Challenging Gender Roles In English Society

2779 words - 12 pages

Challenging Gender Roles in English Society

The age of Shakespeare was characterized by an overwhelming tendency for women to be looked down upon as the inferior gender. Women of the time were expected to be submissive, dutiful, obedient, and predominantly silent. The idea of an independent, out-spoken woman would have challenged all of the societal values of the time. Shakespeare, however, challenged the traditional patriarchal values of his time by introducing powerful and highly influential female characters in some of his most memorable plays.

Lady Macbeth and her earlier counterpart, Volumnia, both serve pivotal roles as dominant and commanding mother figures and also challenge ...view middle of the document...

5. 16-18). Lady Macbeth recognizes that her husband’s impressionable nature leaves him vulnerable. His inability to withstand the pressures of his conscience presents Lady Macbeth with the difficult and irritating task of convincing him to perform the actions which could provide him with lasting success. In her own mind, there is no question as to the necessity of carrying out such actions; the only difficulty lies in emboldening her hesitant spouse.

Her own husband recognizes her overwhelming intensity as being more attributable to males saying, “Bring forth men-children only! / For thy undaunted mettle should compose / Nothing but males” (Macbeth 1.7. 73-75). In this instance, Macbeth is facing the realization of his wife’s strength as well as his own weakness. Lady Macbeth is effectively challenging his manhood by employing traditional male attributes better than he. Macbeth realizes that his wife’s nature is undesirable in terms of societal expectations for a female. The traits which his rambunctious wife possesses are, in reality, suitable only for males. As William Hazlitt suggests, “…obdurate strength of will and masculine firmness give her the ascendancy over her husband’s faltering virtue” (Hazlitt 14). Whereas Macbeth appears to be the more impressionable character who is easily swayed, Lady Macbeth is portrayed with the traits of a more traditional male character. She recognizes her own strength and power over her husband and uses this knowledge in order to manipulate Macbeth in hopes of attaining greatness for them both.

The intensity with which Lady Macbeth pursues her goal and her determination in persuading her husband would have been atypical of women in English society during the mid to late sixteenth century. Her characteristics seem to cross the gender barrier and, therefore, present her as being almost inhuman. As she calls forth evil spirits to assist her in her pursuit, one cannot help but think that she has not only crossed the gender barrier, but transcended into the realm of the unnatural.

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! 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! (Macbeth 1.5. 40-50)

It would have been difficult for audiences of the time to imagine a woman who could be so cold, calculating, and, in terms of her female characteristics, inhuman. Lady Macbeth is surrendering all of the characteristics which distinguish her as a female and, subsequently, make her feel weak. The difficulty presented to the audience, however, is the idea of a woman who could embody such masculine traits. In this instance, Lady Macbeth becomes a sort of...

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