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MacBeth and Feminist Theory

In MacBeth, we see a dramatization of man versus woman. It is, in fact, easy to view MacBeth as the victim of women; Lady MacBeth’s towering ambition, as well as the victim of the witches’ bad intentions. In support of

this, Sigmund Freud suggested, as cited in Dr. Caroline Cakebread’s essay, “MacBeth and Feminism,” that Lady MacBeth’s singular raison d’etre is to overcome “the scruples of her ambitious yet tender-minded husband… She is ready to sacrifice even her womanliness to her murderous intention…”

However, the feminist point of view seems to dismiss the notion of Macbeth as the victim of these multiple feminist plots, reminding us that it was he, MacBeth who killed Duncan, and Lady MacBeth who was left to sort out the mess.

This male v. female power struggle is further intensified when viewed through the feminist lens, owing to the fact, described by Janet Adelman, that “In the figures of MacBeth, Lady MacBeth, and the witches, the play gives us images of a masculinity and femininity that are terribly disturbed.” (92).

A feminist theory approach might have one interpret “Fair is foul, and foul is fair” as a clarion to the sexual ambiguity in the text. As Marilyn French points out re: the witches, “They are female, but have beards,” in itself pointing to the gender ambiguity in the play. (91).

French goes on to suggest deeper issues with regard to gender roles in a male dominated society when she notes of women, “They are aggressive and authoritative, but seem to have power only to create petty mischief.” This all seems to suggest that the witches represent members of a society, (read here: women) characterized as having no true power, and with a penchant for wrongdoing.

Lady MacBeth’s wish to shed her sexual identity, as seen through the “unsex me here” line, stamps an even greater importance on the notion that traditional male qualities alone are of any worth and may equate to the realization of any real power.

This is demonstrated early on in the play, as we witness MacBeth’s being accorded various praise and rewards for his manly deeds on the battlefield (“brandished steel… bloody execution… and fixed his head upon our battlements.” (Act 1, scene 2, 16-23). It is no wonder, then, that Lady Macbeth is willing, if not eager to lose her femininity in favor of political power. The imagery she invokes in order to make this point clear: “I have given suck… dashed the brains out…” (1.7.54-58) crosses a boundary line in the male/female topography. It suggests that while MacBeth and his male friends have, presumably, on the battlefields, committed all manner of horror (homicide, genocide), that Lady MacBeth’s matricide speech paints her as the most evil of all, ultimately suggesting woman to be more evil than man.

In the end, women are removed from any position of power in the tale. Ladies MacBeth and MacDuff are both dead. Even MacDuff, the last man standing, is a man not “of woman born (4.9.94).

In this way, a feminist reading of MacBeth might net the idea that true tragedy here has to do with the treatment by men of women, and more specifically, man’s mistreatment of woman.

MacBeth and Psychoanalytical Theory
For Sigmund Freud, one’s actions are motivated by unconscious desires. The identification of these unconscious desires, or, repressed emotional states, can help one discover her motivations. Lady Macbeth, according to Isador Coriat, is “but a victim of a pathological mental dissociation… and is due to the emotional shocks of her past experiences. Lady Macbeth’s is a typical case of hysteria; her ambition is merely a sublimation of a repressed sexual impulse, the desire for a child based upon the memory of a child long since dead.” (86)

The notion that one of literature’s most famous villains can now be viewed as a victim is supported by this approach. (This might make for an interesting staging in, oh, let’s say Vienna or Los Angeles, but for me, eliminating the idea of her criminality, seems a bit problematic in that there can be no descent into “madness” if one begins there, but that’s just me all over. Back to the business at hand, then…

According to Karin Thomson, in her essay on MacBeth entitled “Psychoanalitical Criticism,” MacBeth expresses his fear and horror after Duncan’s murder, but Lady MacBeth represses her feelings as witnessed in the line “These deeds must not be thought” (2.2.30). She also supposes that Shakespeare himself understands and gives nod to the “damage caused by repressed emotion,” as witnessed when Malcolm says to MacDuff “Give sorrow words: the grief that does not speak whispers the o’er fraught heart and bids it break.” (4.3.208-210). For her part, Lady Macbeth reveals her true self only in unconscious states — in her sleep/while sleepwalking.

According to the psychoanalytical approach, Lady MacBeth’s sleeping/somnambulistic personality must be her true one, as the unconscious is, by design, uncensored. Haunted by the deeds to which she has attached herself while awake, and tormented by her guilt by that which “cannot be undone,” her escape has only one route — death.

Works Cited

Adelman, Janet. Born of Woman: Fantasies of Maternal Power in MacBeth. New
Casebooks: Macbeth. London: Macmillan, 1992.

Chomsky, Noam. The Responsibility of the Intellectuals. American Power and the New
Mandarins. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969. 256-90. Rpt. In The Chomsky Reader.
Ed James Peck. New York: Pantheon, 1987. 59-82

Coriat, Isador. The Hysteria of Lady Macbeth. 1912. Shakespearean Criticism. Ed. Laurie
Harris, and Mark Scott. Vol. 3. Detroit: Gale Research Incorporated, 1986. 219-223.

French, Marilyn. Shakespeare’s Division of Experience. London: Abacus, 1981

Orwell, George. Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool. Collected Essays. London: Secher and
Warburg, 1961. 415-34