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Issues of gender ideology and power in Shakespearean Tragedy

Two famous masterpieces of English theatre Macbeth and Othello, written at the
beginning of the 17th century by William Shakespeare, portray the complex power
relationships of the time between men and women, and explore the role of gender
according to conventional societal beliefs. In Macbeth gender is examined through
the gross exaggeration and distortion of conventional roles whereas Othello
emphasises the inherent destructiveness of a male-dominated world where womens
voices are poorly valued and rarely heard amid the din of patriarchal discourse.
Significantly, however, in both plays the leading male protagonists end up as being the
victims of their own prejudicial folly. Though both tragedies begin with the main male
protagonists respecting and listening to their female counterparts, they finish alone,
torn by rage, jealousy, madness and vanity with their wives the direct victims of their
downfall. Shakespeare has created two timeless works that explore issues of gender
ideology in an uncommon yet profound way, which have remained astonishingly
significant and apt for contemporary audiences interested in representations of gender
and identity.

Though the spotlight of Shakespeares tragedies is intently focused on male heroes, it

is often the female figures linked to them who suffer most and who end up silenced and
victimised due to the paranoia and misplaced egotism of those very men. Fear and the
suspicion of women is one of the primary themes of the plays and turns out to be the
architect of anguish at the tragic endings. In Othello, the earlier of the two plays
written in approximately1603, there is a considerable fear of female sexuality and the
power this provides women with. Male characters repeatedly claim that a woman is
their possession; this idea is central to the plot and forms the foundation for the plays

denouement. To have his revenge for Othello having done [Iagos] office, (1.3.379)
Iago creates the suspicion of an innocent woman through deception, suggestion and
rumour only. This leads not only to the devastation of Desdemonas marriage but
eventually to her murder at the hands of her misguided husband who is only too eager
to believe his ensign but not his wife. The death of Desdemona is evidence that
confirms the power a womans sexuality has over men, and the idea that a husband
owns his wife. Furthermore, it is a freakish revelation of a mans idea of justice
towards a woman, which brings mens treatment of women during history to light. In
Othellos first soliloquy he says: my relief must be to loathe her. In Othellos
opinion there is no greater vice than disloyalty, which means that when Desdemona
supposedly cuckolds him, he is impelled to despise her for life. This is followed by
an expression of sorrow and sense of loss in the language of ownership; O curse
marriage, that we can call these delicate creatures ours, and not their appetites!
(3.3.273-4). Othello here explicitly claims Desdemona is his property and that he
should be able to control her. Moreover this idea has been established at the beginning
of the play in Act I when both Iago and Brabantio describe Desdemonas elopement
with Othello The Moor, as if she were the fathers piece of property. Iago warns
Brabantio youre robbed, (1.1.87), while on realising the truth of Iagos
accusations Brabantio notably calls Othello a foul thief (1.2.62), and says that his
daughter has been stolen from me and corrupted (1.3.61). Both the patriarchal
figures of Brabantio and Othello therefore are giving voice to male anxieties about the
loss of control and authority caused by female desires. Ironically, Iago is able to play
upon these fears and he manipulates Othello into believing that Desdemonas defiance
of her father and secret courtship with Othello proves her deceitful nature. Playing on
this anxiety about loss of control and ownership he activates in Othellos mind

Brabantios earlier warning; :Look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see: She has
deceived her father, and may thee. (3.3.). Though Shakespeare created complex female
characters in his plays and was perhaps inspired to do so by the reign of his previous
patron Queen Elizabeth I, such evidence suggests the domination men had over
women and how they possibly viewed their wives and daughters.

For the critic Alexander Leggatt Sex and gender are key issues for Macbeth and his
wife, and they intertwine. (Blo 372) Lady Macbeth is an unconventional wife for
though she is a wife, shes not at all a housewife. She is able to adjust to situations and
she has a thirst for public power and equality with her husband-ideas which would
have been unconventional in Shakespeares own day. When she is described as a fiend
like queen by the new King Malcolm after her death, it becomes clear that men in the
play were suspicious of her. The word fiend is revealing of the devil-like image she
had unwontedly created by supporting her husband earlier in the play. Her unorthodox
difference from other women, for example from the maternal Lady Macduff, is exactly
what gave Lady Macbeth the power that men in the play are unable to accept from a
female. If her husbands crime was to oerleap his station in social life her
transgression is arguably to overleap her gender role. Her determination and will to
suppress her female sexuality and assume a dominant role in the play takes her beyond
simple gender reversal, into a new sense of what it means to be a woman (Bloo 373)
Another example of the suspicion of feminine power that Shakespeare explores in
Macbeth is through the representation of the witches, those destabilising figures
that inhabit a gender twilight zone (Bloo 374) Perceived as weird women, the
bearded witches are certainly feared. These supernatural women are the
antithesis of the conventional image of a natural female and by introducing them at

