The Manipulation of the Idea of Manhood in Macbeth

The Manipulation of the Idea of Manhood in Macbeth

The idea of manhood has had many varying definitions throughout the years and is constantly changing as society evolves. Whether one thinks of a man as (1) a muscular person with facial hair that shows no emotion except for anger because “boys don’t cry,” or whether one thinks of a man as (2) someone who identifies as a man no matter how tough they are physically or emotionally, and no matter their assigned gender at birth. While most of the younger generations today agree with the second example definition, there are still many people in the older generations that strongly stand with the first example definition of manhood. The older generations usually hold onto these traditional values because they cannot fully grasp the idea of a man in a skirt or a boy that cries. They see these actions as the person being weak and unmanly, making the older generation’s definition of manhood much different from the one that younger generations would use today.

If the definition of manhood can change so drastically between a 70-year-old man and a 20-year-old college student, how much has this definition of manhood evolved since the time of Shakespeare’s play, Macbeth? Along with the definition of manhood, this paper will also look at how Lady Macbeth manipulates Macbeth’s manhood throughout the play by triggering him into murdering several people. In Macbeth by William Shakespeare, the definition of manhood is shown many different ways and is manipulated greatly by the interjections of Lady Macbeth’s thoughts and actions, in the end, completely ruining all good morals Macbeth ever had. Through the concepts of heroic violence, the moral compass of good versus evil, pushing Macbeth’s buttons, and the reversal of femininity and masculinity, Lady Macbeth was able to manipulate Macbeth’s perspective on manhood so greatly that he ends up dead.

The main scenes in Macbeth that the idea of manhood is evident in are many of the scenes before and after each murder, where Macbeth’s manhood is questioned by his cowardliness. One of the main definitions of manhood in Macbeth is whether or not a man is heroic. In C. O. Gardner’s article “THEMES OF MANHOOD IN FIVE SHAKESPEARE TRAGEDIES: Some Notes on ‘Othello,’ ‘King Lear,’ ‘Macbeth,’ ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ and ‘Coriolanus,’” the author gives many examples of manhood but explains that the most prominent one used in this play is the idea that a man must be heroic.

In Macbeth, Lady Macbeth tells Macbeth that “When you durst do it, then you were a man; And to be more than what you were, you would Be so much more the man” (1.7.56-58). This quote shows that to be manly, one must be heroic and follow through with their plans. Lady Macbeth tells Macbeth that once he murders King Duncan, that is when Macbeth will be a true man because as of now, he is just a coward because he is not heroic and manly.

This heroicness is not just connected to following through with plans but these plans are specifically linked to violence in this play. Macbeth must follow military-like values of violence to be a true hero and to follow the ideals of manhood. This violence is explained in Headlam’s book titled Shakespeare on Masculinity, where he describes that “true manhood is synonymous with heroic violence” (Headlam 117). Headlam not only links violence to manhood but also military values, as mentioned earlier. These acts of militaristic violence lead Macbeth to achieving his goals of pure manhood in the play. Headlam also writes that “in the heroic world of Macbeth manhood is a kind of touchstone by which an individual’s true worth can be measured” (Headlam 140). Through this final thought on manhood as being heroic, the audience can now understand that only through military-like acts of heroic violence, one can achieve manhood. Manhood is not something that is given to a male on their eighteenth birthday but rather an idea that needs to be concurred through heroic violence in order to achieve.

While being heroic is the way to achieving manhood, there is also a push and pull as to whether to commit these acts of violence in the first place. Gardner explains this cognitive dissonance by writing that “in the past he has known what it is to be a full and successful man—powerful, courageous, noble, loyal; but now he finds that there are two different men within him” (Gardner 15). The best way to think of this is similar to those old cartoons where the main character has two mini thems on their shoulder, one as a devil while the other as an angel. They are there to represent the main character’s morals, the intrusive/evil thoughts compared to the logical/respectable thoughts. The two different men that Gardner describes are his moral compass, one being Macbeth in devil horns while the other having angel wings and a halo on his head, representing Macbeth’s moral compass. Lady Macbeth tends to play with Macbeth’s moral compass as she “knows well the division in her husband’s heart. Determined not to be divided herself, she prepares to urge him on” (Gardner 15). Lady Macbeth sides with the evil side of Macbeth’s moral compass, turning him towards that side himself, eventually.

Headlam also writes about this cognitive dissonance in his book, writing that “symptomatic of this confusion of values is the appeal—repeated throughout the play—to manhood” (Headlam 117).  This quote explains that this push and pull between good versus bad, manliness versus unmanliness, and courage versus conforming to peace eventually leads someone to giving into one side, since most humans try to avoid cognitive dissonance by choosing one or the other, rather than being stuck in the middle ground.

With two opposites being brought up over and over within Macbeth’s morals, it is time to bring in one of the most important quotes of Shakespeare’s Macbeth: “Fair is foul, and foul is fair” (1.1.12). Every high school English class teaches this quote when reading Macbeth because it sets up the entire play. This push and pull of opposites and how things are not how they seem. Students are taught that this quote means that good equals bad and bad equals good. With knowing these opposites, it comes into question whether killing, and especially regicide, is bad, or whether it is a necessary good.

