Gender in Macbeth

Proseminar Paper written by Adrian Engler for the course

Introduction to Literature, Part III

Winter Semester 1988/99

Prof. M. Heusser

University of Zurich

1 Introduction *

2 Gender and the Chain of Being *

3 Male gender in Macbeth *

3.1 Macbeth and Lady Macbeth *

3.2 Macbeth’s opponents *

4 Female gender in Macbeth *

4.1 Lady Macbeth *

4.2 Lady Macduff *

5 The characters’ relationships to rank *

6 Conclusions *

  1. Introduction
  2. Gender issues have received much attention in literary studies, including those dealing with the work of Shakespeare. Giving an overview of the complete literature pertaining to gender issues in Macbeth would exceed the scope of this paper. Although I make use of secondary literature for some questions that are related to the subject to this work, I have not attempted to situate the main thesis, which I am proposing rather independently from secondary literature, in the abundant work on Shakespeare.

    Rather than analysing gender as a category emerging from the relationships between the characters, I will investigate how the characters of the play use gender definition. As I will argue, in Macbeth, the dominant dichotomy related to gender is not the one between male and female, but rather the one between gender identities that are artificially created for persuasion and the ‘natural’ ones that correspond to traditional order. The way Macbeth and Lady Macbeth exploit and redefine gender parallels their general hubris against social and natural order. Hence, the confusion in gender identity, which is produced by Lady Macbeth and supported by Macbeth, is part of their general overthrow of ‘natural’ order. Macduff and Lady Macduff occupy a position that is clearly opposite to the couple Macbeth while Malcolm stands between them in his relationship to gender and power.*

    * I restrict myself to these five characters’ relationships to gender and rank. It seems to me that they are the most interesting characters in that respect, but since I completely leave out the other characters, this remains, of course, an open question.

  3. Gender and the Chain of Being
  4. In the Renaissance, the idea of a hierarchically ordered universe, which stems from Aristotle, was very influential, for instance in the form of the Chain of Being (see Roberts 1991:4)*. A common metaphor for the justification of social rank was also the comparison of society to the human body: ‘Chaque auteur laisse libre cours à son imagination des correspondances. L’accord se trouve cependant réalisé – avec des variations significatives – pour assimiler le souverain soit à la tête, soit au cœur, les membres supérieurs aux responsables politiques, juridiques, etc., les mains aux artisans ou aux soldats, les jambes et les pieds aux ouvriers agricoles.’ (Moreau 1991:57).**

    * Roberts 1991:1 ff. mentions the concepts of the Chain of Being and the World Picture. They have in common that they are hierarchically organised. ‘Both the chain of being and the World Picture are quintessentially male constructs, rooted in Aristotle, codifier of patriarchal theory, and committed to a Christian teleology, which often seems foreign to the more cyclically oriented female.’ (p. 4)

    ** ‘Every author gives free way to his imagination about correspondences. However, they agree – with some significant variations – about likening the sovereign either to the head or to the heart, the upper parts of the body to those responsible in politics, law, etc., the hands to manual workers or soldiers, the legs and the feet to farmers.’ (my own translation)

    Gender was, too, part of this natural order; generally male gender was regarded as superior: ‘Women were seen as closer than men to animals in the Great Chain of Being, barely rational and dominated by passion and appetite.’ (Roberts 1991:25). What will be more important within the scope of this paper than this inequality is that both male and female gender had its place within the order the Chain of Being represents. While already the idea of redefining the concepts of gender violates the idea of an ordered universe, attempts to identify with only one gender – in the case of Macbeth male gender –, rejecting the other is particularly at odds with this kind of Renaissance thinking. That, despite the hierarchical inequality of the genders, the co-existence of the male and the female was regarded as crucial is, among other things, shown by a theory about pregnancy stemming from ancient philosophy, which was popular in the Renaissance: ‘Selon Hippocrate on peut savoir qu’un enfant sera inéluctablement mort-né s’il vient au monde pendant le huitième mois de la grossesse, car selon le célèbre triangle de Pythagore (dont les côtés mesurent 3, 4 et 5) huit veut dire un doublement ou du principe mâle et impair (3 + 5) ou du principe femelle et pair (4 + 4), combinaisons qui ne peuvent être qu’infertiles. Mais les grossesses qui durent 7 ou 9 mois ont tout en leur faveur, car les principes mâle et femelle y sont réunis (3 + 4 ; 5 + 4). On retrouve ces affirmations assez souvent chez les médecins respectés du XVIe siècle […].’* (Maclean 1991 :114). In any case, it seems obvious that an attempt to destroy the diadic character of gender means a serious threat to the order of the universe as a whole.

