"In late Elizabethan drama the struggle for women is to be human in a world which declares them only female" (Dusinberre, 93)
The women in Shakespeare’s plays were either defined by their confinement to these roles that silence or their resistance to them. He writes about women who had to be submissive to powerful men, but he also wrote about women who found their own power and voice. There may be no better example than the unruly Lady Macbeth. She was powerful in a frightening way. Shakespeare creates in her a character that shows masculine qualities. She is cruel and aggressive, taking action and responsibility. Scene 1.5 in The Tragedy of Macbeth is one of the most vital scenes for analyzing Lady Macbeth’s character and her role in this play. She has just received the letter from Macbeth where he has received the prophecy from the witches of his Kingship. Her husband she knows well, and doubts his nature to go on to kill Duncan. Knowing his weakness, she also knows her strength and states,
“ Hie thee hither, that I may pour my spirits in thine ear and chastise with the valour of my tongue All that impedes thee from the golden round.” (24-26, scene 1.5 2587)
Here she is revealing to the audience that her power is her words and she will use them to aid her husband. Lady Macbeth in a strange way is representing both the ideal women, while also going against all the societal norms. She should not be commanding, persuading or scorning her husband in anyway, and yet she knows that this is what needs to be done. There is an extreme amount of confidence in her, because she knows that he will only be able to succeed in the murder if she talks to him. On the other hand she is acting as an ideal wife in the sense that she is supporting her husband completely. Speaking to him will only result in what he desires most, “the golden round”, and so in this way she is acting unselfishly by letting go of herself to promote him. Further on we see her giving up her identity when she says,
“Come, you spirits that tend the mortal thoughts, unsex me here, and fill me from the crown to the top-full of direst cruelty” ( 38-41, scene 1.5).
Was it such an easy place for her to come to, as desiring to be unsexed? Although it seems that here Shakespeare is freeing her up from the stereotypes that go along with a woman, in fact she is more being directly confined to the stereotypes of a man. It is impossible for her to gain any power as a woman, and so she is here, needing power, but not for herself, but in fact for Macbeth and that unselfish act is what drives her to speak “unsex me here”. Lady Macbeth is complex, and here we see her shift from supporting Macbeth, to feeling the need to do what she knows he cannot. The cruelty she is asking for is not necessarily for the murder but for the courage to speak and be cruel with Macbeth. She must put on a mask of masculinity, in order to propel her husband, this can either be seen as madness, or as the efforts of an overly endearing wife. These are the lines where Lady Macbeth is confronted with the task ahead and is overwhelmed by the responsibility of the task. “The shock of the thing’s nearness, of the imminent need of strength for Macbeth’s sake, has roused her to trample her own shrinking in a fury of self-abrogating. She knows she is doing violence to her whole nature.”( 321, Mackenzie). In one way Lady Macbeth is being the ideal woman through promoting her husband and sacrificing her identity, but what makes her unruly is her voice. The cruelty of her words, and the persuasive power she has over Macbeth. Clearly through her speech she defies the restraints that were strongly held up in Shakespeare’s society on “scolding wives.” The reverse affect happens in this play, where the scolding woman is not scorned but in fact the emasculate husband is. He is incapable and weak and he is the one shamed instead of Lady Macbeth. Overall Lady Macbeth is outspoken, which not necessarily and encouraged quality in a wife. In fact to be outspoken was to be asking for mocking. Over talkative women, were treated with humor, whereas here we see a woman who uses her persuasive voice with power. This play is a tragedy and not a comedy which is important. IN the end Macbeth breaks because he is not as strong as Lady Macbeth, which is a bold statement. Whether Shakespeare is promoting the persuasive and outspoken wife is not necessarily clear, but he certainly takes the liberty to create a powerful outspoken women in Lady Macbeth. Lady Macbeth in fact was representing the opposition to the belief that women were inferior to men. In every way she is more powerful than Macbeth. In the book “Shakespeare’s Women” in the chapter called The Historical Setting for Shakespeare’s Women, Pitt reveals,
“Some writers with considerable temerity …claimed that women were actually superior to men. Such provocation raised a howl of protest from the pulpit and other supporters of the official church view” (22).
Clearly Shakespeare was not writing theology or anything that could be framed into a standard law, but he definitely made a statement about the power and superiority of women through Lady Macbeth. She is the persuading women, and her voice is the only thing that can enforce Macbeth to move, but she is also represented as much stronger than Macbeth.
Pitt, Angela. "The Historical Setting for Shakespeare's Women." Shakespeare's Women. Newton Abbot [Devon: David & Charles, 1981. 9-32. Print.
Shakespeare, William, Stephen Greenblatt, Walter Cohen, Jean E. Howard, Katharine Eisaman Maus, and Andrew Gurr. "The Tragedy of Macbeth." The Norton Shakespeare. Second ed. NewYork: W.W. Norton, 1997. 2579-632. Print.