macbeth Lady Macbeth feminism the witches analysis

Is Macbeth a feministic play?

None of the women in Macbeth are particularly pleasant, as we can probably tell from Lady Macbeth’s cunning and the Witches’ deceit. Lady Macduff – a minor character – is the only morally decent woman, but she doesn’t get much screen (or stage) time.

So, with the obvious villainy of Lady Macbeth and the Witches, let’s examine whether Shakespeare is slagging women off in his play, or if he actually presents them in a feministic light. 

Context – Elizabeth I, Elizabeth Stuart and James I

If you’ve read my other Macbeth posts on ambition and the supernatural, you’ll already be aware of the play’s broader context: it was first performed in 1606, three years after James I’s ascension to the English throne. He succeeded Elizabeth I, which was, of course, a tough act to follow given the ‘Golden Age’ of the Elizabethan era. 

As a Jacobean play written at the cusp of a power transition from a strong female leader to a strong, but somewhat insecure, male leader, Macbeth is interesting especially for the way it presents the interlocks between power and gender. 

There are several points to consider when thinking about how Shakespeare would have wanted to position women in Macbeth

First, the Bard was personally much closer to James I than he was to Liz I (some critics even posit that he had never spoken to Elizabeth directly).

Second, James I was a man beset with all sorts of paranoia – most famous of which is of course his belief in witches – and in turn, old, ugly women as evil manifestations of witches that need to be rooted out.

Third, the Gunpowder Plot in 1605 was actually intended not just to assassinate the Protestant James I, but to install his eldest daughter, Elizabeth Stuart, as a ‘Catholic Queen’, which was possible because she would have been young and malleable enough to have her faith refashioned in the Catholic tradition. 

What could these points suggest?

For starters, given these circumstances, it’s unlikely that Shakespeare would have wanted to position females in a positive light. But if we happen to think that the Witches and Lady Macbeth are ‘negative’ characters, then the motivation for Shakespeare to portray them as such would have been political, rather than misogynistic, in nature. (He was just trying to cover his ass – and we’d probably do the same thing in his situation.) 

In the rest of this post, then, I’m going to argue that Shakespeare actually does the courageous thing by not villainising women or subjecting them to simplistic, ‘hero vs villain’, ‘Madonna vs whore’ dichotomies. Instead, he shows women to be complex human beings who, like men, have their own desires, impulses, and failings.

The powerful manipulation of the Witches

There’s lots of reasons to hate on the Witches, and to conclude from their evil shenanigans that Shakespeare is presenting the worst of women through these characters. 

But while we see them as manipulative beings, we can also see their successful manipulation of Macbeth as a sign of power. 

More important, though, is Shakespeare’s presentation of the Witches as shrewd readers of human character, and equally, as supernatural creatures who aren’t entirely divorced from human instincts.

First, as supernatural agents with foresight about Macbeth’s fate, they also possess insight into human nature and the male ego. One interesting moment where we see this is in Hecate’s speech at the start of Act 3 Scene 5, when she admonishes the Witches for “trad[ing] and traffic[king] with Macbeth/In riddles and affairs of death”, as she says – 

And, which is worse, all you have done
Hath been but for a wayward son,
Spiteful and wrathful, who, as others do,
Loves for his own ends, not for you. 

Here, Hecate points out that Macbeth isn’t even worth their time or effort conjuring up magic for him, because like all men he’s only after his own interests, driven by pettiness and anger. This is ironic coming from the Witches, as Hecate is assuming a moral high ground and suggesting that those who can be privy to supernatural prophecies must possess better moral calibre than Macbeth. It also re-orients the source of chaos towards Macbeth himself, who, according to her, misuses their prophecy for “his own [malicious] ends” out of “spite and wrath”. 

What’s also intriguing is her comment – “not for you” – as if the Witches have been messing about with Macbeth because they secretly desire his attention. Seen in this light, it appears that the Witches’ antics are driven not by pure evil as conventionally understood, by a much more vulnerable – and feminine – impulse, that of wanting to attract and intrigue a member of the opposite sex, albeit going about it in a destructive way. 

The manipulative power of Lady Macbeth

Like the Witches, Lady Macbeth is often blamed for her husband’s downfall. 

And for good reason, because she knows exactly which buttons to push, as she taunts him for not being manly enough, for being a weak milquetoast, and for wasting his potential. But we can see her bullying as a sign of the woman’s intellectual and psychological superiority, because like the Witches, Lady Macbeth possesses great insight into the male psyche. 

