‘Unsex me here, and fill me from the crown to the toe topful of direst cruelty’ (Act 1, Scene 5, lines 39-41)
Halloween is here and something wicked this way comes. B discusses the real power of ‘evil’ women in Shakespeare’s Macbeth.
William Shakespeare’s Macbeth is not only a gritty and gruesome drama perfect for spooky autumn nights, it’s a performance of male versus female ambition and how their differences are praised and punished. Macbeth’s main theme is the destruction wrought by unchecked ambition, which is most powerfully expressed in the dichotomy between Macbeth and his female counterparts: Lady Macbeth and the three witches. Intriguingly, female ambition and male ambition is depicted differently and seem to fall into two separate definitions. Macbeth’s portrayal of masculine ambition revolves around cruelty and an insatiable desire for power. While the women of the play also desire power, their ambition reveals itself through their cunning and calculated machinations. They’re far more sophisticated than the troubled Macbeth himself, and yet their cleverness is overlooked and they are remembered in history as being evil. This 17th-century play grimly reveals the conflation between powerful women and evil women.
Macbeth’s ambition is rooted in misogyny and a type of toxic masculinity that revolves around using physical action rather than brains. The extent to which he is governed by these traits paves the way for his inevitable descent into madness and later death. While other great Shakespearean villains—Iago in Othello, Richard III in Richard III and Edmund in King Lear—are strong enough to conquer these attributes, Macbeth is poorly prepared for the psychological consequences of his crimes. His primary weakness is ambition, which the witches and Lady Macbeth encourage and manipulate.
We first hear of Macbeth from an account of his bravery on the battlefield, inciting the reader to assume he is a heroic and capable warrior, but this is disproved by the ways in which his ambition unravels his good sense. He’s not naturally inclined to be evil, but he is tempted beyond reason by the reward of power, which causes him to suffer from sweltering guilt, paranoia and later a feverish egotistical madness. Macbeth struggles against the attributes of bravery, self-doubt, and ambition, and it is his struggle that reveals the absence of true strength of character.
Lady Macbeth, on the other hand, does possess true strength of character. Her strength is an invaluable tool in her effort to orchestrate both the constraints of her gender and freedoms of her husband’s gender in order to achieve the power they both desire. When Macbeth falters at the thought of committing murder, it is Lady Macbeth who spurns him forward. She knows Macbeth thrives best when he operates with his body and not his mind: he is the warrior, used to associating ambition with physicality. Nevertheless, she also knows that she has the stronger mental capacity between them and the clearer vision of how to satisfy their ambition most effectively. Problematically, she believes that in order to do this she must inhabit a male body. Lady Macbeth calls upon spirits to “unsex” her and strip her of her feminine weakness, imagining herself as a vessel that can be emptied and refilled “from the crown to the toe topful of direst cruelty”, i.e. masculinity. When Macbeth hesitates about killing Duncan, his wife plans to chastise him for his feeble nature, beckoning him forward so that she “may pour my spirits in thine ear / And chastise with the valour of my tongue / All that impedes thee from the golden round”.
Lady Macbeth’s power over her husband and her calculated ambition delightfully inverts typical 17th-century gender and social roles. The three witches also possess a sophisticated type of power, but their role in the play continues the tradition of labelling disobedient or ambitious women as untrustworthy. Make them witches: no one will take their influence seriously. Macbeth’s gothic Halloween-esque reputation is largely down to the witches, who have beards, absurd potions and tumbling rhymes, which all make them appear like caricatures of the supernatural. Their most famous opening line is “Double, double, toil and trouble, / Fire burn and cauldron bubble”, but it sounds meaningless and unimportant without the context of the rest of the plot to support it. Their true power and malevolence are barely appreciated beneath the comical, nursery-rhyme language. And yet, they are the arguably the most dangerous and consequential characters in the story. They appear sporadically throughout the play, but they always hover behind the scenes, puppeteers of Macbeth’s masculinity crisis. They are the flickering shadows that lurk behind the flames of action, personifying human dark thoughts and subconscious temptations towards evil. Their mischief is rooted in their supernatural powers, but their cleverness stems from an understanding of the faults of men and the weaknesses that so easily disable them.
Both Lady Macbeth and the witches alike are punished for their ambition. The witches’ intelligence is imprisoned within the cage of their appearance, while Lady Macbeth’s fate is left unknown and she is erased from audience’s consciousness. Women, the play implies, can be as ambitious and cruel as men, yet social constraints deny them the means to pursue these ambitions on their own. Shakespeare does not give his characters the opportunity to enjoy what they have achieved—perhaps suggesting that it is more satisfying to achieve your goals fairly than to achieve them through corruption. Nevertheless, the play is a striking exhibit of the representation of power and gender and how the two interplay. Macbeth himself is seen as evil because of his cruel and tyrannical behaviour, while the women, who orchestrate everything without violence, are treated with the same level of hatred. They are distrusted purely because they hold power. I’d like to say that this isn’t still the case today, but that’s where the fiction ends.