Grading papers on Shakespeare is not as rewarding as reading Shakespeare—not by half—but if you teach his works, what is to be done? I tweak the rotation of plays in my upper division course once in awhile, but I decided long ago that Macbeth and Hamlet were to be the two tragedies among the eight plays that I taught.
It will surprise no one to hear that Hamlet presents its own peculiar and famous problems, but, although perhaps not as notoriously, so does Macbeth. For me, Macbeth himself is a fascinating study in the failed appreciation of the proper order of the universe.
Briefly put, he doesn’t understand that eternal justice should touch our lives more profoundly than temporal justice. Hence, the problem for him is not whether he ought to kill Duncan, but whether he can conceal the crime from men. The future state of the soul is irrelevant.
But that’s neither here nor there, or, rather, that’s there; what is here is Lady Macbeth. We—the dwindling numbers who still regard Shakespeare as an indispensible part of a man’s education—know that Lady Macbeth is, like her husband, a startling picture of unrestrained malice.
The trouble with her for so many modern readers is that she’s a woman. That may be stating the obvious, but the play says otherwise, largely because in her first scene, Lady Macbeth asks “spirits” (a word that frequently denotes the demonic in Elizabeth theater) to “unsex” her, so that she may supply her husband with what she believes he lacks, the “direst cruelty” necessary to commit the murder of his king, kinsman, and, very shortly, guest.
Macbeth has hinted to her in a letter that she should do just that, telling her of the prophecy that promises him the crown and significantly calling her “dearest partner in greatness.”
None of this is news to tried and true Shakespeareans, but sadly for those who must grade papers of early twenty-first-century students, there exists the inevitable chore each semester of reading the not-so-varied complaints about Lady M’s need for empowerment.
Professor A. C. Bradley once said that Macbeth is timeless, meaning that the period in which the play is set should properly be indeterminate; it could take place anytime and perhaps anywhere. However, he knew Shakespeare’s chief source for the play was Raphael Holinshed, and that the play’s setting is Scotland during the reign of King Edward the Confessor of England mentioned in act four, scene three as “full of grace.”
When certain students, male and female, latch onto the historical circumstances of the play, automatically (as in the behavior of automatons) they move into the safe waters of feminist empowerment.
How does this work? More or less, as follows. Lady Macbeth lives in an age in which women were subservient to men, having little purpose than to bear and rear children. End of the assessment, but by no means end of the interpretation. If Lady M. is moved to make what readers for centuries have seen as a thoroughly wicked petition to dark powers, it’s only because she craves what most women have been denied: power.
Therefore, she is not so much a woman of then as a member of now or, really, N.O.W.—albeit somewhat before her time.
Where the argument goes from there varies. One recent essay I read took Lady M’s soliloquy too literally in assuming that she really wanted an eleventh-century sex change (the ne plus ultra?) so she, not Macbeth, could be king. Others who understand that the queen-to-be is seeking an inward change find the desire simultaneously shocking and commendable.
“Unsex me” is not quite the way of going about the business of empowerment, but what else could the lady do in a world dominated by thugs (read: men)?
According to such reasoning, the consequent tragedy is more a matter of denied opportunity. If Lady Macbeth had been more of a man than the men who hemmed her into the assigned “role” of wife and mother (terms today as obscene as they were to the denizens of Brave New World), then she might have steered Macbeth down avenues politically more correct, perhaps as Thane of Cawdor Consort.
But—and I’m happy to report it—since I teach at a Christian university, I sometimes get papers, the kind I’d like to see more of, that size up Lady Macbeth according to a different standard. Consider the excerpt from my student Emily Thomas:
“The picture of femininity through empathetic emotions and giving birth to children gives depth to the qualities that maintain a sense of morality . . . [W]hen one feels the matronly qualities of nurture, then one would seek life-giving goals rather than life-taking. These feminine characteristics present a barrier for Lady Macbeth, which would unhinge the plan for murder. Thus, Shakespeare presents the core nature of Lady Macbeth as a woman to be the boundary that keeps morality in view.”
Make no mistake about it, that grasp of the essential morality of true femininity won’t get one very far in a society of Lena Dunhams who wish they’d had an abortion, but it got both my attention and gratitude.
Shakespeare is a microcosm, as any avid reader of him will attest, but he’s also a lightning rod amid a sea of political orthodoxy defined by the Left.
In that world, Ophelia commits suicide as (guess what) an act of empowerment. In that world, Petruchio, the first man who ever truly listened to Kate (The Taming of the Shrew) or offered to take the barbs aimed at her on himself, is a purebred swine. And Lady Macbeth is a woman rightly trying to discover her inner man, the “man I love” as the old song has it, and quite likely the only man she could love.
Contrary to this new orthodoxy, the great women in Shakespeare, those who are not supposed to curdle our blood—the tamed Kate, Portia, Rosalind, Isabella, and Beatrice—are gifted, witty women whose choices and deeds finally promise a life of mutual support for their husbands—their “lords”—eventual motherhood, and service to future generations in their homes, the foundational civic institution.
In contrast, Lady Macbeth angrily tells her husband that had she known he would be too lily-livered to murder, she would have plucked the gums of her child from her breast and dashed its brains out.
What kind of woman is essential to a good and just order? Shakespeare doesn’t obscure his view in the same mists that shroud most of Macbeth. The end of the play promises sunlight, largely because Macbeth and his lady have met their just end.
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