A Mutual Infirmity
An analysis of androgyny
as transgression in
William Shakespeare's Macbeth

(c) Maurice G. London

In her book, Woman and Gender in Renaissance Tragedy, Dympna Callaghan addresses the presentation of women in Elizabethan England, stating that "women were clearly socially subordinate, and the preponderance of discourse on the gender hierarchy was misogynistic" (Callaghan 12). According to Marianne L. Novy in Love's Argument: Gender Relations in Shakespeare: "'Woman' seems to be associated with qualities - emotions, fears, - one has against one's will, and 'man' with a preferable mode of existence. Men are exhorted to be men, and women, playfully or seriously, often attempt to imitate men" (Novy 198). While men and women were born different, it was society's treatment of their distinguishing sexual traits that defined them either as masculine, and thus in a position of power, or as feminine and unable to challenge male authority.

Much of the literature composed in Elizabethan England reflects, whether deliberately or inadvertently, the gender inequities cited by Callaghan, Novy, and others. In William Shakespeare's Macbeth, the dynamics of the marriage between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth involve a mutual striving towards manhood as a result of misplaced gender traits in each. Shakespeare develops the androgyny of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, and this becomes the basis for the offenses they commit in the play. Both characters achieve a position of power and authority through the use of their masculine characteristics, but their feminine characteristics make their gains tenuous and ultimataly cause their downfall.

Throughout the play Shakespeare presents the feminine traits within Macbeth as the characteristics that mark him as a flawed man. When Macbeth says, "I have a strange infirmity, which is nothing" (Macbeth 3.4.87), Shakespeare makes it plain to his audience that this is a fatal flaw of a man who would be king. The "nothing" of this line connotes absence, and in the language of early modern England this meant absence of a male phallus and the presence of female genitalia (Bevington 1090). Therefore, this proclamation of Macbeth is not merely an excuse for his strange behavior at the dinner table, but is also a symbolic representation that the cause of his downfall can be attributed to the 'woman' in him.

Lamentation is an expression of being powerless to effect one's own affective environment, and in a patriarchal society this outlet is reserved primarily for women. We find this in other Shakespeare characters such as Lady Anne, the Duchess of York, and Queen Elizabeth in Richard III (Richard III 1.2, 4.1, 4.4). Any such sign of helplessness by a man could be construed by members of his society as unmanliness, thus rendering him undeserving of the privileges one gains by having been born male. So when Macbeth laments: "O, full of scorpions is my mind, dear wife!" (Macbeth 3.2.39), he is displaying a side of himself inconsistent with his biological sex. Like lamentation, cursing is also used by those without power to act physically. Cursing is an outlet for one to gain psychological empowerment through verbal action, and Macbeth utilizes this to deal with his growing fear and guilt: "Come seeling night." (Macbeth 3.2.49). After several lines of curses, he then says to Lady Macbeth: "Thou marvel'st at my words," (Macbeth 3.2.57), presenting himself as a better curser, and thus more feminine than she. In displaying his weakness through lamenting and cursing, Macbeth reveals the flaws in his character that allow the tragedy to occur.

Macbeth's inability to demonstrate control over his wife contributes to the presentation of him as one stepping beyond the bounds of his sex. In one instance, Macbeth helplessly asks his wife to desist in her chastising him for his inaction: "Prithee, peace!" (Macbeth 1.7.46). And later, when told to keep up appearances at dinner he can only beg of her: "So shall I, love, and so, I pray, be you." (Macbeth 3.2.32). Unable to command his wife, Macbeth becomes the one controlled and, since in a paradigm of marriage in a patriarchal society the one controlled is the wife, it is this role Macbeth most closely identifies with.

In Lady Macbeth, the presence of traits considered masculine are what mark her as a transgressor of the patriarchal society in which she lives. Callaghan notes that "the most blatant example of female transgression is probably that of the un-motherly Lady Macbeth (Callaghan 62). Lady Macbeth cries, "Come, you spirits/That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here/And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full/Of direst cruelty!" (Macbeth 1.5.40-43), and so proclaims her desire to be removed from the realm of passivity granted her biological sex into the male realm of influence where cruelty, action and control are permitted (Novy 194). Since one can be only biologically male or female, Lady Macbeth's wish to be unsexed is her desire to be a man. Lady Macbeth finds a means in her husband, the perfect vessel into which can be poured her masculine control and ambition

Throughout the play Lady Macbeth takes on the masculine role of a person used to wielding power. Early in the play it is shown when she calls Macbeth "my thane" (Macbeth 1.5.62). A thane is a servant to king and country, and Lady Macbeth not only presents herself to be as much a part of the kingship as Macbeth, but also to be in a position of superior power. Later, she becomes commanding, as should the lord of a castle, when the murder of Duncan is discovered: "What's this business,/That such a hideous trumpet calls to parley/The sleepers of the house? Speak, speak!" (Macbeth 2.3.82-84). After the murder, her association with kingship is further emphasized when she tells a servant that she wishes to speak with Macbeth: "Say to the King I would attend his leisure/For a few words." (Macbeth 3.2.3-4). Soon afterwards, in a reversal of gender roles, it is Macbeth who comes to her. The presence of a controlling behavior in Lady Macbeth emphasizes her manipulative personality and thus renders her presentation as unsympathetic.

