Sample Literary Analysis Focusing on Women Empowerment: The True Power in Shakespeare's Macbeth

Essay Literature
Jul 2, 2020

Shakespeare’s Macbeth is a story about a man’s fulfillment of his destiny and inevitable end at the hands of those he wronged. Macbeth presents many strong male characters who, on the surface, seem to direct the narrative. However, a closer analysis of Macbeth reveals that Shakespeare placed a hint of women empowerment in his story. Female characters, especially Lady Macbeth and the witches, embodied the image of a powerful woman in a male-dominated society. Shakespeare, through the story of Macbeth, illustrated the power of women in influencing the individuals around them.

Summary of Shakespeare's Macbeth

Shakespeare’s Macbeth begins with a meeting between Macbeth, Banquo, and Three Witches. From the meeting, Macbeth and Banquo learned about their destiny from the Three Witches. Macbeth will become a Thane and later, the King of Scotland while one of Banquo’s descendants will also become the King of Scotland. Not long after, Macbeth became the Thane of Cawdor, revealing that the witches’ visions were true. Excited about his destiny, Macbeth sent a letter to his wife, Lady Macbeth, containing information about his destiny. After reading the letter, Lady Macbeth decided that she must help ensure that Macbeth becomes the King of Scotland.

When the King of Scotland, King Duncan, decided to visit Macbeth in Cawdor Castle, Lady Macbeth persuaded Macbeth to murder the king. Lady Macbeth reasoned that this would help Macbeth become the King of Scotland. Macbeth then proceeded to murder the king with the help of Lady Macbeth. The two framed the king’s guard and killed them before they could raise suspicions. Since the king’s sons also fled the castle out of fear after their father’s death, there was no heir to the throne. Macbeth then became the King of Scotland, fulfilling the three witches’ prophecy.

What is the story of William Shakespeare's Macbeth?

However, Macbeth was anxious about Banquo’s destiny. The witches prophesied that Banquo’s descendants will become future kings. Macbeth decided to hire men to kill Banquo and his sons to prevent the prophecy. The men succeeded in killing Banquo, however, his son managed to escape. Unfortunately, killing Banquo did not make Macbeth’s mental condition better. He began seeing Banquo’s ghost and even Lady Macbeth developed poor mental health due to the guilt from their previous actions which then resulted in her suicide.

Macbeth later returned to the witches to ask them about his future. The Three Witches told Macbeth that he will remain a king until the Birnam Wood marches and that no one can harm him except for a man not born of a woman. Since these were impossible events, Macbeth was confident that he would remain the King of Scotland. However, since Banquo’s son is still alive, Macbeth ordered his men to kill anyone who may oppose him. This included the mother and children of the noble Macduff.

Macduff then gathered an army, including Malcolm, one of King Duncan’s sons. The army marched towards Macbeth’s castle, holding branches as camouflage. This made Birnam Wood appear to be moving towards the castle. Macbeth then fought Macduff, confident that the latter cannot harm him based on the witches’ prophecy. However, Macduff reveals that her mother gave birth through cesarean delivery, making him a man not born of a woman. Macduff successfully kills Macbeth and crowned Malcolm the new King of Scotland.

Lady Macbeth

The most prominent symbol of a strong woman in Macbeth is the character of Lady Macbeth. She is the authority in her marriage with Macbeth and utilizes deceitful tactics to control the narrative, specifically Macbeth (Kelly). In the story, it was Lady Macbeth who decided that murdering King Duncan was necessary to fulfill Macbeth’s destiny. When she presented the notion of murder, Macbeth initially rejected it. She had to persuade Macbeth by diminishing and questioning his masculinity and insisting that she cannot do it due to her femininity (Sorge). The murder of King Duncan was an integral part of the narrative and it was through Lady Macbeth’s intentions that it manifested. This implies that the fates of Macbeth and the other characters were the result of Lady Macbeth’s decisions.