In Chatta Bala Swamy’s article “Maladjustment of Masculine and Feminine Traits as the Reason for the Tragedy of Macbeth,” he explains this good versus bad as relating to the “fair is foul” quote because Macbeth and Lady Macbeth switch relationship roles throughout the play. Lady Macbeth begins the play as the one pushing Macbeth to murder but in the end Macbeth is able to kill on his own, without the push from Lady Macbeth. In accordance with this idea, Swamy writes that “the key is the reversal of situations, and that of the relative major character traits in the personalities of man and woman” (Swamy 47). As Swamy mainly focuses on the relationship roles of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth in this article, he does a great job at referring back to the main quote linking good and bad. Lady Macbeth begins this play by pushing Macbeth into murder but by the end of the play, Macbeth is the one pulling Lady Macbeth behind him as he leads these murders on his own.

Lady Macbeth uses the concept of pushing Macbeth’s buttons, to trigger him into doing something that he does not originally want to do, throughout this play as a way of manipulating his morals into being a true man. Gardner writes that Lady Macbeth “admires her own ideal of manhood so much that she is prepared to act like a man herself—at least until her husband has discovered his true responsibilities and powers” (Gardner 16). She takes the man’s role in a relationship at the start of the play to put Macbeth on the right track to becoming King. She puts herself in this role to support her husband in his dissonance between good and bad. Gardner also explains this by writing that “as a woman — as his wife — she finds him lacking in male capacity” (Gardner 17). Lady Macbeth pushes Macbeth’s buttons not to upset him, but rather out of her love and care for him. She knows that by pushing Macbeth’s buttons, Macbeth will become a true man, something that they both want and need in order for his dreams to become a reality.

Lady Macbeth taunts his manliness, according to Gardner, as she questions Macbeth’s manhood. In Macbeth, Lady Macbeth says “Are you a man?” to Macbeth when he is showing his cowardly side at a banquet (3.4.70). In this scene, Macbeth had just killed his friend Banquo and is now at a banquet where he is envisioning Banquo’s spirit taunting him. Macbeth has a moment of shouting in front of everybody at this banquet who doesn’t see Banquo. Lady Macbeth tries to calm Macbeth and bring him back to reality by questioning Macbeth’s manhood, a trigger she has used before and will use again.

Headlam also explains this banquet scene while explaining how Lady Macbeth questions Macbeth’s manhood, “suggesting that there is something shameful in such womanish fear of ghosts” (Headlam 119). Lady Macbeth basically calls Macbeth a girl in this scene, making him snap out of his hallucinations because all he wants is to be seen as a true man. Comparing Macbeth to a woman was probably the strongest way of pushing his buttons because being a woman was the last thing he wanted to be, especially because he wants to become the king.

This idea of Lady Macbeth playing the role of the man and calling her husband a girl is shown during multiple other occurrences throughout this play because the idea of who is masculine and who is feminine in their relationship is very fluid. Shakespeare showed this reversal in gender roles when Lady Macbeth said “Come, you spirits that tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here” (1.5.47-48). Through this line, Lady Macbeth is asking that she be able to remove all her dainty feminine attributes so that she can make up for the manliness that her husband does not contribute to their relationship. Lady Macbeth sacrifices her womanhood to be a better partner to her husband, in the end helping make him achieve their definition of manhood.

Gardner wrote a little about manhood and manly qualities in the introduction of their article relating to womanhood and the definition of manhood versus womanhood, but Swamy did a much better job at explaining this relationship dynamic. Swamy recognizes the unnatural relationship between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth pointing out the reversal of masculinity and femininity, similar once again, to the idea of “fair is foul, and foul is fair.” Swamy gives his definition of manhood and womanhood by stating that “a male would have qualities like vigor, defiance and mettle; a female would have the qualities like Joyousness, tender-heartedness and self-surrender” (Swamy 48). This is similar to the other definitions of manhood but do take note that he never mentions violence or being heroic, but rather having vigor, defiance, and mettle.

Finally, Swamy gives some final words on this reversal of femininity and masculinity in Macbeth saying that within their unnatural relationship “each ruins the other, but his is the greater spiritual degeneration” (Swamy 64). While Macbeth ruins Lady Macbeth because she had to leave behind her womanhood for him, Lady Macbeth ruins Macbeth the most because she let the evil side of the two hypothetical men on his shoulders take over, with thoughts such that murder and regicide are good and violence leads to achieving goals. Lady Macbeth completely destroyed all morals Macbeth ever had just for Macbeth to be seen as a true man, being able to kill his way to the top of society.  To conclude, in the play Macbeth by William Shakespeare, the definition of manhood is shown many different ways and is manipulated greatly by the interjections of Lady Macbeth’s thoughts and actions, in the end, completely ruining all good morals Macbeth ever had. Through the concepts of heroic violence, the moral compass of good versus evil, pushing Macbeth’s buttons, and the reversal of femininity and masculinity, Lady Macbeth was able to manipulate Macbeth’s perspective on manhood so greatly that he ends up dead. To bring this definition of manhood back to today’s ideals, there are still men today who believe in the use of heroic violence to reach top status. A more current example is Donald Trump ordering an attack on the Capitol, using violence to keep his position as President of the United States through fear and mass violence over anyone who believes differently than him. Macbeth did the exact same thing, killing anyone who was in his way until he could be at the top. But as seen in both examples, neither Trump nor Macbeth’s plans seemed to work out because Trump is not President (and is under a major investigation for the insurrection) and Macbeth is dead.

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