agency confuses Banquo, leading to him to refer to them as ‘bubbles’ of ‘the earth.’ This suggests that the idea that women could have agency was inconceivable to Banquo. Shakespeare uses the witches to undermine the stereotypical concepts of masculinity and femininity. Upon seeing the witches for the first time, Banquo says: “You should be women / And yet your beards forbid me to interpret / That you are so.” Although he may have been talking about the actors playing the witches, who would have been men, having beards, this also links to how Shakespeare questions gender and reverses traditional gender roles in the play . The play begins with the witches- it is unusual for a Jacobean play to start with women as they were not seen as important enough to do that. The most powerful way the witches undermine fixed notions of masculinity is by showing that they have agency. This would have seemed unusual for a Jacobean audience, and they would have created a link between the witches and the Fates in Ancient Greek mythology. Shakespeare highlights this link when the witches say: “Thrice to thine and thrice to mine / Three time again to make up nine.” There were three Fates and the number three was very closely associated with them, so by including this in the play Shakespeare wants to ensure that the audience see the link. Another way the witches undermine the traditional hierarchy of genders is by using imperatives such as ‘speak’ and ‘demand’ when speaking to Macbeth. This implies that they are above Macbeth in the hierarchy, which would be strange to a Shakespearean audience as they are women. Shakespeare also highlights the confusion the witches create around gender through their association with ‘fog’, and the use of the phrase “fair is foul, and foul is fair” illustrates the subversion of the gender hierarchy in the play . Throughout the play, Lady Macbeth undermines the notion of men having control and shows her desire to be more than just a woman. Lady Macbeth constantly undermines and challenges Macbeth’s masculinity. After reading Macbeth’s letter in Act 1, Scene 5, she says he is “too full of the milk of human kindness.” The word ‘milk’ has strong connotations to maternal instincts and femininity, and ‘kindness’ would have been seen as a feminine trait at that time . Lady Macbeth shows that she rejects these feminine qualities, and that she wants to gain agency. She calls upon “spirits” to “Come to my woman’s breasts / And take my milk for gall, you murd’ring ministers.” Shakespeare uses the words ‘breasts’ and ‘milk’ as audiences easily recognise them as a symbol of femininity and, to a Jacobean audience, a symbol of weakness. The use of the word ‘gall’ highlights her desire to replace her weakness with bitterness and heartlessness. This is also emphasised with the word “murd’ring.” This would have alarmed a Jacobean audience as violence was associated with masculinity. In the final act of the play, the gender roles revert to traditional Jacobean stereotypes. In the rest of the play, Lady Macbeth is portrayed as cold and heartless, with a desire to be more masculine. However, in Act 5 she becomes weak and emotional, feeling guilty about what she has done. This is shown when she says “What’s done cannot be undone” and “all of the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this hand.” Shakespeare uses the word ‘perfume’ as his audiences would associate it with women and femininity. This is a change from the rest of the play, when Shakespeare suggests that she yearns to escape her femininity. Macbeth also becomes a stereotypically detached and emotionless man. When told about Lady Macbeth’s death, he says “She should have died hereafter,” implying the timing of Lady Macbeth’s death is more important to him than her dying. Shakespeare uses monosyllabic words at the start of this sentence, creating a slow pace. He then uses the word “hereafter,” which highlights Macbeth’s belief that her death was an inconvenience. In the same monologue, Macbeth’s nihilism is shown, a masculine trait at that time. He calls life “petty” and that it is worth “nothing,” illustrating Macbeth’s newfound coldness. Shakespeare portrays Macduff as strong and powerful in this act, in contrast to earlier in the play, when he was told to “take it like a man.” However, in this act, Macduff has no association within women, implying that women hold men back, another Jacobean stereotype . In conclusion, Shakespeare presents many different concepts of masculinity. However, he does not give any opinions on which of them he believes is right. In Jacobean England, people had a fixed idea of what they thought men should be like and what they thought women should be like. Shakespeare’s audiences would have been devout Christians, and firm believers in the Great Chain of Being. When Shakespeare wrote Macbeth, it was very important to him that the play would please the King. A few months before it was performed for the first time, there was an unsuccessful plot to assassinate King James. It is possible that Shakespeare wanted to show a link between the disruption of gender in Macbeth and the unnaturalness of regicide- both of which are key themes in the play. However, Shakespeare would still have wanted to make an important point about gender in the play. It could be argued that Shakespeare was ahead of his time in challenging the stereotypes of that era.
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