    * ‘According to Hippocrates, one could know that a child will be inevitably stillborn if it is born in the eighth month of pregnancy because, according to the famous Pythagorean triangle (the sides of which have a length of 3, 4 and 5) eight means a doubling of either the male and uneven (3 + 5) or the female and even (4 + 4) principle, combinations that can only be infertile. But pregnancies during 7 or 9 months have all luck on their side because then, the male and female principles are unified (3 + 4; 5 + 4). These affirmations can be found quite frequently among respected physicians of the 16th century […].’ (my own translation)


  5. Male gender in Macbeth

    In Macbeth, argumentative strategies using the argument of maleness are invariably linked with death. In the most significant cases, their aim is to persuade a man of killing someone, in other instances, it serves the glorification of dead people. Both the couple Macbeth, which overthrows the hierarchical order, and by those who set out to restore it use the argument of maleness. There are, however, differences between the two sides in the conflict.

    1. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth
    2. The main characteristic of Lady Macbeth and Macbeth’s view on gender is probably that it is, from the Renaissance point of view of an ordered universe, completely confused and that this confusion leads to actions that transgress moral boundaries. Adelman (1996:109) writes: ‘In the figures of Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, and the witches, the play gives us images of a masculinity and a femininity that are terribly disturbed; this disturbance seems to me both the cause and the consequence of Duncan’s murder.’

      When Macbeth and Lady Macbeth mention male gender as an argument for killing, this is preceded in the text by a different conception of the word ‘man’ that contradicts the idea of killing, but gets lost in the following argument. In I.vii.46 f., before Lady Macbeth speaks about maleness, her husband says:


      I dare to do all that may become a man;

      Who dares more is none.


      Adelman (1996:119) writes: ‘Macbeth is well aware that his capitulation to Lady Macbeth’s definition of manhood entails his abandonment of his own more inclusive definition of what becomes a man […].’

      Likewise, in Macbeth’s persuasion of the murderers, the argument of being a man is only used after one of them uses it in the opposite sense of men – here not necessarily in the gender-specific sense – being limited in their abilities as opposed to divine creatures (III.i.85 ff.):


      [...] Do you find

      Your patience so predominant in your nature

      That you can let this go? Are you so gospelled

      To pray for this good man, and for his issue,

      Whose heavy hand hath bowed you to the grave

      And beggared yours for ever?


      We are men, my liege.

      The presence of a different conception of maleness, which has first to be overcome by argument, demonstrate that the kind of male identity that supports murder is not identical with the one that the characters concerned would call their own.

      The argument using male gender marks the turning point of the discussion between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. In I.vii.59, Macbeth does not utter moral scruples, as he did in the two previous statements (I.vii.31 ff. and I.vii.45 ff.), but only addresses the question of successfulness saying: ‘If we should fail, –’. In I.vii.71 ff., Macbeth accepts his wife’s conception of male gender:


      Bring forth men-children only!

      For thy undaunted mettle should compose

      Nothing but males. [...]


      His approval of her as a mother of male children also stands for his acceptance of her as a creator of a new conception of male gender contradicting the one he initially held up.

      For Macbeth, male gender is constantly present as a prescriptive category. When he is frightened by seeing Banquo’s ghost, Lady Macbeth asks him in III.iv.58: ‘Are you a man?’ In III.iv.73 she says: ‘What! quite unmanned in folly?’ Even after convincing him of her conception of male gender, she keeps insisting on it. Macbeth takes over her views about gender. In III.iv.105 ff., he says:



      If trembling I inhabit then, protest me

      The baby of a girl. [...]

      [Ghost disappears]

      Why, so; - being gone,

      I am a man again. [...]


      Yet, his wife’s constant exhortations demonstrate that Macbeth’s concept of manliness is not natural to him.

