By assuming a nontraditional role as the dominant spouse in her relationship with Macbeth, Lady Macbeth leads her husband down a path of violence and treachery which puts her strength in a negative light. A part of Lady Macbeth’s power is signified through the fact that she is nameless. The idea of being identified only by her husband’s name makes Lady Macbeth at first appear subservient, implying that her identity is bound by the character and actions of her husband. Once Lady Macbeth’s personality is revealed, however, her lack of a name becomes a form of empowerment. By assuming her husband’s name, it makes them equals and gives her the power to be as strong as a husband is supposed to be and leave the weaknesses of womanhood behind. Lady Macbeth’s character fully embraces the empowerment that her name provides her with. After reading the news of the witches’ prophecies for her husband, she says, “Glamis thou art and Cawdor, and shalt be/What thou art promised. Yet I do fear thy nature/It is too full o’ th’ milk of human kindness/To catch the nearest way: thou wouldst be great/Art not without ambition, but without/The illness should attend it” (I.v.14-19). This commandment that her husband will undoubtedly climb to the rank of king immediately puts Lady Macbeth in the role of a dominant wife as these are the first lines that she directly says. She further questions if Macbeth possesses the maliciousness to commit the act of murder to become king , which implies that she is not only familiar with the qualities needed for this task, but in fact possesses them herself. This idea that she is more complete and fit to carry out the task than her husband is extremely beyond any idea of what an Elizabethan woman should be because it puts her both mentally and physically superior to her husband. Lady Macbeth, in fact, never lets the confines of her gender bind her and directly criticizes her husband’s cowardice by declaring, “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/Have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums/And dashed the brains out, had I so sworn as you/Have done to this” (I.vii.54-59). This gruesome idea that Lady Macbeth would brutally murder her own child before admitting defeat is extremely unwomanly. Especially in this time, one of a woman’s most important qualities of motherhood and her responsibility to take care of children, so the fact that Lady Macbeth puts invalidates the importance of motherhood points to her unwomanly lack of compassion. This image of a heartless being in a woman’s body therefore leaves the audience uneasy as her empowerment reveals itself to have negative intentions as she leads her husband down a murderous path.
Lady Macduff provides an example of a woman who generally stays within the bounds of her gender, serving as an appropriate foil to Lady Macbeth’s disorderly dissent. The first impression of Lady Macduff, however, presents her slightly out of place, as when she receives news that her husband has fled she responds, “His flight was madness. When our actions do not/Our fears do make us traitors” (IV.ii.3-4). This criticism against her husband immediately puts Lady Macduff out of place, as women at this time were expected to accept whatever actions their husbands chose and were never permitted to criticize their mistakes. Yet although this comment is out of character for a woman and places her among the ranks of Lady Macbeth, she is redeemed when she reveals her intentions for this criticism, expressing that Macduff “loves us not/He wants the natural touch, for the poor wren/The most diminutive of birds, will fight/Her young ones in her nest, against the owl” (IV.ii.8-11). By using the example of birds remaining loyal to their young against any fatal threats, Lady Macduff implies that her husband is disrupting the order of familial bonds by deserting his wife and children when danger lurks nearby. This criticism therefore separates Lady Macduff from Lady Macbeth because she calls for her husband to see reason and to choose moral actions, while Lady Macbeth’s criticisms were meant to steer her husband to commit acts of violent treachery. It is Lady Macduff’s determination to restore familial order which leads to her destruction, however, as she is unable to provide protection when Macbeth’s hired murderers attack her and her children and she cries, “Why then, alas/Do I put up that womanly defense/To say I have done no harm?” (IV.ii.75-78). From this statement, Lady Macduff characterizes the condition of women to be weak and powerless against ruthless forces and his additionally provides commentary on the backward state of Scotland, as the innocent are being killed. Macbeth’s tyrannical kingship has led to this disorder, and since this rule was initiated by Lady Macbeth’s initial idea of pushing her husband into action, Lady Macduff’s character and death comes to represent the inability to maintain order and tradition when powerful individuals have chosen to rule through chaos.
Murry Young as Macduff's Son and Lindsey Young as Lady Macduff in Union University's production of Macbeth
Many characters in Macbeth appear to be without a specific gender (whether for an act or the whole play), which often gives them increased authority and control throughout the play. The Weird Sisters are beyond labels, as they have the qualities of both men and women. Banquo questions their gender when he first encounters them: “Upon her skinny lips; you should be women, / And yet your beards forbid me to interpret / That you are so” (I.iii.43-45).The supernatural are unable to be characterized and are not bound by the standards of mortals. Femininity and masculinity are not black and white, and the Weird Sisters are in the gray area. The Weird Sisters are not predisposed to certain labels, and therefore have great powers beyond the imagination of any character. On the other hand, Lady Macbeth appears to be a woman, but renounces her gender in Act 1, calling on “spirits / That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here / And fill me from the crown to the toe topfull / Of direst cruelty; make thick my blood /…. Come to my woman’s breasts / And take my milk for gall, you murd’ring ministers” (I.v.38-41, 45-46). Lady Macbeth believes that her womanhood is preventing her from achieving her goals. She views her womanhood as a weakness, and by renouncing her gender, she believes that she will be much stronger, proving the restrictions that gender roles create. Ultimately, when Lady Macbeth allows her emotions and guilt to consume her, she becomes weak and unable to function, leading to her death, suggesting the benefit of not being bound by gender roles. When both the Weird Sisters and Lady Macbeth rebel against their traditional gender roles, they are able to become more powerful by throwing aside their emotions and becoming driven to accomplish their goals, but at the same time corrupt others and bring chaos.
Macbeth Act I.i - Three Different Portrayals of the Weird Sisters