Women are either innocent victims or sinister predators or significantly absent. To what extent is this true of ‘Macbeth?’

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In Shakespeare play Macbeth, Shakespeare puts a focus on the male characters leaving the female characters in the play being presented in several ways, including women being presented as innocent victims, sinister predators and being significantly absent.

The three weird sisters are primarily presented as being sinister predators towards Macbeth. The witches are responsible for implanting the idea of Macbeth becoming King into his head, as can be seen when the witches chant ‘All hail Macbeth, that shalt be King hereafter.’ They impact the plot of the play as they are they show Macbeth’s ambition to the audience as well as influencing his downfall, by making him decide to kill Duncan. Shakespeare use of a gothic setting highlights the Witches role as being predators. ‘The battlefield: thunder and lightning’ shows the Witches as watching battle unfold, and to a Jacobean audience they would be seen as controlling the events which unfold. The idea of the Witches being in control of the battle is also reflected in the gothic imagery of lightning as it was believed that Witches could control storms. It also links to the gothic idea of the supernatural disrupting nature, resulting in a storm. Due to the belief that the Witches are influencing the storm, and watching the battle unfold, much like an animal watches its prey, the Witches can be seen as sinister predators for watching and controlling the battle.

The Witches use of rhyming couplets in act 4 scene 1 also presents them as being predators. The use of rhyme such as ‘fillet of a fenny snake, in the cauldron boil and bake’ shows the witches to be powerful, as they are casting a spell. To the audience, this appears that the witches are the controlling fate of the characters and leading them to their downfall. This would have more of an affect on a Jacobean audience as they believed witches had the power to control fate through their use of magic, which is evident with Banquo saying that his ‘partner’s (Macbeth) rapt.’ Rapt refers to Macbeth being seized by something out of his control, which must be fate which a Jacobean audience would view the witches as influencing. The idea of the Witches controlling fate is also reinforced when the summoned apparitions tell Macbeth to ‘beware the Thane of Fife.’ This leads to the death of Lady Macduff and her son, as it implants the idea of Macduff killing Macbeth into his mind. So through indirect ways, the Witches influence the death of several characters in the play, making them be seen as sinister predators.

Alternatively however, the Witches could be interpreted as being significantly absent from the play, as after their initial encounter with Macbeth, they only appear when he needs them too, ‘I conjure you by that which you profess.’ The Witches appear to be at the call of Macbeth, and they only appear to have a significant role in the play when Macbeth needs to know more as he fears for his life as the reign. This reflects the patriarchal nature of the Jacobean society as we see how the witches are only featured when the man needs them to be featured. Additionally, they also vanish when Macbeth has finished with them, as we can see by the stage directions, ‘Witches dance and vanish.’ Although Macbeth is annoyed by their disappearance, by questioning it, ‘Where are they? Gone?’ they believe Macbeth has all the answers he needs, even if he doesn’t believe he does. This links back to the idea that the Witches are sinister predators as they control the knowledge Macbeth receives about his fate. After their disappearance, the Withes do not appear again in the play, supporting the idea that they are absent because the male character does not need them anymore.

Another character who can be seen as a sinister predator is Lady Macbeth. This is because she ultimately persuades Macbeth to kill Duncan in order to benefit her own position, ‘give solely sovereign sway and masterdom.’ By insulting Macbeths masculinity, ‘when you durst do it, then you were a man’ she uses the one method of persuasion she knows will insult Macbeth the most and persuade him into killing Duncan. She persuades Macbeth to kill Duncan which makes her appear as a predator as she takes control of the situation and uses her husband’s ambition to drive him to carrying it out. Her appearance as the more dominant voice in Act 1 scene 7 also makes her appear as the predator. Lady Macbeth’s line length is significantly longer to Macbeth’s short lines. Shakespeare’s ability to shift the traditional power balance between males and females is reflected through this. Giving a female character a stronger voice than a male character in the Jacobean era was not widely used and so would have shocked audiences. Lady Macbeth therefore appears dominant in the scene, and because of the way Shakespeare changes the traditional power dynamics between males and females she can be interpreted as a predator. As she is more in control of the situation than Macbeth and by manipulating him, she can be seen to be as much of a predator as the Witches.

However, Lady Macbeth could be seen as an innocent victim as she watches her marriage deteriorate before her eyes. When Macbeth’s guilt starts to accumulate, Lady Macbeth struggles to regain control over him, ‘what quite unmann’d in folly?’  as well as asking ‘are you a man?’ showing the divide that has grown between her and her husband. By trying to challenge his masculinity, we see that she has truly lost her husband to guilt as it no longer works when trying to control him, as it has earlier on in the play. As she loses husband, she also loses herself to mental decline over guilt, resulting to sleep walking ‘when was it last she walked?’ and her restlessness over the murder, ‘Here’s the smell of the blood still.’ Lady Macbeth could be seen as an innocent victim of a decaying marriage, as she can no longer control the relationship with her husband or herself due to the guilt she is experiencing. The audience are forced to empathise with her as she is presented as losing her mind.

Another female character who is presented as an innocent victim is Lady Macduff. Lady Macduff is killed by Macbeth in order to prevent the Witches warning of ‘danger does approach you nearly’ from coming true. Lady Macduff, who is presented as being a strong and maternal figure ‘and what will you do now? How will you live?’ is shown to care for her son. Her use of bird imagery, ‘poor bird thou’dst never fears the net’ shows how she is trying to teach her son not to be afraid and by teaching her son, we see her innocence as a mother. When she is killed, the audience empathise with her and start to realise the monster that Macbeth is. So because of her unjust murder she is seen as an innocent victim of tyranny by the audience.

Overall, women in the play Macbeth can be interpreted as innocent victims, absent from the play and predators. On the whole, women are more so presented as victims as they struggle to stay a part of the patriarchal society that is presented in the play and so they are unjustly punished for their role in it.

Ben C. GCSE English Literature tutor, A Level English Literature tuto...

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