    3. Macbeth’s opponents

    The concept of male gender is also crucial for Macbeth’s opponents. For them, as well, it has to do with fighting and killing. First, in IV.ii.3 ff., Macduff counters Malcolm’s suggestion to weep by saying:


    Let us rather

    Hold fast the mortal sword, and like good men

    Bestride our down-fall birthdom. [...]


    When Macduff learns about the murder of his wife and his children, Malcolm advises him in IV.iii.219: ‘Dispute it like a man.’ Macduff answers in IV.iii.219 ff.:


    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 IV.iii.230, Macduff rejects weeping, which he calls ‘play the woman with my eyes’. Malcolm praises his resoluteness by saying in IV.iii.235: ‘This time goes manly.’ Further mentioning of male gender occurs in relation with young Siward’s death, e.g. in V.ix.9, where Rosse says: ‘But like a man he died.’

    Their use of the conception of male gender differs from Lady Macbeth and Macbeth’s. For them, it is not a persuasive means by which they make others comply with their wishes, but rather a way of reassuring themselves in what they are determined to do. Here, there is no struggle between different concepts of male gender. Most of time, these men speak of male gender to praise each other.

    There is, however, a significant difference between Malcolm and Macduff. Malcolm does use the argument of male gender to support Macduff’s determination to fight Macbeth. For him, as well, male gender serves the realisation of a plan.

    In contrast, Macduff’s concept of male gender clearly cannot be reduced to ideological support for what he is going to do. At one hand, he accepts that, as a man, he must fight against the murderers of his family. At the other hand, he says, as well, that he must also feel the loss like a man (see quotation on p. 3), contradicting by this to Malcolm, who wants to turn the whole grief into determination to fight Macbeth. While Lady Macbeth uses her conception of male gender to remove the contradictions in Macbeth’s thoughts about murder, in Macduff, the concept of gender itself produces conflicting implications. For Macduff, gender is primary to individual decision and outside the reach of it.

    The roles of Macduff and Malcolm are rather complex as far as gender is concerned. At one hand, the revelation of the true sense of the phrase ‘none of woman born’ (IV.i.79 ff.) restores the natural equilibrium between the male and the female in negating the possibility of men without mothers. As Macbeth understands the prophesy that none of woman born can harm him, it means carrying to the extreme what he and Lady Macbeth do, namely denying everything female and relying solely on an idea of masculinity that is linked with killing. While they are still to some extent bound by nature, the man in this vision would be completely free from female influence*, which appears to be impossible. The destruction of both Macbeth and his illusion about the meaning of ‘none of woman born’ that consists in an even more radical transgression over the natural foundations of gender marks the reinstatement of order in Scotland.

    * As we have seen, female gender is by many characters associated with weakness and passiveness (harmlessness).

    Adelman (1996:119 f.) argues that the sense of exclusion of women that inheres in the phrase ‘none of woman born’ partly persists: ‘[…] Macduff’s response to the news of his family’s destruction insists that humane feeling is central to the definition of manhood (4.3.221). Moreover, the revelation that even Macduff has a mother sets a limiting condition on the fantasy of a bloody masculine escape from the female and hence on the kind on manhood defined by that escape. Nonetheless, even at the end, the play enables one version of the fantasy that heroic manhood is exemption from the female even while it punishes that fantasy in Macbeth. The key figure in whom this double movement is vested in the end of the play is Macduff. […] The play moreover insists on reminding us that he has inexplicably abandoned his family […]. This unexplained abandonment severely qualifies Macduff’s force as the play’s central exemplar of a healthy manhood that can include the possibility of relationship to women […]. Dramatically and psychologically, he takes on full masculine power only as he loses his family and becomes energized by the loss, converting his grief into the more "manly" tune of vengeance […]’. In view of what we have seen about Macduff’s usage of the word ‘man’ I would clearly question the idea that Macduff is energised by the loss of his family. He already in IV.ii.3 ff., before he knows about the murder of his family, suggests fighting ‘like good men’. Not only consists, as Adelman notices, his reaction to the news of the murder in insisting on humane feeling as a central part of manhood, but in saying this, he also contradicts Malcolm’s suggestion in IV.iii.219: ‘Dispute it like a man.’ That he says in IV.iii.220 ‘I will do so’ is merely a restatement of his initial will to fight ‘like good men’, but what he aims at when he mentions grief is resisting Malcolm’s wish that he should be energised by the loss. That his insistence on grief is, indeed, thought to be a contradiction to Malcolm is also shown by the sentence ‘He has no children.’ in IV.iii.216, by which he probably accuses Malcolm of lack of understanding for his grief*. How the abandonment of his family should be viewed, seems to me less clear, but there is also an interpretation that is in accordance with Macduff as a bearer of traditional values: the idea that Macbeth should go as far as to have even women and children murdered is perhaps just too far from what he considers possible.

