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Gender socialization and pre-existing stereotypical gender roles have eternally existed in society, producing a significant impact on how people are expected to function as individuals. In William Shakespeare’s play “Macbeth”, tragedy arises from the reversal of gender roles as the characters try to gain power. “Macbeth” illustrates how the desire to follow the gender role in accordance with the ideal idea of masculinity created by society leads to such terrible consequences as the loss of one’s personal identity or committing immoral acts for which one will have to pay in the future. This representation is demonstrated through Lady Macbeth’s change of character to a male, Macbeth’s attempts to prove his masculinity and the portrayal of witches with the physical attributes of men.
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Gender roles in Macbeth
To begin with, Lady Macbeth is portrayed as a character who performs a leading role in the marriage as she accepts the position of the husband. This is contrary to typical ideas about classical marriage. One of the various ideas that Lady Macbeth convinces her husband of the correctness of is the plan to kill Duncan, invented after reading a letter from Macbeth notifying her about the witches’ prophecy. Although Macbeth is unsure about the idea of gaining the crown by murder, Lady Macbeth does not relent as she says, “Come, you spirits / That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here, / And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full / Of direst cruelty.” The confident behavior of the woman testifies to the exposure of her fierce ambitions and bloody intentions, she is not terrified, as a real man should be. Also, in the same monologue, she continues to insist on her emotional readiness to do everything possible and impossible to seize the throne, as she says, “Come to my woman’s breasts, / And take my milk for gall, you murd’ring ministers.” Thus, Lady Macbeth’s denial of her feminine qualities in an attempt to play the role of a man constitutes a convincing proof of the tragedy that follows the change of gender roles.
Moreover, Lady Macbeth’s conviction of Macbeth’s lack of courage leads to his further journey, in which Macbeth needs to prove that he is a man who possesses all the qualities necessary for the title of king. Initially, Macbeth realizes that taking a life in exchange for the throne is an immoral act. However, Lady Macbeth continues to resort to manipulation, questioning the dignity of her husband, as she says, “When you durst do it / then you were a man”, when he opposes her plan. Feeling that his masculinity is beginning to be humiliated, Macbeth says to his wife: “Prithee, peace / I dare do all that may become a man / Who dares do more is none.’’ As a result, he succumbed to the manipulations of Lady Macbeth and was brave enough to bloody murder King Duncan to prove his manhood.
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In addition to the exchange of gender roles in the marriage of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, the discrepancy of gender roles is also clearly expressed in the representation of witches. Their appearance displays their supernatural power over people, as only they have the ability to decide destiny. This is evidenced by Banquo’s first meeting with the witches as he states, “Upon her skinny lips; you should be women, / And yet your beards forbid me to interpret / That you are so.’’ This differs from both the feminine and masculine qualities that witches possess. In addition, they represent an image of the balance between femininity and masculinity, despite their exceptional portrayal, where they are women possessing masculine hypostases. As the witches’ prophecy predicted to Macbeth, “no man that’s born of woman / Shall e’er have power upon thee.” (V.iii.6-7) becomes reality, the power that witches have over people is sufficiently emphasized. As follows, power as a masculine trait restores the results of violence, as gender roles are reversed.
Finally, in Macbeth, the constant interconnection of violence with attempts to gain masculinity is the cause of the ultimate tragedy. This is demonstrated through Lady Macbeth sacrificing her femininity to become more masculine, Macbeth’s lack of masculinity and the witches showing both male and feminine traits. Although in “Macbeth” the change of gender roles leads to tragedy, in today’s society, gender roles are losing their importance, which promotes equality. We need to live freely, not to adhere to any gender role, and to be guided by morality in our actions, not to desperately go to our goal, as the characters of the play did.
- Shakespeare, W. (1992). Macbeth. Wordsworth Editions.