In a way, she’s more of an ambitious risk-taker than her husband, but because of her gender, she can never gain the power and station that a man like Macbeth could. 

So, in a world where women are deterministic losers and where the wife can only ever play second fiddle to her husband, Lady Macbeth tries her best to correct this ‘injustice’ by pushing the boundaries of whatever power she can get hands on, even if it’s just by marital association. And this, in a twisted way, can be its own kind of admirable. 

Towards the end of the play, though, Shakespeare shows that Lady Macbeth, for all her Machiavellian schemes and bravado, is no less vulnerable or immune to fear than the average woman. In Act 5 Scene 1, otherwise known as ‘the sleepwalking scene’, Lady Macbeth is a far cry from her earlier, composed self: driven stark mad by guilt, she suffers a mental breakdown and raves on incoherently about ‘washing hands’ and ‘going to bed’, which are euphemisms for eradicating guilt and approaching death. 

Here, Lady Macbeth is presented as a pitiable character who has suddenly lost all control, a victim of overreaching desires that are all too human. 

On the one hand, she clings on to the remaining hope of absolute power, as shown in her rhetorical question “What need we fear who know it, when none can call our power to account”, but the next moment, she reveals that underneath her fearless bluster lies a frightened girl, as she exclaims “all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand. Oh, oh, oh!” 

The word “little” is sure to raise some eyebrows here, because “little” as her hand may be, her ambition certainly isn’t. Ultimately, Lady Macbeth disintegrates into a schizophrenic wreck, but she inspires pity rather than disgust, because we see that at least she’s been fearless in pursuing what she believes Macbeth and herself deserved. 

The understated power of Lady Macduff

Finally, there’s the minor, but no less important, female character of Lady Macduff, who briefly appears in Act 4 Scene 2, and is then murdered by Macbeth’s assassins. 

The main gist of her lines is hopelessness and disappointment over Macduff’s unannounced escape to England. She sees her husband’s act as a cruel abandonment of his family, at once cowardly and stupid, as she comments that “All is the fear and nothing is the love;/As little is the wisdom, where the flight/So runs against all reason”, but of course, she’s unaware of the danger that Macduff faces vis-a-vis Macbeth’s murderous plans, and her comment is dramatically ironic as both she and her son will soon be murdered by Macbeth’s men. 

What is most interesting from a feministic standpoint, however, is the question she poses to her son upon telling him that “your father’s dead” (with “dead” here meaning ‘as good as dead’), as she asks – “And what will you do now? How will you live?” Her immediate concern is maternal, and thus, feminine, because she worries about how her child will cope without a father. But when her son retorts with “how will you do for a husband?”, Lady Macduff gives a surprisingly feministic answer – “Why, I can buy me twenty at any market”, i.e. husbands are a dime a dozen, and I can find a new one anytime. 

For a Renaissance audience, this tongue-in-cheek statement would have seemed incredibly brazen, but for modern audiences like us, this indicates Shakespeare’s progressive awareness that women, despite social constraints, are much more independent and self-reliant than were generally perceived. 

Indeed, when Lady Macduff receives the Messenger’s warning for her to flee, she demonstrates stoic insight by asking “why then, alas,/Do I put up that womanly defence,/To say I have done no harm?” The adjective “womanly” connotes weakness here, and “That womanly defence” implies unnecessary self-justification of one’s existential worth. By rejecting this, Lady Macduff again demonstrates a kind of toughness that goes against the feminine grain. 

Macbeth’s powerlessness at the hands of women

Let’s now wrap up by reminding ourselves of the apparition’s fateful prophecy that “none of woman born/Shall harm Macbeth”. 

Of course, we know that besides his “vaulting ambition”, Macbeth is ultimately undone by a fundamental misunderstanding of female biology – he doesn’t know that women can give birth in more ways than one, and is thus killed by the caesarean-born Macduff. 

In a way, this tells us that despite having been king for a hot minute, Macbeth’s authority has always been dwarfed by female power, from the start of the play as he falls to the seduction of the Witches’ prophecy, to throughout the play as his wife prods him towards the regicidal path of no return, to the end of the play when the ‘not of woman born’ Macduff defeats him to restore order. 

For more of my analysis on Macbeth, check out the posts below:

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