Gender Roles in Macbeth

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  • 0:00 Shakespeare and Gender
  • 1:22 Gender and Power in 'Macbeth'
  • 2:47 Lady Macbeth
  • 3:27 Quotes Involving…
  • 4:47 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Katherine Garner

Katie teaches middle school English/Language Arts and has a master's degree in Secondary English Education

In this lesson, we will explore how Shakespeare often defies traditional ideas and stereotypes about gender in his plays. Specifically, we will look at gender roles in 'Macbeth,' Shakespeare's play about ambition and revenge in Scotland.

Shakespeare and Gender

Before discussing how gender is portrayed in Macbeth, it is important to have a general understanding of Shakespeare's representations of gender in his whole body of work. Shakespeare was writing plays in the late 1500s and early 1600s and seemed to have a progressive view on gender, based on the way many of his characters defy stereotypes of male and female behavior. Historically, women have been stereotyped as the 'weaker sex.' They have been characterized as being less intelligent and rational than men, and of being constantly overcome by their emotions. In many of Shakespeare's plays, it is the female characters who demonstrate more rationality and clear-mindedness than their male counterparts. This can certainly be seen in Macbeth, as well as in Romeo and Juliet and Twelfth Night, among others.

In addition to giving male and female characters traits that defy conventional gender stereotypes, Shakespeare often plays with gender roles by having many of his characters dress up as the opposite sex. His use of cross-dressing in plays like Twelfth Night demonstrates an understanding of gender as a fluid set of choices that a person can make about how to present him or herself. This is in contrast to the conventional understanding of gender as a person's biological sex (female or male). This element could have been confusing in the actual performances of Shakespeare's plays in his time, however, because all actors were male. Therefore, there would have been a male actor playing the role of a female character who was disguised as a male.

Gender and Power in Macbeth

There is no cross-dressing in Macbeth, but Shakespeare does make interesting choices in the portrayal of men and women in the play. Macbeth is essentially about power. Rather than writing about men who have all of the power and women who are powerless, Shakespeare portrays men and women as deriving their power from different sources. Men in this play generally gain power through political and military means. The central conflict of the play revolves around who will become king next after King Duncan and his chamberlains are murdered. The men who are highest ranking in the military and display bravery and loyalty in war are the men who have the greatest chances of ascending the ranks.

On the other hand, women in the play are also extremely powerful, but they do not gain power through conventional social institutions as the men do. They gain their power through witchcraft and manipulation. The most central female characters in the play are the three witches: Hecate, who is the goddess of witchcraft, and Lady Macbeth. The men, who are obsessed with becoming more powerful, do not seem to realize that it is these women who are the forces behind all of the events that lead to their gain or loss of power. The witches prophesize Macbeth's rise to power, and seem to have control over the four earthly elements. For example, they discuss killing sailors with treacherous winds. Lady Macbeth is behind most of her husband's actions leading up to Macbeth becoming king. Without her forcefulness and manipulations, he probably would not have had the courage to commit the murders that were necessary in his climb to power.

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