the offset Shakespeare is immediately able to put in contrast two sorts of wives
and women good wives and witches and raises questions about the power of
women. (Kemp 94) Their perverse ability to manipulate men and their evil
perversion of feminine gender roles link them to Lady Macbeth. Such subversion
not only frightens men but destabilises the natural order underlining Shakespeares
message that fair is foul and foul is fair.

The way men feared powerful women in an era in which women were to be seen and
not heard, and how they dealt with transgressions is a clear theme in both plays. In the
words of the Scottish protestant leader John Knox, writing in 1558 Women in her
greatest perfection was made to serve and obey man. Knox believed that women
were incapable of ruling due to their strength, which he equated to weakness and
their counsel, foolishness1. Though in the beginning of both Othello and Macbeth
Desdemona and Lady Macbeth are listened to, from the middle of the play on they are
silenced and shut out by their husbands. In Macbeth Lady Macbeth is notably referred
to as: dearest partner in greatness by her husband when the play starts. He clearly
values his wifes counsel and listens to her advice. Similarly, in Othello, when
Desdemona speaks to the Duke and senators convened in the council/chamber, Othello
stands by his wife showing his support in saying: let her have your voices. The two
tragedies then seem to portray healthy, loving relationships in the beginning, but show
a turning point from which the women are objectified and treated as inferior. In
Macbeth this is just before the murder of Banquo when Macbeth tells his wife to be
innocent of the knowledge, dearest chuck. There is a similar turning point in Act III
scene iii of Othello; after Iago has manipulated Othello into thinking Desdemona has

Selected writings of John Knox; Public Epistles, Treatises, and Expositions to the Year 1559; The
first Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women

deceived him. Othello says: why did I marry and Shes gone. I am abused. What
might be the cause of these changes in attitude is that in the beginning of the plays,
both wives rhetorically echo their husbands while towards the end they have opinions
of their own. In a soliloquy in Act I, while considering the murder of his King,
Macbeth says: Stars, hide your fires; let not light see my black and deep desires
words which are echoed in the following scene by Lady Macbeth: come, thick night
and that my keen knife see not the wound it makes. Both voices are almost
indistinguishable in calling upon darkness and night to act as a blanket to cover their
ill thoughts. The turning point it may be argued is after the murder, when Macbeth
kills Duncans guards thereby diverging from their shared plan. Startled and shocked,
Lady Macbeth upon hearing this fact feints and from this moment on their relationship
is strained. On realising that her husband is plotting to murder, her opinion is that he
must leave this which means that here she stops echoing him, it seems to be the
moment where she loses his respect and where he starts treating her as inferior.
Likewise in Othello Desdemonas words, as she confirms Othellos story on how he
wooed her accord with his. Their relationship at the beginning is strong and mutually
respectful, yet mirroring the Macbeths it tragically turns into the exact opposite.
Desdemona opposing her husbands choice to dismiss Cassio asks Othello multiple
times to call him back while Othello clarifies that he has no intention to do so. Here
she no longer echoes him, and shortly their relationship transforms into discord. Both
Desdemona and Lady Macbeth have strong opinions and believe they have a right to
express them. However in doing this, they become viewed as threats. This is one of the
causes of their downfalls.

