In a time in which gender roles were wildly steadfast, it’s no surprise that the expectations and limitations set on people caused some internal crises, often exploding into external repercussions. Masculinity and femininity, as much as they are tools of expression, are often used for manipulation. Whether that be manipulating one’s self or another is entirely up to the wielder. Before we talk about how the characters in Macbeth relate to and weaponize masculinity, let’s look at where these characters came from.
The Real Macbeth
Some might not realize that Shakespeare’s Macbeth was actually based on a real Scottish king, also named Macbeth, or Mac Bethad. The real Macbeth was a soldier who won the throne by killing the reigning King Duncan I in battle, rather than the play’s version of unprovoked murder. Although as brutal as the time in which he lived, he was a powerful, compassionate, and fair king. He ruled for seventeen years from 1040 until 1058 A.D. at a time when monarchs were often targets of deceit, betrayal and murder. He was a product of his time; a brutal soldier, a respected monarch, and a tragic hero who ultimately died on the battlefield. All of this being said, when most of us hear the name Macbeth, we think of Shakespeare’s version (written some 600 years after the death of the powerful king) which took a bit of poetic license and turned this Scottish hero into a villain (“Time of Macbeth”)
Viking Influence in Britain
Since Macbeth was based on historical sources from the 11th century in the area now known as Scotland, it is important to understand the social and political influences of this time. Scotland was in turmoil after more than two centuries succumbing to the Viking Age (793–1066 AD). The ongoing violent heathen raids agitated all of Christian Europe. These invasions significantly changed the political structure of all of Britain and Ireland. Kingdoms crumbled constantly and new ones emerged. (“The Vikings-) Evidence indicates that society was ruled by a military aristocracy. Their success depended largely on brute strength, determination, and battle skills. Haigh says, “Scattered evidence, including the records in Irish annals and the images of warriors like those depicted on the Pictish stone slabs at Aberlemno, Forfarshire and Hilton of Cadboll in Easter Ross, suggest that in Northern Britain, as in Anglo-Saxon England, society was dominated by a military aristocracy, whose status was dependent in a large part on their ability and willingness to fight.” Heathens were the enemy, so a unified church and aggressively ruthless military tactics were necessary to stabilize and protect the nation. The Church’s influence on societal roles during this time period cannot be overlooked.
The Roman Catholic Church still blamed all women for Eve’s evil doing. As a result, women were not regarded highly in the eyes of the Church, and it exerted immeasurable authority over society. Marriages were usually arranged by parents. Most women were limited to the role of wives, mothers, and running a household. All women were taught to be obedient to their fathers and husbands, therefore women were completely subordinate to men. The only power any woman had was her own ability to influence the men in her life to achieve her own goals, whatever they may be. (“Women In-)
At this time, being masculine implied being superior. Traditional masculine traits included physical strength, assertiveness, loyalty and power or success. In this blog, we will look closely at the theme of masculinity in the play and discover that both male and female characters admire and desire these qualities. Sometimes they are used in heroic feats, while other instances proved to be horrific atrocities. (Paul)
The Play Begins
Macbeth’s story begins as a victor on the battlefield with his buddy Banquo. Macbeth was a proud champion who fought for king and country. This admirable soldier, who was also the current Thane of Glamis, met three witches who prophesized that he would become the Thane of Cawdor and then would rise to rule the entire kingdom. They told Banquo that his sons were also destined to be kings. Immediately, Macbeth doubted that these predictions were even possible. However, when King Duncan awarded Macbeth the title of Thane of Cawdor, he began to reflect on the witches’ words and wondered if they could be true. Macbeth wrote a letter to his wife with the story of the witches’ prophecy, and her ambition to be royalty became blinding.
The first reference to masculinity was when Banquo said to the witches, “You should be women, and yet, your beards forbid me to interpret that you are so.” (1.3.42-43) Through these words, it was suggested that they were androgynous which creates a sense of othering between them and the other characters. Though there are many depictions of the witches in which they are not androgynous, the text uses the androgyny as a point of intrigue and distrust, as Banquo, Macbeth, and others approach them with both caution and curiosity.
The Lord and Lady
Of course, the only way for Macbeth to become king is for Duncan to die. After reading her husband’s letter and being notified that her husband and the king are arriving soon, Lady Macbeth realizes what must be done. In the quote below, Lady Macbeth pleads to the spirits to take away all the traits that make her feminine. Stop me from menstruating. Stop me from lactating. Take everything about me that is feminine, and make me hard and cruel like a man. She desires to be more masculine so she can convince and help her husband to kill the king. (1.5.25-55)
Macbeth is unsure of the plot to kill Duncan. The king has been good to him and trusts him. Macbeth thinks it is a horrid deed to take advantage of the king’s vulnerability and tells his wife that they will not go through with the plan (1.7.1-25). When she learned of her husband’s doubts, Lady Macbeth strongly questioned her husband’s manhood and could be be said to have used it to manipulate him into killing the ruler. (1.7.47-83)
Macduff was a trusted friend of Macbeth, but he and his family were not immune from the murderous king (4.3.195-234). When Macduff learned that his entire family has been murdered, it was suggested that he should, “dispute it like a man.” However, his response revealed the true definition of manhood, “I shall do so, but I must also feel it as a man: I cannot but remember such things were, that were most precious to me.” He seemed to admit that while manhood involved fighting, it also included him mourning the loss of the family he loved so dearly. These traits would normally be considered more feminine.
Macbeth felt great despair and regret regarding the murder of Duncan. He even became an insomniac. Whatever satisfaction he experienced by becoming king, was quickly replaced by paranoia and murderous cruelty to retain his title. He ordered a substantial number of executions, even that of his friend Banquo. He did all of this without further manipulation by Lady Macbeth. He changed from and brutal, but admired, war hero to a coldblooded villain in a very short time. If the result of the murder of Duncan hardened Macbeth into a serial murderer, it had the opposite effect on Lady Macbeth. She became obsessed with an imaginary spot of blood on her clothes, washing her hands to clear herself of the blood of Duncan, and incessantly sleepwalked. After the murder, she was depicted as a helpless victim who committed suicide. Macbeth’s hyper-masculinity and Lady Macbeth’s desire to possess the strong, hard traits of a man fed their ambitions to fulfill the prophecy. However, it also drove them over the edge into misery and ultimate death.
- Haigh, The Cambridge Historical Encyclopedia of Great Britain and Ireland (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), pp. 82–4.
- Paul, Russell. “Characters Who Embody the Values of Masculinity in ‘Macbeth.’” Pen and the Pad, 3 July 2021.
- Shakespeare, William, and Robert S Miola. “Macbeth.” The Norton Shakespeare: Essential Plays, the Sonnets, 3rd ed., W.W. Norton & Co., New York, NY, 2016, pp. 1479–1531.
- “The Vikings in England.” ASNC Viking Age, University of Cambridge, 2019.
- “Time of Macbeth in Scotland.” Time of Macbeth in Scotland | History Timeline | History of Scotland, HMGT Travel Ltd, 2019.
- “Women in the Middle Ages.” Women in the Middle Ages – World History Online, Worldhistoryonline.org, 2011.