The Role of Women in Macbeth
William Shakespeare's "Macbeth" is a tragedy about the lust for power. Only six women are in the story, but they play important roles. Lady Macbeth's quest for power -- on her husband's behalf -- eventually drives her mad. Three witches and the goddess Hecate represent witchcraft. Their supernatural powers and manipulative strategies negatively affect Macbeth and the outcome of the play. Lady Macduff serves as a strong contrast to Lady Macbeth.
Lady Macbeth represents a powerful, influential woman who allows her desire to see her husband gain the throne dictate her decisions. She's responsible for suggesting that Macbeth kill Duncan to become the king of Scotland. Lady Macbeth doesn't play a stereotypical female role and is more concerned with politics and power than with childrearing or maintaining her estate. Shakespeare uses Lady Macbeth to demonstrate the control that ambitious, manipulative, seductive women hold over their husbands. Eventually, her guilt over the murders of Banquo, Duncan, Lady Macduff and Macduff's children leads her to madness and suicide. Lady Macbeth drives the plot by showing the tragic fruits of corruption.
The Three Witches
The three witches play an evil, mystical role in the play. They have the ability to see into the future and predict that Macbeth will become the king of Scotland. Their prophesies jump-start Macbeth's murderous ways. Shakespeare gives the witches supernatural abilities but forces the audience to consider whether they dictate Macbeth's outcome or if Macbeth seals his own fate -- raising the question of free will. The witches are creepy, manipulative and evil and enjoy watching Macbeth fail as a husband, friend and leader. They set a moody, pessimistic tone for the play and foreshadow Macbeth's impending doom.
Lady Macduff is Lady Macbeth's opposite. She's a loyal, devoted mother who prioritizes the raising of her children. She rebukes her husband for leaving the family to pursue vengeance on Macbeth for killing Duncan. Lady Macduff knows that two wrongs don't make a right and desperately wants to save her family, knowing that Macbeth is intent on killing them all. Shakespeare uses this female figure to show positive traits -- devotion, goodness, high moral standing, unselfishness and inner strength. Lady Macduff's strong mental state provides a stark contrast to Lady Macbeth's increasing madness.
Hecate, the goddess of witchcraft, plays a minor role in the play, but Shakespeare uses her to incorporate mysticism and supernatural elements into the story. She helps the three witches concoct and implement their plans to ruin Macbeth and is likely their controller. Shakespeare might want the audience to question the motives of the Greek gods -- to suggest they don't always have the best interests of humans in mind. Hecate foreshadows Macbeth's downfall when she says, "Security is mortals' chiefest enemy."
- Yale National Initiative: Macbeth and Issues of Gender
- Folger Shakespeare Library: Macbeth
- Folger Shakespeare Library: Lady Macbeth
- Vanderbilt University: Women and Power in Shakespearean Drama
- Hanover Historical Review 8: The Stage and the State -- Shakespeare's Portrayal of Women and Sovereign Issues in Macbeth and Hamlet; Jane Dall
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