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Gender Stereotypes and Evil in Macbeth

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In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Lady Macbeth is often seen as a demonic figure whose evil manipulation causes the murder of Duncan. Indeed, gender is a prominent theme in the play. In this essay, I will argue that Macbeth reflects strict gender expectations and that the protagonists are in turn governed and constrained by these stereotypes. Macbeth also reflects a deep mistrust of women in Shakespeare’s society.

With the Renaissance came a rise in education levels in the 16th century among upper and middle class women. Such a phenomenon, accentuated by the ascension of Elizabeth I to the throne as a “great exemplar of feminine achievement” (Shapiro 703), served as the background to a “women’s struggle against their traditional subordinate status on a scale that seemed large to their male contemporaries” (Shapiro 703). Thus, the spirit of educated women of the age was one of struggle for self-expression. Shapiro states that there were enough of such bold, ambitious women dressing up as men (in order to have adventures and to gain education) to warrant attacks in popular literature and even from King James I himself (704). It is clear that the patriarchal society of Elizabethan England had no appetite for women’s ambitions, small as they were to be called anything more than a disorganized struggle.

It is not hard to see the reflection of such a social atmosphere in Macbeth. In many ways, Lady Macbeth is portrayed as ambitious, at times towering over Macbeth – seemingly a reversal of the traditional husband-wife relationship. Macbeth, for instance, recognizes his wife as his equal “partner of greatness” (Macbeth I.v.8). As the subordinate wife, she does not seem to fear her husband but even has the nerve to “chastise” Macbeth for bein...

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...Carroll, William C. “Discourses of the Feminine.” William Shakespeare, Macbeth: Texts and Contexts. Ed. William C. Carroll. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin, 1999. Print.

Chamberlain, Stephanie. “Fantasizing Infanticide: Lady Macbeth and the Murdering Mother in Early Modern England.” College Literature 32.3 (2005): 72-91. Academic Search Premier. Web. 13 Sep. 2009.

Frye, Roland Mushat. “Macbeth’s Usurping Wife.” Renaissance News 8.2 (1955): 102-105. JSTOR. Web. 13 Sep. 2009.

Kimbrough, Robert. "Macbeth: The Prisoner of Gender." Shakespeare Studies 16 (1983): 175-191. Web. Academic Search Premier. 13 Sep. 2009.

Shakespeare, William. Macbeth: Texts and Contexts. Ed. William C. Carroll. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin, 1999. Print.

Shapiro, Susan C. “Feminists in Elizabethan England.” History Today 27.11 (1977): 703-711. Web. Academic Search Premier. 19 Sep. 2009.