Shakespeare’s Macbeth is widely understood as a play which addresses the themes of ambition and betrayal, and particularly how these aspects relate to gender-roles and ethical perspectives. In one sense, Macbeth portrays what many critics have called “feminine agency,” which is the motivation of male action by feminine manipulation or inspiration. Because the character of Macbeth is continually immersed in a feminine controlled environment throughout the play: his marriage and his dealings with the three witches who predict his future, the play sets up a dichotomy between male rationality and feminine mystery, with the acceptance of magic and spirits as working, authentic forces in human affair
These elements help Shakespeare to posit his theme of male rationality and feminine intrigue by placing them in stark contrast with another even from the opening lines of the play. When the witches gather in the play’s opening scene, their conversation ignites a sense of fear and mystery in the reader or audience which helps to facilitate the reader ort audience’s understanding that Macbeth is himself, also immersed into the fearful and mysterious feminine realm which has displaced his sense of rationality and even of linear time. The language used by Shakespeare in this opening scene is particularly effective at forward the immediate and sinister atmosphere of the mysterious feminine:
FIRST WITCH When shall we three meet again? In thunder, lightning, or in rain?
SECOND WITCH When the hurly-burly’s done, When the battle’s lost, and won.”
The first lines spoken by the witches allows the reader or audience to readily perceive that the we not only a stake in the events which are about to unfold, but they may have had a hand (or will have a hand) in how events proceed throughout the play. By placing the reader or audience (and also the characters of the play) into the hands of the three witches from the play’s outset is an inventive and brilliant strategy on Shakespeare’s behalf because it allows the audience to experience through a single scene with deftly articulated language, the eerie and mysterious world that the character of Macbeth is about to enter tragically.
Even the tragic ending of the play is foreshadowed by the line “When the battle’s lost and won” (Shakespeare 95) because the reader or audience is made to understand that the witches will reconvene at this time. the assumption according to the projected atmosphere of feminine mystery and wiles is that the final outcome of the play’s events may be advantageous to the witches, which, by insinuation, means that the outcome will be tragic to those manipulated by femininity (the witches).
In a later scene, Lady Macbeth’s famous speech of ambition and cold-blooded calculation sustains the female/male dichotomy forwarded throughout the entire play. Lady Macbeth’s language during her speech ties directly in the reader or audience’s minds with the speech of the witches at the play’s beginning. Through the use of language which echoes that of the witches, Shakespeare is able to portray Lady Macbeth’s temperament and ambition with the sinister,
magical world of the witches:
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. Make thick my blood,
Stop up th’access and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
Th’effect and it.
The intended impact is to reveal the events which Macbeth finds himself dealing with as aspects of feminine agency or even feminine manipulation. Note that the brilliant irony of Shakespeare’s phrase “unsex me here” (Shakespeare 112-113) during Lady Macbeth’s speech raises the play’s theme of feminine agency and manipulation to an overt level. By admitting that her ambition is to be free of the constraints of morality and ambition which are typically associated with women, Lady Macbeth is effectively confessing that she has used her husband, Macbeth, as a tool to replace the masculine ambition and power which society refuses to recognize as a part of the feminine.
This very famous and densely constructed speech of Lady Macbeth also provides the reader or audience with a confession of Lady Macbeth’s own inner-motivations and ambitions. By choosing the provocative expression “unsex me” (Shakespeare 112-113) Shakespeare is able to convey not only Lady Macbeth’s smoldering ambition for power and even revenge, but also her bitterness and rage against the lot which society has afforded women. Implicit in her speech is the acknowledgment that men have recourse to their ambitions but that women’s ambitions must be reached by way of men. Rather than call on her inner powers of reason and fortitude, lady Macbeth calls on “spirits” to make her more “man-like” so that she can resolve herself to manipulate Macbeth into committing the murder she requires to actualize her ambitions.
If it is Shakespeare’s intention to frame his theme of ambition and betrayal in terms of gender-identification, then key point sin the play are afforded by any scene which feature direct communication between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. It is in these scenes that Shakespeare is able to demonstrate most obviously the idea of feminine agency and feminine manipulation which is the most sanguine and profound theme of the play. When Lady Macbeth exhorts her husband to commit murder, the language used in her speech is gender-based. Basically, she tells Macbeth it is his duty as a man to both have ambition and to follow any necessary course in order to achieve it.
Macbeth’s reply is meant to be viewed by the reader or audience as honest, and perhaps even naive, as they remember the identification of Lady Macbeth with the three witches which was already established by a linking of language and imagery and events between Lady Macbeth and the witches. Therefore, when Macbeth says: “I dare do all that may become a man, Who dares do more is none” (Shakespeare 120) the ironic implication is that he is, himself, about to step out of the boundaries of manhood which have sustained him and now will allow manhood to be defined for him by the feminine world in which he has become tragically immersed.
Lady Macbeth’s immediate reply cements what the alert reader or audience member would have already guessed: that Macbeth’s sense of manhood has been compromised and that he now understands his own self-worth through the eyes of the women around him, most notable Lady Macbeth herself: “What beast was’t then/That made you break this enterprise to me?/When you durst do it, then you were a man;/And to be more than what you were, you would/Be so much more the man” (Shakespeare 120) Now the picture is nearly complete of Macbeth as an individual who no longer controls his destiny, who no longer even maintains a solid belief in his previous core-convictions. He has become the “pawn” of feminine forces which have seduced and manipulated him into a world of magic, spirits, murder, betrayal, and ambition.
In conclusion, it is through the use of superlatively charged language and imagery that Shakespeare is able to present such a profound contrast of gender-based world-views. By imbuing the events of the play with complex emotional and philosophical motivation, Shakespeare is not only to portray a convincing world of political intrigue and sexual ambiguity, but he able to place the reader directly into the sinister, mysterious, and tragic world which Macbeth finds himself in after succumbing to the hostile feminine powers that surround him. perhaps, at a deeper level of meaning, the play is an admonishment against rigid, gender-based identification; however, themes of feminine agency and feminine manipulation prove much easier to explicate from the play’s language adn imagery..
Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Macbeth. Ed. Nicholas Brooke. Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 1998.