Shakespeare explores femininity differently in all female characters, yet all women
share the same fate. Lady Macbeth is a unique character as she rejects her femininity
and female characteristics such as compassion and mercy. She views femininity as a
weakness, and tries to suppress these qualities in her famous unsex me here
soliloquy. While Lady Macbeths mental qualities and strength are stressed, the
spotlight in Othello is on Desdemonas physical appearance. Many male characters
describe Desdemona as extremely beautiful and highly wanted in Venice. Femininity is
a power to her that can be the solution to the problems in her marriage. The
contrasting ways the women view their femininity themselves is pronounced.
Shakespeare emphasises their strong opinions, individuality and the difference between
the two characters. In addition, by briefly introducing female characters such as Bianca
and Lady Macduff into the plot of the plays, different female roles in society are
revealed. Though Lady Macduff appears in one short but relevant scene she is
portrayed as an ideal seventeenth century wife. She has many children and cares for
both them and the house while her husband is at work. In this scene she speaks to her
son lovingly until murderers appear and she has to protect him. Though she is the ideal
image of a woman, she ends up murdered by men. Bianca is a prostitute and a figure of
fun for men; however she is a strong character. When she has an opinion, she will make
sure she is listened to. However, despite her strong attempts to win the respect of
Cassio, she too ends up victimized. Though all women are represented differently, they
share the same fate. Perhaps Shakespeare is attempting to communicate that no matter
what type of woman, once she raises her voice all power will be removed from her and
in the end she will be driven to ruin. The tragedies imply that no matter which way
women choose to use their characteristics, they become victims of misplaced male ego.

Shakespeare expresses societys view of gender roles in a way that is still accurate
today. While the relevant themes are described contrastingly throughout the tragedies,
the foundation for the treatment of females is highly comparable. Even in modern
society, where women have come very far, they are often still seen as secondary to
men. The men in both plays adore having superior roles and cant accept female
characters gaining power. The timeless nature of Shakespeares work causes the
tragedies to be highly relatable and forms a bridge between gender roles in the
seventeenth century and the present time.
Word Count 2037

Shakespeare, W. Macbeth. Arden Shakespeare; Second Edition, 1984.
Shakespeare, W. Othello. Oxford: Oxford School Shakespeare, 2009.
Bloom, Harold, Ed. Blooms Shakespeare Through the Ages: Macbeth. New York:
Checkmark Books, 2008.
Kemp, Theresa D. Women in the Age of Shakespeare. ABC-CLIO, 2010.

Script a podcast of an interview for a Radio 4 arts programme with the actress Alex
Kingston about her portrayal of Lady Macbeth in Kenneth Branaghs 2013 production
of Macbeth which premiered at the Manchester Arts Festival in July of that year.

Host: Welcome back, our guest today is the lovely Alex Kingston fresh from starring
as Lady Macbeth in Kenneth Branaghs recent production of Macbeth. So Alex, how
did you manage to convince the director that you were the right actress to play this
complex role?
A.K: Thats a nice story actually. I had been thinking about the role for a long time and
over the years I developed a strong interpretation of the character. I met Ken in Drama
school where he was a few years ahead of me, so when I heard of the production I
decided to throw it out there and see if this was the production for me Luckily Ken
had passionate ideas along the same lines.
Host: That interpretation of the play you mentioned, what is that?
A.K: Well I dont believe that Lady Macbeth is rotten to the core. The play becomes
more interesting to explore when you think of the Macbeths as an ordinary couple who
were presented with an extraordinary opportunity Seeing how far they would go
before their guilt catches up with them gives the play more dimension.
Host: However if Lady Macbeths manipulative nature isnt the cause of their tragic
endings, what do you think is? Could her behaviour come from a place of
powerlessness instead of evil nature?

A.K: But Lady Macbeth isnt powerless at all! From the beginning she is equal to her
husband. Things unravel when he stops sharing with her she is his partner in
greatness at first, but he turns her into his partner-in-slaughter I believe they are
good people and essentially a couple, hugely in love with each other. One does things
and in hindsight realises maybe one shouldnt have.
Host: Did you experience any curses on set, or at home maybe?
A.K: Haha!.. On set we havent at all. Weve been very fortunate. However, in the
week before I left to England for rehearsal, my daughter Salome started sleepwalking
whenever I thought of or worked on the play. When I stopped thinking about Macbeth,
she slept. I know its very Hollywood of me But I bought some crystals to lie under
my pillow as psychological pacifier!
Host: If thats all that happened to you, you can consider yourself lucky! So Alex, I
heard there are going to be some more shows in New York. Is there anything you
would like to change, or that you have learned from your performance in Manchester?
A.K: Im proud of my performance in Manchester and there is nothing I want to
change for now. One thing is that the invitations for New York have a disclaimer not to
wear smart clothes since they might get a bit dirty!
Host: That does seem appropriate, Alex! Thank you for being our guest today!

Cumulative Word Count 2490