Gender Roles in ‘Macbeth’ & the Distinct Eroticism That’s Often Overlooked

Fair is foul; foul is fair

In one of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies ‘Macbeth’, gender roles and the concept of eroticism are some of the most key aspects to the entire play. Yet, the idea of eroticism can often be overlooked. Why is Lady Macbeth such an influencing character? What does killing Duncan really mean for her and Macbeth’s mental state? Where do the three witches come into all of this?

Witchcraft and Its Temptation

Though witches are portrayed in different ways through various forms of media, such as books, paintings or movies, the notion of magical powers or being enchanting and mysterious, is a pretty seductive and exciting idea. What comes to mind for you?

You may think of naked women standing in a circle, chanting a spell together. Or the devilish side-having sex with demons, which is depicted in many paintings during the 1700s. Or the witch that can cast a spell on a man and control a man. Or a more modern day approach of a cute cartoon witch riding a broomstick. Or the “domestic” view of a witch as a healer or a cook-making potions in a kitchen to heal. Regardless of what you think of when you think about witches and witchcraft, the eroticism cannot be ignored.

Macbeth encounters the three witches, or the Weird Sisters, and they prophesied that he will one day become King of Scotland. Macbeth, as well as Lady Macbeth, are both so taken with this prediction, that they make it happen. That subtle hint of temptation is all it takes. Not without first a little reluctancy from Macbeth. But Lady Macbeth, has some choice words for her man.

Though Macbeth wants to be King, the idea of killing Duncan to achieve that, creates an inner conflict, of which he voices to Lady Macbeth. She convinces him he must kill Duncan. She tells him that he’s a man, he should do it. If she were a man, she would do it herself but he must be the one to commit the crime. She further emasculates him by saying he should do it to prove his manhood to her, as an act of love, as seen in Act 1; Scene 7.

“Wouldst thou have that
Which thou esteem’st the ornament of life,
And live a coward in thine own esteem,
Letting ‘I dare not’ wait upon ‘I would,’
Like the poor cat i’ the adage?
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.”

Just this quote on its own has an erotic undertone one could easily miss. A woman is convincing a man to prove how strong and masculine he is by doing something foul, for her, such as committing murder. “Erotic” doesn’t necessarily have to imply the act of sex. It could imply the desire, the excitement. Something seductive, intimate, sensual. But also dirty, raw, filthy or salacious. Much like murder. Much like a woman telling her husband to “man up” and prove himself to her, using sexuality as an influencer. If this isn’t an act of love and valor, I don’t know what is.

What’s in a Man?

One of the most dominant characters in the play is Lady Macbeth. It’s clear Lady Macbeth knows what she’s saying and doing to Macbeth, and it obviously works because he does in fact kill Duncan. Lady Macbeth is one of the most powerful characters in this play, at least in 2/3 of the play before she and Macbeth go mad. For Shakespeare’s time, to see such a strong, bold woman was unique and makes us question the roles of gender. The female characters in Shakespeare’s work normally didn’t act like this, nor talk like this.

While trying to convince Macbeth he should kill Duncan, she calls him a coward and says that he doesn’t have the guts to go through with it, that if she were a man she would do it herself, but it’s a man’s job. A woman is too kind and nurturing and that’s why she asks the spirits to “unsex” her, as seen in the passage below.

“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 the access and pass
age to the remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
The effect and it! Come to my woman’s breasts,
And take my milk for gall, you murdering ministers,
Wherever in your sightless substances
You wait on nature’s mischief! Come, thick night,
And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell,
That my keen knife see not the wound it makes,
Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark,
To cry ‘Hold, hold!’
Act 1; Scene 5

Again, witchcraft can be seen here. Lady Macbeth asks the spirits to unsex her, remove the parts of her that make her a woman so that she may commit this act herself. Fill her breasts with gall (bitter fluid) and remove the milk. Remove anything that makes her reproductive. Though, she is still a woman with these thoughts, so does it matter the gender when it comes to committing murder? Didn’t she aid in the killing of Duncan by convincing Macbeth to do it? Is there not blood on her hands too?

They reverse rolls, with Lady Macbeth falling into madness, and Macbeth carrying out more murders to protect his place. Both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth experience such a guilt over the murder of Duncan, Banquo, and the murders following, that the crimes directly result in both their psychological downfall. Lady Macbeth becomes a depressing character by Act 5, seen sleepwalking and experiencing delusions of blood on her hands that cannot be washed away. Macbeth too suffers from lack of sleep and delusions, seeing the ghost of Banquo at dinner. The final act of the play is a rapid finish-Lady Macbeth’s suicide is not seen, but reported. And Macduff kills Macbeth in battle, by beheading. Both becoming the weak type of person they were afraid of.

Some might say that this was one of the more misogynistic Shakespeare plays because it’s depicting that the evil came from the female characters, Lady Macbeth and the witches. But then we see Macbeth showing aggression and desire to murder to keep his kingship. So it can be viewed as both genders can be equally ambitious and feel guilt and worry. But both men and women have the ability of violence and evil.

It begs the question if things are really as they appear? What should the roles of male and female be? The famous quote from the play, “Fair is foul; foul is fair,” means just that. And ‘Macbeth’ started with and ended with the supernatural and sexuality. Shakespeare does it many of his works–the natural world has been shattered by the unnatural.

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