    * I follow Calderwood (1986:104) in regarding this as the more plausible interpretation: ‘It is sometimes said that Macduff’s "He has no children" refers to a childless Macbeth and hence expresses his disappointment that he cannot take his revenge in kind. But this renders the critic as insensitive to the situation as Malcolm himself. For it is precisely his pseudo-manliness – the too easy dismissal of a father’s grief by a childless bystander – that gives force to Macduff’s reply […]’

    It seems to me much more plausible to see the sense of exclusion of women in the end of the play realised in Malcolm, as Adelman (1996:122) does, as well when she notices that the description ‘unknown to woman’ in IV.iii.126 has this additional meaning and writes: ‘[…] Malcolm embodies utter separation from women and as such triumphs easily over Macbeth, the mother’s son.’ As has been shown in this chapter, Malcolm uses the argument of male gender for persuasion in a similar way like Lady Macbeth and Macbeth. Calderwood (1986:104 f.) writes: ‘[…] Malcolm’s notion of manliness, which calls for the transformation of humane feeling into violent resolve, troubling resembles that which marshalled the Macbeths to the murder of his father.’ His narrow and goal-driven use of the word ‘man’ in stark contrast with the more inclusive sense in which Macduff uses it. In contrast to Macbeth, Malcolm has a concept of manliness that is also of unequivocally male origin. Therefore, while Macduff, who should, according to Macbeth’s understanding of the prophesies, represent masculinity untainted by the female, turns out to be Macbeth’s opposite in being embedded in an order that includes the female, as well, the sense of exclusion of women, which inheres in the phrase ‘none of woman born’ is realised in Malcolm instead.

  7. Female gender in Macbeth
  8. As has been shown, Macbeth deals with the definition of male gender. The notion of female gender is much less prominent. Male characters hardly talk about female gender. Issues like female virginity, which are central in many plays by Shakespeare*, are virtually absent in Macbeth. Both Lady Macbeth and Lady Macduff associate female gender with harmlessness, but it is hardly used in interactions as a persuasive means and mainly appears in the self-reflections of the female characters. Again, there is a difference between the Macbeth couple and their opponents. While for Lady Macbeth, coaxing her husband into a new understanding of masculinity is tightly linked with denying her own femininity, Lady Macduff does not question her identification with female gender, but treats it as her unchangeable fate.

    * See e.g. Carroll 1995.


    1. Lady Macbeth
    2. The few indications about Lady Macbeth’s ideas about female gender show that, while she propounds the idea of male gender as something defying limits of human beings, her ideas about female gender fit much better into a concept of a naturally ordered world, in which the power of human beings is limited. The characteristics she names in her soliloquy in I.v.36 ff., where she expresses her desire to get rid of female gender, are remorse and compunction:

      Lady Macbeth:


      Stop up th´ access and passage of remorse;

      That no compunctious visitings of nature

      Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between

      Th´ effect and it. [...]


      They threaten the execution of her plans. When, in I.v.14 f., she talks about Macbeth’s possible lack in determination, she also uses an image that has to do with the female: ‘the milk of human kindness’. Female gender seems to her much less suited for redefinition than male gender.

      Although she does not question the associations that are connected with female gender, she does not accept a female gender role, either. Rather, she questions her own belonging to the realm of female gender in a radical way. In I.v.39, she asks the spirits to ‘unsex’ her, and in I.v.45 f. she goes on:

      Lady Macbeth:


      Come to my woman´s breasts,

      And take my milk for gall.


