Study Guide

Macbeth Gender

By William Shakespeare

Gender

Act 1, Scene 3
Weird Sisters (the Witches)

FIRST WITCH
I'll drain him dry as hay.
Sleep shall neither night nor day
Hang upon his penthouse lid.
He shall live a man forbid.
Weary sev'nnights, nine times nine,
Shall he dwindle, peak, and pine.
Though his bark cannot be lost,
Yet it shall be tempest-tossed. (1.3.19-26)

Here, the First Witch says that she's going to punish a sailor's wife by "drain[ing] [the sailor] dry as hay," which means that she's going to make the sailor impotent: no children, and no sex. Macbeth is definitely worried about male impotence—even Lady Macbeth makes a jab at her husband about it. Is that just a low blow, or does Macbeth actually associate sexual potency with masculinity?

Banquo

BANQUO
                             You should be women,
And yet your beards forbid me to interpret
That you are so. (1.3.47-49)

"Should" be: why? Because they look like women, or because they're obviously supernatural? And does the presence of a beard automatically disqualify someone from being a woman? (Don't tell the moustache-bleaching industry.)

Act 1, Scene 5
Lady Macbeth

LADY MACBETH
[…] 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. 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!" (1.5.47-61)

We can't be the only ones who get goosebumps during this speech. Right? Here, Lady Macbeth gets her freak on by calling on "spirits" to, basically, make her into the man her husband can't be. Tell us who the hero of this play is, again?

LADY MACBETH
Glamis thou art, and Cawdor, and shalt be
What thou art promised. Yet do I fear thy nature; 
It is too full o' th' milk of human kindness
To catch the nearest way. Thou wouldst be great,
Art not without ambition, but without
The illness should attend it.
[…] 
                          Hie thee hither,
That I may pour my spirits in thine ear
And chastise with the valoor of my tongue
All that impedes thee from the golden round,
Which fate and metaphysical aid doth seem
 To have thee crowned withal. (1.5.15-20;28-33)

According to Lady Macbeth, her husband is ambitious, but he's also too "kind" to do what it takes to murder Duncan so that he, Macbeth, can be king. So what's a wife to do? Lady Macbeth plans to "chastise" Macbeth with the "valour of [her] tongue," which is another way of saying she's going to nag her husband into taking action so he can be "crown'd withal." This speech establishes Lady Macbeth as the dominant partner in the relationship, which inverts typical 17th-century gender and social roles. Since husbands were supposed to "rule" their wives in the same way that kings ruled countries, Lady Macbeth's plan is just another version of treason: taking power that doesn't belong to you.

Act 1, Scene 7
Lady Macbeth

LADY MACBETH
                                    Was the hope drunk
Wherein you dress'd yourself? hath it slept since?
And wakes it now, to look so green and pale
At what it did so freely? From this time
Such I account thy love. Art thou afeard
To be the same in thine own act and valor
As thou art in desire? 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' th' adage? 

MACBETH
                                    Prithee, peace:
I dare do all that may become a man; (1.7.39-51)

Fun brain snack: Lady Macbeth calls her husband "green and pale," which sound to us a lot like "green sickness." Green sickness is another name for anemia, and for hundreds of years it was thought to be particularly a disease of young, virgin girls. So, by calling her husband "green and pale," Lady Macbeth is basically calling her husband a virgin girl. His response? "No, dude, I'm totally a man."

LADY MACBETH 

[...] I have given suck, and know
How tender 'tis to love the babe that milks me.
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums
And dashed the brains out, had I so sworn as you
Have done to this. (1.7.62-67)

Here, Lady Macbeth takes breastfeeding —one of the fundamental biological traits of women as the Early Modern period saw it—makes it monstrous. She says that she's so good at keeping promises that she would actually kill a nursing child if she'd promised to do it. What's funny (not funny ha-ha) to us is that Macbeth has promised to kill his king, i.e. father figure; Lady Macbeth is talking about killing her child. Hmmm.

Macbeth

MACBETH
                     Bring forth men-children only,
For thy undaunted mettle should compose
 Nothing but males. (1.7.83-85)

Macbeth tells his wife that she's manly enough to only give birth to male-children. Sorry, Macbeth, but you're the one responsible for the Y-chromosome. But this is an interesting look at Early Modern ideas about gender: "masculinity" and "femininity" seem to be more about behavior than any particularly sex characteristics.

Act 2, Scene 3
Macduff

MACDUFF

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. (2.3.96-99)

LOL, Macduff. He's so tied to a notion of female gentleness that he can't believe Lady Macbeth could even hear about murder, much less plot one. See, guys? Sexism hurts everyone.

Act 3, Scene 4
Lady Macbeth

LADY MACBETH 

                            Are you a man? 

[…] 

                            O, proper stuff!
This is the very painting of your fear.
This is the air-drawn dagger which you said
Led you to Duncan. O, these flaws and starts,
Impostors to true fear, would well become
A woman's story at a winter's fire,
Authorized by her grandam. Shame itself!
Why do you make such faces? When all's done,
You look but on a stool. (3.4.70;73-81)

In other words, Lady Macbeth is (yet again) telling Macbeth that he's acting like a girl—or, in this case, an old women. Honestly, we're a little surprised that—since this is Shakespeare and all —he didn't just up and kill her instead of Duncan.

Act 4, Scene 3
Macduff

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. (4.3.255-262)

Boys don't cry? Not so, says Macduff. He can be a man and also mourn the brutal murder of his wife and children. Talk about setting a good example.