It is essential to acknowledge that Lady Macbeth’s strength did not come from physical power or imitating masculinity, which is common in modern culture. Instead, Lady Macbeth utilizes her femininity and takes advantage of Macbeth’s fragile masculinity (Sorge). Her character is cold and calculating, allowing her to have great influence over others. She possesses the strength that a ruler should have and that Macbeth lacks. She is strong and independent, a contradiction to her name that attaches her to Macbeth.

Lady Macbeth’s character also has influence outside of Shakespeare’s story. Kelly stated that Lady Macbeth is the origin of the calculating, deceptive, power-hungry woman archetype. This archetype is common in modern culture , wherein a female character utilizes deceptive methods to achieve her goal. They may use their sexuality, organizational position, and other characteristics to accomplish their plans, regardless of the harm they may do. The establishment of this archetype is the opposite of the male warrior who charges to battle head-first. As the origin of the archetype, Lady Macbeth reveals and illustrates that the true power in Shakespeare came from a woman.

The Three Witches

The Three Witches played an important role in Macbeth since they provided the prophecy and influenced the actions of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. Since they are witches, common knowledge dictates that they are women. However, they had beards, making it difficult for Macbeth and Banquo to see them as women. Chamberlain stated that the existence of the witches questioned Macbeth’s patriarchal world through their authority (qtd. in Sorge). They were confident and did not care about their appearances and meeting the standards set for women. Additionally, since they were supernatural beings, they may not have genders and are merely utilizing an appearance to become comprehensive to humans. Whether this is the case or not, the witches show that a woman’s appearance is not the only factor that defines her.

The Three Witches also represented a patriarchal world’s fear of powerful women. Adelman stated that the Witches, as well as Lady Macbeth, represented female power to control the mind (qtd. in Sorge). The prophecy of the witches led characters to commit murder and harm others. In a male-dominated society, where the leaders are all males and there is a bias against women, this type of power is impermissible. The fact that the Three Witches are supernatural beings, more powerful than any man or woman, turns the fear into reality. There is also the character of Hecate, the master of the Three Witches, who is also a woman. This further shows that the most powerful and influential characters in Macbeth are women.

Lady Macduff

It is also worth noting Lady Macduff’s character, a contradiction to Lady Macbeth and the Three Witches. Lady Macduff represents the traditional role of a woman as a housewife and mother (Kelly). She was a side character in the story and was simply the means for Macduff to take action against Macbeth. Lady Macduff was a docile character who died helplessly due to the worry of the protagonist. While there is nothing wrong with a woman becoming a housewife and a mother, especially if it is by her choosing, Lady Macduff and Lady Macbeth showcase the difference between a strong independent woman and one who relies on a man. Both died at the end of the play, but Lady Macbeth died by her own hands while Lady Macduff died in fear.

Conclusion

Shakespeare subtly promoted the strength of women through the narratives in Macbeth. Despite having a male protagonist, the story had a weak and unstable main character who is afraid to make decisions. On the outside, Macbeth seemed to be a strong warrior but was incapable of standing up to his wife and rejecting murder. Lady Macbeth took the aggressive role to ensure the destiny of her husband. She made harsh decisions and paid for them. Shakespeare also symbolized omnipotence through female characters–the Three Witches and Hecate. The true power in Shakespeare’s Macbeth came from the women in the play as they influenced the minds of men.

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Works Cited

Davis, Marion. “A Brief Look at Feminism in Shakespeare’s Macbeth”. Inquiries Journal. 2009. http://www.inquiriesjournal.com/articles/1691/a-brief-look-at-feminism-in-shakespeares-macbeth. Accessed: August 17, 2022.

Kelly, Tess. “Women of Influence: What Macbeth Taught Us About Women In Power”. Jewish Women’s Archive. 2017. https://jwa.org/blog/risingvoices/women-of-influence-what-macbeth-taught-us-about-women-in-power. Accessed: August 17, 2022.

Shakespeare, William. “Macbeth”. Wordsworth Editions, 1992.

Sorge, Kelly. “Masking Femininity: Women and Power in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, As You Like It, and Titus Andronicus”. Honor Theses and Capstones. 2017. https://scholars.unh.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1327&context=honors . Accessed: August 17, 2022.

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