The authorship of William Shakespeare frequently places the ultimate power in the hands of female protagonists, and in doing so, implicitly suggests that women’s involvement in politics at the sovereign level represents a danger to society at large. To gain credibility as an autonomous leader, or the means behind the “puppeting” of a male in power, each female character must be stripped of every ounce of femininity, just as was the case in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. In his characters, particularly Lady Macbeth, Shakespeare explores gender anxieties; in his plot, he embraces conflict and turmoil stemming from this anxiety, and in his play’s resolution, he bestows power back into a patriarchal system, satisfying the desires of the people for governmental stability. It is through the evolution of Lady Macbeth’s nature that Shakespeare offers an indirect commentary of his time concerning female leadership capabilities.
The control of Lady Macbeth throughout the play, first possessing a strong grip upon her husband but diminishing as he becomes increasingly independent, reflects the social circumstances and governmental situation of the time of its composition. Lady Macbeth can be viewed as an allegorical Queen Elizabeth I of England, holding vast amounts of power because she does not embody the typical characterization of aristocratic women. The suicide of Lady Macbeth, which renders to the reestablishment of a patriarchal monarchial system, mimics the transition, although bloodless, from Queen Elizabeth I to James VI of Scotland, her chosen successor, reinstalling the line of male sovereignty. Written between the years 1605 and 1606 to be performed before King James VI shortly after the death of Queen Elizabeth in March of 1603, the story of Macbeth along with the characterization of its leading lady offers a celebration to the restoration of male-dominated normalcy in Renaissance England.
The instability of the Tudor monarchy, plagued by events preceding the coronation of Queen Elizabeth, is presumed to be a result of female rule and thus is inherently dangerous for the state. The belief that a woman can not effectively lead a nation into war, exercise power over male subjects, or become wed without transferring her power to her husband and to his family all produce anxiety regarding the ability of women to rule and thus left it a culture yearning for the stability represented by a king, not a queen. To cure this insurgent hesitance and to express confidently the needed attributes to occupy power, Queen Elizabeth, much like her counterpart, Lady Macbeth, could not act in a womanly manner. The “Virgin Queen” as Elizabeth I was dubbed, resulting from her desire to strip herself of feminine sexuality, could nevertheless escape her femininity because of her appearance and the bias that existed against women in power at the time. Through the examination of the political attitudes against the late Queen of England, one can identify the parallels that Shakespeare conveyed through his character, Lady Macbeth.
Lady Macbeth possesses unbridled ambition and an insatiable hunger for power, typical male sentiments which are deemed unladylike when compared to the traditional characterization and role of women. Women during this era are expected to be quiet and opinion-less in speech, gentle individuals who watch over home and servants, functioning to primarily please their husbands. This idea is further concurred by Joan Klein in her essay entitled “Lady Macbeth: ‘Infirm of Purpose,” as a result from Eve’s original seduction of Adam, all “women were bound by nature and law to obey their husbands as well as their God,” distinguishing Lady Macbeth as an oddity (168). Instead of fitting this mold, Lady Macbeth operates as the manipulative character in this play, pushing to obtain great power for personal gain through her husband’s lethal deeds. Following the slaughter of Cawdor in battle, Macbeth becomes alarmed when he learns that King Duncan’s son, Malcolm, not himself for his heroic actions, will be the next heir to the throne. After this meeting, Macbeth composes a letter to his wife, informing her of his resentment, and quickly she learns that King Duncan will be paying a royal visit to their castle, Inverness. To hasten the prophecy outlined in her husband’s letter, one that proclaims Macbeth will first be named Thane of Cawdor and then king, Lady Macbeth devises a plan to murder the King. Through the derision of her husband’s weakness, and the brilliancy of her plan, which seems to be fated by destiny, Lady Macbeth convinces Macbeth to commit regicide against a king he once followed. Such manipulation of events and the greed, which drew her to seek out to kill the king, are ultimately characteristics are typical of a man, rather than a woman. With this ploy, Lady Macbeth assumes the absolute power of the state, behaving as if she is to not be held accountable and deserves no blame. Her disruption of political stability stems from her own ambition, and it is this ambition that makes her standout as unnatural for her gender.