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Women’s Sinister Roles in Shakespeare’s Macbeth

Women’s Sinister Roles in Macbeth

In reading Shakespeare’s tragic drama Macbeth, one meets only one good woman – Lady Macduff. The remaining female characters are basically evil. Let’s consider mainly Lady Macduff and only briefly the three witches.

Blanche Coles states in Shakespeare’s Four Giants that Macbeth’s wife had considerable leverage over her husband’s mind:

This was her opportunity to do as she had promised herself she would do after she had read the letter – to pour her spirits into his ear, to chasten with the valor of her tongue all that might impede him from the golden crown. We may be sure she took this opportunity to use all her monstrous powers of persuasion. Thus he goaded himself, or was goaded by his wife, into searing the terrible oath, whether he had any clear purpose of keeping it or not. (48-49)

In his book, On the Design of Shakespearean Tragedy, H. S. Wilson mentions the very wife-like manner in which the queen fulfilled her essential role in the tragedy:

It requires an extraordinary exertion of will and persuasion from Lady Macbeth to strengthen his wavering purpose. Professor Kittredge used to point out to his classes that Lady Macbeth, in urging Macbeth to act, uses the three arguments that every wife, some time or other, uses to every husband: “You promised me you’d do it!” “You’d do it if you loved me!” “If I were a man, I’d do it myself!” But Macbeth’s mind is made up by her assurance that they may do it safely by fixing the guilt upon Duncan’s chamberlains. (72)

In Fools of Time: Studies in Shakespearean Tragedy, Northrop Frye shows that a lady is the actual driving force in the play:

That Macbeth is being hurried into a premature act by his wife is a point unlikely to escape the most listless member of the audience, but Macbeth comes to regret the instant of fatal delay in murdering Macduff, and draws the moral that

The flighty purpose never is o’ertook

Unless the deed go with it. From this moment

The very firstlings of my heart shall be

The firstlings of my hand.

That is, in future he will try to attain the successful ruler’s spontaneous rhythm of action. (91)

L.C. Knights in the essay “Macbeth” describes the unnaturalness in the thoughts and words of the plays dominant female force, Lady Macbeth:

Lady Macduff as a Foil for Lady Macbeth

Lady Macduff as a Foil for Lady Macbeth

In many of Shakespeare’s plays, there is a major character, and a lesser character whose character traits directly contrast those of the major character. This literary device is called a foil. One example of this exists in the play Romeo and Juliet, in which Mercutrio foils Romeo’s character with his disdain for love and belief in man making his own destiny. Another example of foil exists in William Shakespeare’s play Macbeth. The character of Lady Macduff foils Lady Macbeth in her lack ambition, her genuine love of family life and her devotion to her husband.

Although one only gets a brief glimpse at the life that Lady Macduff and her husband share, it is quite easy to assume just how different they are from the Macbeths. One example is simply fr…

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