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The play The Tragedy of Macbeth by William Shakespeare Essay

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The play The Tragedy of Macbeth by William Shakespeare is one of the English playwrights’ most popular plays, both on the stage and in classrooms. Although often thought of as one of his simplest and most straightforward plays, The Tragedy of Macbeth is actually one of Shakespeare’s most successful attempts at exploring different gender roles and disrupting gender roles which were considered to be “norms” in his era.

One of the first examples of Shakespeare disrupting gender roles with Lady Macbeth is in Act 1, Scene 5. According to Lady Macbeth, Macbeth is too kind and weak-minded to kill Duncan and become King. She, therefore, resolves to “pour my spirits in thine ear, and chastise with the valor of my tongue”, which is another way of saying that she will keep nagging and pester him to go through with the deed and kill Duncan so that he may become king. In Shakespeare’s time, men were the dominant one in a marriage. Women were supposed to obey their husbands without question and essentially to be “ruled over” similarly to how an empire is ruled over by an emperor. When Shakespeare wrote this play, it was unheard of and perhaps even unimaginable for a woman to be the dominant one in a relationship. It is very likely that Shakespeare’s audience would have been scandalized by the sight of a woman taking control of a relationship and would have viewed it as tantamount to treason.

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The most widely used example of Shakespeare disrupting gender norms in Macbeth is in Act 1 Scene 5 in Lady Macbeth’s famous soliloquy:

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 the peace between
Th\’ effect and it. Come to my woman\’s breasts,
And take my milk for gall, you murd\’ring ministers,
Wherever in your sightless substances
You wait on nature\’s mischief.

In this segment, Lady Macbeth calls upon evil spirits to turn her into the man that she needs to be to carry out her plan to assassinate Duncan by taking her breast milk, typically used to portray gentleness, kindness, and motherhood. This is the first time in the play that the audience really gets to see Lady Macbeth’s true nature, and how evil and mentally unstable she is. In Shakespeare’s time, seeing a woman behave this way would no doubt have made many people very uncomfortable.

One other example of gender stereotypes affecting Macbeth’s plot takes place in Act 2, Scene 3. After the murder of Duncan by Macbeth, Macduff says to Lady Macbeth:

O gentle lady,
‘Tis not for you to hear what I can speak.
The repetition in a woman’s ear,
Would murder as it fell.

This line shows how much Macduff is tied to the old stereotype of gentle, kind and compassionate women. Because of this, he never once suspects Lady Macbeth of being involved in Duncan’s murder because he doesn’t believe that a woman can even hear or speak on the topic of murder, let alone plan and carry out the deed herself. This proves to be critical to the plot. If Macduff had set aside his prejudices about what women supposedly can and can’t do, then he might have even begun to suspect Lady Macbeth of orchestrating Duncan’s assassination. I for one believe that Lady Macbeth was aware of these prevalent prejudices and stereotypes and was counting on them to deflect suspicion off of her so she and Macbeth would have an unobstructed path to the throne.

But perhaps the best example of a character in Macbeth refuting a men’s stereotype comes from Macduff in Act 4 Scene 3 after the death of his wife and child. The conversation between him and Malcolm takes place as follows:

MACDUFF
He has no children. All my pretty ones?
Did you say \” all\”? O hell-kite! All?
What, all my pretty chickens and their dam
At one fell swoop?

MALCOLM
Dispute it like a man.

MACDUFF
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.

In this short excerpt, upon hearing about the tragedy that has taken place, Malcolm tells Macduff to fight it like a man, to which Macduff replies that will do just that, but he has to feel it as well as fight it. A little later he states:
Oh, I could play the woman with my eyes,
And braggart with my tongue!

This tells us that he is weeping for the loss of his wife and child and feeling and acknowledging his sorrow. During Shakespeare’s time, it was expected that men, when beset with such tragedies, would quickly convert their sorrow into white-hot rage instead of really mourning the loss of their loved ones in the way we do today. Macduff, by literally weeping for his family, breaks this gender norm and allows Shakespeare to show his audience that it is not dishonorable for full-grown men to show emotion- in fact, it is the exact opposite. In summary, The Tragedy of Macbeth by William Shakespeare is one of the best examples of any author/playwright disrupting gender norms in the 16th-17th century. Several of the characters in this play act out of what was considered ordinary or even acceptable at that time period. As seen in paragraph 4, even the plot is, to an extent, dependent on one of the characters (Macduff) being unsuspicious of Lady Macbeth simply because she is a woman.

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