      Her dissociating herself from female gender shows as well as her redefinition of male gender that she considers gender as something that depends from her individual decision and can be used for her plans in a utilitarian way. Since she sees no possibility to harness female gender to the execution of her plans, she rejects it.

      Lady Macbeth’s role is parallel to that of the witches: while the witches rouse Macbeth’s desire for kingship by giving him facts about present and future, Lady Macbeth supports it by giving him an ideological basis, which helps him overcome his scruples*. When we look at their relationship to female gender, we can find something similar: while Lady Macbeth rejects female gender by what she says, the witches do so by what they are, namely by having beards, a typical male attribute, as Banquo mentions in I.iii.45 ff.:


      [...] you should be women,

      And yet your beards forbid me to interpret

      That you are so.

      * Adelman (1996:111) writes: ‘[…] the disturbance of gender that Banquo registers when he first meets the witches is played out in psychological terms in Lady Macbeth’s attempt to unsex herself.

       As Rudhart (1982:335) writes, witches were commonly thought to have beards: ‘Der typische Hexenbart ist nur eine der Metaphern dieser Furcht vor der vermännlichten Frau, die eine Hexe sein muß, da sie erstrebt, was allein dem Mann durch göttliches Naturrecht gebührt.’* This can be applied to Lady Macbeth, as well: her ambitions and her active role clearly go beyond what was deemed appropriate for women, and her denial of female gender can, indeed, be seen as an implication of this transgression. However, in contrast to the witches, Lady Macbeth has no male attributes explicitly associated with her. The passage I.vii.71 ff., which I have quoted in 3.1, shows a contradictory relationship to gender: Macbeth associates her with male gender, but in the role of the mother of male children. The absence of explicitly male characteristics suggests that Lady Macbeth not only rejects female gender, but gender as a category that defines and limits human beings as such.

      * ‘The typical beard of witches is only one of the metaphors for this fear of the masculinised woman a witch has to be, since she strives for what belongs to the man alone by divine and natural right.’ (my own translation)


    3. Lady Macduff

    Lady Macduff’s role in the play is much less prominent than Lady Macbeth’s, and hence we cannot expect her to develop a fully developed counter-conception to Lady Macbeth’s approach to gender. However, Lady Macduff’s relatively marginal part does elucidate the traditional social consensus that forms the ground against which the actions of the Macbeth couple are set.

    In contrast to Lady Macbeth, Lady Macduff does not strive for ridding herself of female gender, rather she acknowledges it as a fact, albeit one that is misfortunate under the circumstances (II.iv.70 ff.):

    Lady Macduff:

    Whither should I fly?

    I have done no harm. But I remember now

    I am in this earthly world, where to do harm

    Is often laudable, to do good sometime

    Accounted dangerous folly: why then, alas,

    Do I put up that womanly defence,

    To say, I have done no harm? [...]


    The argument of not having done any harm has to do rather with passivity than with activity, which corresponds to traditional ideas about female gender. She herself recognises this by calling it a womanly defence. She does question the appropriateness of her defence, but does not consider alternatives to it. The cruel circumstances make her question her position as a whole. To uncouple her personal identity from her gender role, as does Lady Macbeth, is not possible for her because she does not view gender identity as something that is open to redefinition.

    Lady Macduff’s longest statement, in IV.ii.6 ff., gives further evidence about her attitude towards natural order:

    Lady Macduff:

    Wisdom! to leave his wife, to leave his babes,

    His mansion, and his titles, in a place

    From whence himself does fly? He loves us not:

    He wants the natural touch; for the poor wren,

    The most diminutive of birds, will fight,

    Her young ones in her nest, against the owl.

    All is the fear and nothing is the love; [...]


    She buttresses her demand that her husband protect her on a comparison with the behaviour of animals and accuses him of lacking the ‘natural touch’, which should make him stand by his wife. This implies adherence to traditional ideas about gender roles. Interestingly, however, she does not use the most obvious comparison of a male animal fighting for his female and his offspring, but transfers the relationship of her husband to her and her children in her comparison to the relationship of a female animal to her offspring. Although the argumentative foundation of human behaviour in nature is kept, the substitution of the male by the female weakens the direct analogy with animal behaviour. On the other hand, it also sets her off more clearly from Lady Macbeth: in contrast to the latter, Lady Macduff does not claim the power to define what attributes should accompany male gender, but uses images that lie within the realm of female gender. She does not deny it, but sticks to it and uses it as a source for comparisons even in a context where it would be motivated to refer to male gender.


