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William Shakespeare’s Commentary on Female Political Rulers through the Character of Lady Macbeth

June 28th, 2010 Comments off

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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.

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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.

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William Shakespeare’s Commentary on Female Political Rulers through the Character of Lady Macbeth (Part 2)

June 28th, 2010 Comments off

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To gain credibility in her abilities and in the confidence that although she is a woman, she is capable of hungering for such power and seizing this power from others, Lady Macbeth must remove all aspects of femininity from herself. If the lady wishes to sway others into believing that she is perfectly competent of exercising leadership, she feels that the spirits must literally deprive her of femininity, thicken her blood, and halt her ability to weep openly. She begs these specters to strip away the attributes that make her a woman in crying out, “Come, you spirits That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here, And fill me, from the crown to the toe, top full Of direct cruelty. ” (I, v, 41-44). She desires for her blood congeal so that she can no longer be harmed by her own guilty conscious, “Make thick my blood, Stop up the access and passage to remorse, That no compunctious visiting of nature Shake my fell purpose nor keep peace between The effects and it! ” (I, v, 44-48). If Lady Macbeth is able to halt any inhibitions of guilt that may result from any of her deeds, she can consider herself more of a man, as men do go out into battle and kill without inflicting their souls with compunction. She then begs that the physical characteristics that make her a woman be removed, “Come to my woman’s breasts, And take my milk for gall, your murthering ministers wherever in your sightless substances You wait on nature’s mischief. ” (I, v, 48-51). When Lady Macbeth desires to be “unsexed” in both emotional and physical terms, her words reveal the noted discordance between the supposed archetype of feminine nature and political ambition. Despite this, Klein suggests, “[She] is never able to separate herself completely from womankind – unlike her husband, who ultimately becomes less and worse than a man,” (169). Shakespeare must de-feminize Lady Macbeth to some extent to give her ambitions credibility and, therefore, maintain in the minds of the audience that she as a character to be taken seriously.

  Through the bullying and chastising of her husband, Lady Macbeth drives Macbeth to dismiss his own fears, which ultimately leads to his own downfall.   Shakespeare transforms the longing of Lady Macbeth into that of a masculine nature and by doing so, through her actions and words, places Macbeth in a passive role.   The playwright allows Lady Macbeth to dominate her husband to show that such reversal of sexual relations is also a reversal of political order, reflecting the issues of female involvement in the government and the aptitude possessed by women to reign over men as a monarch.   Throughout the first portion of the play it can be noted that Macbeth is continuously forced to assert his manliness to his wife, first in writing a letter to her from the battlefield hailing his accomplishments and then by murdering King Duncan.   The initial probing exposes a more feminine side of Macbeth, one of doubt and hesitation, when he asks, "If we fail? " (I, vii, 58).   Lady Macbeth replies sharply, "We fail? But screw your courage to the sticking-place And we’ll not fail. " (I, vii, 59-61), attempting to assuage his fears.   Lady Macbeth continuously berates her husband for his lack of conviction, deeming him a weak man who can easily be exploited.   She becomes angered when Macbeth determines that he will not claim the crown by treacherous means, "If chance will have me king, why, chance may crown me Without my stir. " (I, iii, 143-144).   Although a man well versed in the sentiments of the battlefield, having hunted down traitor Macdonwald and "unseamed him from the nave to the chaps and fixed his head upon our battlements," Macbeth is plagued by the insistence of a guilty conscious.   Lady Macbeth proceeds to mock him because of his apparent remorse following the murder of King Duncan saying, "My hands are of your color [blood], but I shame To wear a heart so white. " (II, ii, 62-63).   Lady Macbeth finishes the deed of her husband herself, considering him not manly enough to go back and place the bloody daggers in the dead monarch’s bedchamber.   It is through the frequent insults and stabs against his manhood, that Shakespeare brings to light what a strong personality that Lady Macbeth possesses, one strong enough to assume the masculine role of acquisition of power. Upon asking the spirits to unsex her otherwise feminine emotional state and body to gain standing as a power-craving individual, Lady Macbeth acknowledges the single trait that still separates her from masculinity, at least in her mind, the ability to bear children. To remove this capacity would eliminate every aspect which would be considered womanly and, therefore, leave her a neutral ruler, unable to be influenced by the prospect of having children, which was condemned a weakness by the society.

