AQA English Revision - Gender (2023)

Given how many men would have seen battle, it's no surprise that a lot of masculinity has its roots in the army: you remain loyal to your brotherhood; you don't flinch at the sight of blood; you shouldn't feel emotions like fear or sadness; you should be brave and honourable; you remain true to your word, and maintain a sense of honour and dignity, protecting both with your life.

In fact, it wasn't uncommon for men during Elizabethan or Jacobean England to fight to the death if they were accused of lacking honour, or breaking their word. You can see some of the 'best' of Jacobean masculinity by looking at the codes of chivalry that Medieval knights used to live by.

However, there's also a strange irony here: a lot of the old codes of masculinity were also rooted in protecting women, and as times have gone by the idea of protecting women started to change until it became oppressing them. When you think about the outcomes, it's no surprise that 'protecting' and 'oppressing' end up being so similar, though the initial desire is very different. Whichever way you look at it, by Jacobean England - and for many centuries afterwards - women were kept locked up at home and were actively discouraged from seeking any role in public life.

As a play Macbeth encourages this attitude by presented the horrors that come about when masculinity is tempted and led astray by a woman (in many respects it's really just a re-telling of the story of Adam and Eve.)

On these terms the plot is quite simple:

Macbeth is a good man - heroic, brave, loyal, etc... but he cannot stand up to the women in his life (either his wife or the witches) and so he breaks one of the most fundamental codes of masculinity and betrays and murders a man who is his friend, his family member, and his king - while the man was visiting his house! Macbeth explores what happens when a man chooses his loyalty to his wife over his loyalty to his masculine code of honour. In the end, as was to be expected ends up breaking even more codes of honour: he kills his best friend; he kills Macduff's wife and child; and, in the end, he can't even save his wife.

One of the most telling features of Macbeth, however, is the role of the play's hero: Macduff. Firstly, Macduff chooses his loyalty to the kingdom over his wife (which is why his wife gets killed without his protection); and secondly he is, quite literally, the furthest any man can be from womanhood: he is not even of woman born. And, in fact, to look at the actual language being used, Macduff wasn't just 'not born of woman' his birth was an act of violence against women because he was from his "mother's womb untimely ripped."

Key quotes:

The sergeant's speech during A1 S2 - so much of this speech is setup to establish Macbeth as a heroic, brave and honourable man. The fact that he has earned "brave Macbeth" as his name - and remember how important names were to Jacobean men; the fact that his sword "smoked with bloody execution" confirms that he is killing with Duncan's law on his side; and the fact that he "carved his passage," while "disdaining fortune" suggests that he makes his own rules and doesn't worry about money or fate to guide him.

My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical, / Shakes so my single state of man that function / Is smother'd - Here, Macbeth is arguing that the thought of killing Duncan is so abhorrent to his masculinity (his "state of man") that "function is smothered" which means he won't be able to act on it. There's a really interesting extension thought here which argues that the "state of man" is actually the patriarchy itself - the "state" by which "man" governs. And in this respect, you could argue that the way he's influenced by the witches and his wife is actually a threat to the patriarchy itself.

He's here in double trust - This comes from the speech Macbeth delivers in A1 S7 where he lists a whole host of reasons why killing Duncan is an affront to his masculinity, not least the fact that Duncan trusts him and Macbeth is about to break his word and betray and murder a family member, a friend and an honourable king.

To show an unfelt sorrow is an office / Which the false man does easy. - Malcolm says this after his father's dead body is discovered. Essentially, Malcolm doesn't trust those around him because he knows that they lie. The key here is that a "false man" can lie and cheat, things which were traditionally considered to be more feminine traits - though when women did them they were considered to be sly and cunning, both of which were considered more feminine.

When you durst do it, then you were a man

I dare do all that may become a man; / Who dares do more is none.

Macbeth spends quite a lot of the play trying to prove that he's a man. During the opening he single-handedly fights off the Norwegians to prove his masculinity. His wife, however, has different ideas of what constitutes a man and she wants to see him take the throne. In order to do this, she challenges him by claiming that he's not a real man unless he kills Duncan. This puts Macbeth in a difficult situation, as if he betrays Duncan then he's betraying his masculine loyalty, but if he doesn't his wife will think him less masculine and he'll feel the shame from that. In the end he kills Duncan, and suffers the consequences.

Killing Banquo and Macduff's wife and children - having first betrayed his masculinity by siding with his wife's vision of it and killing Duncan, Macbeth does two of the worst things a man can do: he kills his best friend, a defenceless woman and a child. And if that wasn't bad enough, in both of these cases he went one step worse and arranged for someone else to actually carry out the murders. Before she's murdered though Lady Macduff launches into an attack against her husband for leaving them defenceless. In the play this serves two purposes: on one level it makes her death seem less tragic, as she clearly didn't understand why it was more important for Macduff to stay with his king rather than defend his family; and on another level it emphasises how little either she or Lady Macbeth really understand about the roles and responsibilities of men - and remember that the two of them are the only female characters in the play who were even given names, so it's really a comment about women in general.

Feel it as a man - when Macduff hears that his wife and children are dead Malcolm tells him to "dispute it like a man." Malcolm is both encouraging Macduff to join him in his battle against Macbeth, and he is reminding him that it is his male duty to avenge himself. Macduff says he will but first he must "feel it as a man." This is really telling, as it shows that Macduff can transcend genders. But he's not like Lady Macbeth who wants to be rid of gender, Macduff will revenge himself like a man, but first he will feel it - which means embracing what is considered more feminine.

From my mother's womb untimely ripped - the more I read Macbeth the more misogynist I find it - which means that the play seems to be quite insulting to women. This isn't to say that Shakespeare was a misogynist, but this is definitely a misogynist play, and this fact is never better highlighted than remembering the fact that Macduff - the hero of the play - was as far as it is possible to be from womanhood. Bear in mind that Shakespeare could have chosen anything unique about Macduff to give us that great twist at the end, but he chose to use someone whose main feature is that they are not, in any way, associated with women. And not only that, this man is so far from women that he was created from an act of violence against women. This is pretty horrific to think about, but perhaps more understandable when you reflect on the fact that this was written to please King James who lost his mother when he was less than one-year-old and who, quite possibly, could have related to someone who was from their mother "untimely ripped."


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