  9. The characters’ relationships to rank
  10. In this paper, I have mainly focused on the characters’ relations to the category of gender. Since, as I have mentioned in the introduction, I view gender in Macbeth as embedded in a group of natural and social categories that make up the Renaissance conception of an ordered world, I will shortly compare the findings about the characters’ treatment of gender with their relationship to rank. Due to limited space, it is not possible to find conclusive evidence for my thesis that these different categories are interconnected, but it seems to me that even a rather brief overview reveals striking correspondences.

    Macduff and Lady Macduff, who have the most traditional approach to gender and accept it as a category that lies outside the reach of their personal decision are, among the characters I have investigated, also those who are most loyal towards the political hierarchy. Significantly, they accept hierarchy without questioning even when they have reasons for doubt. When Lady Macduff learns about her husband’s flight, her suspicion immediately falls on him: ‘What had he done, to make him fly the land?’ (II.iv.1), and in IV.ii.3 ff., she calls his fleeing madness and treason. Hence, she places more trust in political than in her husband. Similarly, Malcolm’s talk about his own evilness in IV.iii.50-54 and IV.iii.57-66 do not cause Macduff to question Malcolm’s legitimacy as the heir to the crown. Rather, he says in IV.iii.69:

    […] But fear not yet

    To take upon you what is yours; […]


    Macduff’s loyalty to the hereditary right of kingship outweighs the fear of the horrid images Malcolm conjures up. The only threat that can sway him is the destruction of something even higher in the hierarchy than kingship:


    […] Nay, had I power, I should

    Pour the sweet milk of concord into hell,

    Uproar the universal peace, confound

    All unity on earth.


    This finally leads him to reject Malcolm, who is testing him. Hence, Macduff’s loyalties strictly follow hierarchical order. As long as Malcolm mentions only earthly crimes, Macduff remains loyal to the legitimate successor of Duncan because the king stands above his subjects in the hierarchy. Only cosmic and divine order is ranked higher than kingship.

    Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, on the contrary, do not try to integrate into the hierarchy, at all. They hardly ever speak about kingship. It seems to be rather individualistic desire for power than genuine interest in the hierarchy, in which they move up, that drives them. Most interpretations of their actions describe them rather in terms the individual rather than social order*. They seem to disregard the hierarchical order of the world in Renaissance belief completely. In addition, Macbeth does not care about people occupying ranks lower than kingship. Their focussing on his own position while neglecting the rest of the social hierarchy accelerates their downfall, since there are very few people left who are loyal to them.

    * Calderwood (1986) views Macbeth’s murder as an oedipal attempt to reach divinity (see p. 93 ff.). This locates it within individual psychology. There are, of course, many other interpretations that cannot be enumerated here. The point is, however, that most of them have to do with individualistic motives rather than such that are embedded in the ordered universe of the Chain of Being.

    Malcolm’s treatment of rank parallels his relation to gender, too. In chapter 3.2, we have seen that he uses a concept of pseudo-manliness (Calderwood 1986:104) in a way that is reminiscent of Lady Macbeth’s persuasion of Macbeth. In the area of power, this is reflected by his symbolic assumption of the role of a tyrant in IV.iii and by the changes he makes to the structure of the hierarchical political system. Malcolm’s self-identification with the role of a tyrant in IV.iii. is motivated by the aim of testing Macduff, but it is so extended that, at least symbolically, something of the impression remains. His first act as a king is changing the hierarchical system of power – also an act of disrespect for traditional order, though less radical that the Macbeths’ deeds, since he does heed the hierarchical structure in general and only changes names*. The factors that nevertheless bring him closer to natural order also have close parallels in the areas of gender and of rank. While in the latter, his ambitions are justified by the fact that he is, indeed the legitimate heir to the crown, if we accept Adelman’s (1996:120) idea that ‘[…] at the end, the play enables one version of the fantasy that heroic manhood is exemption from the female […]’, the fact that he is a man, makes his attempts to redefine gender seem more moderate. While the exclusion of women itself makes him similar to Macbeth, the fact that his visions about manliness again bring him closer to natural order.