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William Shakespeare’s Commentary on Female Political Rulers through the Character of Lady Macbeth (Part 3)

June 28th, 2010 Comments off

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The disgust Lady Macbeth holds for any child who originates from her flesh can be noted in, “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, Heave pluck’d my nipple from his boneless gums, And dash’d the brains out, had I so sworn as you Have done to this. ” (I, vi, 54-59). This astonishing revelation also reflects the manner in which she treats those she judges more vulnerable than herself, both man and child alike, influencing them to do horrific crimes for her personal gain. To distance herself from every preconceived notion regarding womanhood, Lady Macbeth has chosen to remain a “barren scepter”, (II, i, 62) denying herself the right to give birth in exchange for a masculine mystique, which allows her the power she is searching to gain. Macbeth, on the other hand, insists that she bear an heir to the throne if he is to occupy it, taking a more practical, parental role a compared to his wife. “Bring forth men-children only! ” he proclaims, “For thy undaunted mettle should compare Nothing but males. ” (I, vii, 72-74). The allusions made to the childlessness and the demands for a son to ascend the throne in this marriage can be found echoing in the minds of the first audience following the death of Queen Elizabeth, who died without hereditary heir. Devoid of the capacity or desire of neither Queen Elizabeth nor Lady Macbeth to yield children, each female ruler in the position of power maintains her credibility as a leader through a masculine form and nature.

Once Lady Macbeth succeeds in convincing Macbeth to undertake the unspeakably horrendous act of murdering King Duncan, her domineering nature can no longer keep him under her spell. Macbeth realizes his strengths stemming from the initial regicide and no longer needs her to fuel his ambition. As in all of human nature, a manipulative mind must have a weak soul by which to prey on, but once this soul loses its inhibitions and gains independence, the manipulative mind shall crumble. Admitting to having killed the guards of the king’s chamber, Macbeth breaks free from the original plan devised by his wife and thus emerges out of her scheme a self-sufficient figure, causing Lady Macbeth to faint in disbelief. While Lady Macbeth is seen to be reexamining the events of the previous murder, Macbeth looks ahead, anticipating the next murder, that of Banquo, which he has not informed his wife of yet. Gradually Macbeth distances his mind from the grip of Lady Macbeth, tasting the spoils of victory independently, and then actively seeking them out, ending the lives of Banquo and Macduff’s wife and children, securing that his wife have no place in the masculine acts of treason and revenge. Upon ascending the throne, “he, the man, so fully commands Lady Macbeth that he allows her no share in his new business. No longer his accomplice, she loses her role as housekeeper. ” (Klein, 175). Once Macbeth realizes his strength and no longer needs her or is in awe of her, Lady Macbeth, stricken and without an object to carry out her manipulation through, falls into periods of madness and sleepwalking. She becomes obsessed with removing the blood from her hands, as to her they appear stained, signifying a personal trial underway upon her soul. Lacking an individual to bestow upon her evil intentions and to achieve her ambitions, Lady Macbeth is forced to turn the evilness upon herself, eventually culminating into suicide as a result of relentless guilt. After losing the power of manipulation over her husband, Lady Macbeth loses her rank in the political institution of the monarchy and, therefore, ultimately ceases to exist, without the control.

The anxieties of gender role manifested in Shakespeare’s Macbeth decisively present that even such a powerful character as Lady Macbeth, or Queen Elizabeth herself, can not overcome the traditions of a patriarchal system through acceptable means. In the conclusion, Malcolm, son of Duncan, is restored to the throne and thus re-establishing normalcy in the line of succession, as deemed appropriate by the British people during Shakespeare’s time. Through the allegorical representation of the political ethos of Renaissance England, Shakespeare examines and resolutely determines that positive involvement of women within the political structure is not feasible, as demonstrated by the evolution of his character, Lady Macbeth.

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