In relation to men in the play, Lady Macbeth believes herself to be better suited to the male sex than they themselves. After getting the servants of Duncan drunk she says: "That which hath made them drunk hath made me bold;/What hath quenched them hath given me fire." (Macbeth 2.2.1-2). She also questions her husband's manliness: "Which thou esteem'st the ornament of life,/And live a coward in thine own esteem." Her expression of disdain for those men she deems unworthy of their sexual status reveals her belief that she is more deserving of being called "manly" than they. In disregarding the ego of men we are again shown her cruelty, and by Elizabethan standards she becomes a female transgressor.

The masculine traits present in Macbeth are outweighed by the feminine and serve only to emphasize his unbalanced character. Macbeth does actually perform action in killing Duncan, and in his desire to achieve immortality through procreation he is, in fact expressing a masculine concept (Macbeth 1.7.73-75). However, as Novy states: "manhood suggests control and action," (Novy 194), and in Macbeth Shakespeare shows what becomes of a man of action bereft of control. The words of the witches (Macbeth 1.1, 4.1) show that the course of events in the play are beyond Macbeth's control. Macbeth's actions are products of the soothsaying of the witches and the control of his wife, and as such they render his presentation into that of a weak, ineffective man. According to Callaghan: "Macbeth executes his own fate, which has already been settled upon by malevolent female forces" (Callaghan 62). This feminine lack of influence over the course of his life contributes to the inequalities within Macbeth that will eventually result in his downfall.

Despite the degree of masculinity in Lady Macbeth, as with her husband it is the presence of feminine traits that prevent her from functioning effectively on her own. Given the opportunity to kill Duncan herself, Lady Macbeth claims: "Had he not resembled/My father as he slept, I had done't" (Macbeth 2.2.12-13). One can see here that she lacks the personal resolve to act for herself, for whatever reason, despite the strong forces of ambition and cruelty within her. In her initial presentation, Lady Macbeth displays her feminine side in relying on curses: "Come, you spirits" (Macbeth 1.5.40), and despite her male boldness she can only take effective action by relying on her husband. Perhaps the reason lies in Novy's belief that in the Elizabethan theater "only men can commit acts of violence" (Novy 196), for none of the women in the play directly commit acts of bloodshed.

Recognizing that the lack of functional masculinity in themselves keeps them from achieving greatness on their own, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth rely on each other in an attempt to effect their environment. Lacking manly will, Macbeth allows himself to be controlled by his "dearest partner of greatness." (Macbeth 1.5.11), a woman with cruelty and ambition that exceeds his own. Lady Macbeth, not permitted to influence events directly, acts through her weak-willed, indecisive husband to achieve her goals. While the scenes with the witches (Macbeth 1.1, 4.1) show Macbeth to be a follower of destiny, he is also a pawn of Lady Macbeth's male ambition (Callaghan 62). In both characters, there is a striving to achieve the part of manhood they do not possess.

Seen from an early modern perspective, the downfall of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth would be directly attributed to the "woman" in them. Women of the early modern era were more often allowed to give up when forced to deal with adverse consequences of their actions, while men were required to persevere. Having rarely, if ever, had the occasion to exercise the male reaction to unanticipated difficulties, the only reaction left to both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth is that of women. Juanita H. Williams says that many mental problems are generated by environmental stress, that is, by situations over which the individual may have little or no control (Williams 455), and in Macbeth neither Macbeth nor Lady Macbeth has a predominant influence over the world around them.

Macbeth's actions produce a variety of mental difficulties: the vision of the ghost of Duncan (Macbeth 3.4); his troubled sleep - "In the affliction of these terrible dreams/That shake us nightly," (Macbeth 3.2.20-21); and his paranoia - "There's not a one of them but in his house I keep a servant fee'd." (Macbeth 3.4.132-133). For Macbeth, reliance on his wife's masculinity results in his inability to deal effectively with the guilt he feels having murdered Duncan. This guilt leads to a further inability to remain rational when he must, and with the death of his wife, he is left totally alone and without a crutch to prop up his weakened mind.

In Lady Macbeth the first signs of her madness lie in the troubled sleep (Macbeth 5.1) that precipitates her death. Throughout the play Lady Macbeth must rely on her husband to achieve action, but because of Macbeth's inability to act in response to changing circumstances, she must become further involved in matters with which she has no experience. This entry into foreign waters leaves her vulnerable to consequences that she could not possibly anticipate. Having never learned the male means of coping, and because of her husband's inability to help her due to his own weakened mind, she experiences the mental collapse that can accompany such traumatic life experiences.

It is inscribed within the Elizabethan providential scheme that women will ever after repeat the transgression of Eve (Callaghan 59). In Macbeth, the cruel acts committed by the two main characters are shown to be caused by the flaws of those descended from Eve. Ironically, while these transgressions are meant to bring them towards success, they actually keep them from achieving it because of the mental disruptions that result. In early modern England, the mind and body were regarded as the province of the clerics, and madness and illness were inevitably conceptualized in terms of good and evil (Ussher 45). Thus, the symptoms of madness in Macbeth and his wife are symptoms of their corrupt and evil nature which provide the basis for their downfall. This insight leads to a reinterpretation of the tragedy of the play as a triumph of good and proper divine order.

Macbeth as a play attempts to elicit intrigue, wonder, and disgust through the presentation of the dramatis personae. In dialogue alone, Shakespeare was able to create portraits of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth that were at once believable and unnatural at the same time. The androgyny in their characters is shown to be a symptom of a corrupt nature, and in this way he presents his tragedy as one of transgression across patriarchal norms.



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5. Ussher, Jane. Women's Madness: Misogyny or Mental Illness?. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1991

6. Williams, Juanita. Psychology of Women. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1987


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