    * The passage I am referring to is V.ix.28 ff:


    […] My thanes and kinsmen,

    Henceforth be earls, the first that ever Scotland

    In such a honour named. […]


  11. Conclusions

I have investigated the difference between the concept of gender that is represented by Lady Macbeth and Macbeth and the one of their opponents. As to the associations that are connected with male and female gender, these two groups do not differ greatly. Both associate male gender with killing and death and female gender with doing no harm. The main difference has to do with the relationship between gender and individual decision.

Lady Macbeth dissociates her identity from what she and the other characters consider to be female attributes and creates the ideological basis for her and Macbeth’s rebellion against traditional order by constructing an idea of male gender that supports the defiance of cultural and moral rules. For them, gender is not strictly dependent on biological sex – they have ideologically done away with female gender and adopted a concept of male gender whose lack of embedding in nature is emphasised by its female authorship. For Lady Macbeth and Macbeth, gender is not only a mouldable category that is subjected to changes, but it is modified instantly by their individual decision when they use it as a means for grounding their own actions and persuading others to comply with their plans.

Macduff and Lady Macduff treat gender as a category that is inextricably linked to a person’s identity. When they mention gender, their conception about it does not compete with other ideas, but merely reassures them in their consensus about their position. In contrast to the couple Macbeth, their adversaries’ treatment of gender is limited by biological sex. The male characters refer to male gender and Lady Macduff only talks about female gender. When, in II.iv.70 ff., Lady Macduff questions the appropriateness of the characteristics that go with the conceptions about female gender this means questioning her position as a whole rather than the connection of her self-image with the corresponding gender role. Macduff and Lady Macduff regard gender as being determined by nature rather than human volition. They do not mould it according to their aims and ideas. Some similarity to Lady Macbeth’s use of gender as a persuasive means can only be found in Malcolm.

The contrast between the couple Macbeth and their opponents regarding the status of gender is not an isolated dichotomy. Rather, it should be viewed as embedded in the contrast between the two groups’ attitude towards the Chain of Being and the belief in the natural and divine basis of social order. Whether they see gender as a given category or as something they can redefine according to their individual desires is tightly linked to their relation to rank and power. Hence, the character’s treatment of gender is part of the struggle for or against natural order in general.


While I have argued that gender in Macbeth is mainly characterised by the dichotomy of constructed versus ‘natural’ gender, this does not mean that the contrast between the male and the female that inheres in the category of gender has lost its significance. Not only are male and female gender connected with very different associations, as I have mentioned in the beginning of the conclusions, but also the redefinition of gender by Lady Macbeth itself treats male and female gender differently. She renounces her ties with female gender without questioning the characteristics that are associated with it. As to male gender, however, she focuses rather on the attributes that go with it rather than people’s belonging to it. Hence, although a female character plays the main part in the challenge to order in the category of gender, the object of the ideological battle is male, not female gender.


List of References


Adelman, Janet, "Born of Woman": Fantasies of Maternal Power in Macbeth, in: Garner and Sprengnether 1996, pp. 105-134.

Calderwood, James L., If It Were Done – Macbeth and Tragic Action, The University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst, 1986.

Garner, Shirley Nelson, and Sprengnether, Madelon (eds.), Shakespearean Tragedy and Gender, Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, 1996.

Jones-Davies, M.T. (ed.), Shakespeare et le corps à la Renaissance, Les Belles Lettres, Paris, 1991.

Maclean, Ian, Avatars de la différence sexuelle à la fin de la Renaissance, in: Jones-Davies 1991, pp. 113-124.

Moreau, Jean-Pierre, Le corps politique aux XVIe et XVIIe siècles: avatars d’une metaphore, in: Jones-Davies 1991, pp. 53-80.

Roberts, Jeanne Addison, The Shakespearean Wild – Geography, Genus, and Gender, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln and London, 1991.

Rudhart, Blanca-Maria, Die Frauen in Shakespeares Königsdramen, Verlag Peter Lang GmbH, Frankfurt am Main/Bern, 1982.