“The women in Macbeth have more than a subsidiary role to play. They are pivotal to the whole action of the play.” Discuss.

Elitism, racism and sexism have always existed especially in Elizabethan times. Despite this, Shakespeare defies this and empowers the women in his Elizabethan tragedy Macbeth.  The women in Macbeth namely the Three Witches and Lady Macbeth are pivotal to the entire action of the play. This is showed by their influence on Macbeth; transforming a man of integrity and loyalty into a traitor with an uncontrollable lust for power.

The Three Witches are not merely a few “weird sisters” but are the puppeteers manipulating the puppet. Although at first it may seem like the Three Witches have a small part to play they are crucial to the entire action of the play. The Three Witches are often referred to as “hags” or “weird sisters” which places them as with supernatural powers that are cannot be understood by others. On their first encounter with Macbeth the Witches hail “thane of Glamis” and “thane of Cawdor” before declaring “thou shalt be king hereafter!” This foreshadowing plants the seed of evil in his mind beginning Macbeth’s downfall. The witches know of and are exploiting Macbeth’s ambition leading him to murder the King and completing their prophecy. The Three Witches further continue to play with Macbeth’s mind with their second encounter. Chanting and stirring their broth Macbeth is informed that “none of woman born/Shall harm Macbeth.” This ambiguous riddle makes Macbeth feel like he can “never vanquished” causing his ambition to run rampant sealing his doom. The Witches lead him to actions he wouldn’t have otherwise committed such as murdering Macduff’s family and causing Macduff to take back the throne. The Three Witches with their equivocal expressions mislead Macbeth which subsequently alters the entire action of the play. They might have only a few scenes in the play but it is enough for the Three Witches to be able to alter the entire outcome.

Shakespeare presents another female character who dominates the action of the narrative. Although may seem like Macbeth is in control of his own life but it is Lady Macbeth who is really in power. The Witches planted the seed of evil but Lady Macbeth tends to it and helps it manifest. Upon hearing the Witches’ prophecy Macbeth decides to let events happen “without my stir”. He has decided to let “chance” play out instead of taking action himself. Shakespeare contrasts this idea of fate with Lady Macbeth who has already seen the benefits and riches of becoming queen and orders Macbeth to fight to fulfil the Witches’ prediction. Lady Macbeth encourages Macbeth to “look like the innocent flower/But be the serpent under’t.” Shakespeare uses this notion of appearance versus reality in order to bring out a darker side of Macbeth comparing him to a serpent. Furthermore, when Macbeth faced a moral dilemma and wanted to “proceed no further in this business” Lady Macbeth takes action again accusing her husband of cowardice and questioning her manhood. She hastily asks if “art thou afeard to be the same in thine own act and valour.”  This directly resulted in Macbeth committing high treason; an act he would have never otherwise considered. Lady Macbeth further reinforces her role in the murder of Duncan by stating to her husband that her “hands are of your colour.” This metaphor shows just how guilty she is even though she did not carry out the act. Lady Macbeth has much more than a subsidiary role to play. She manipulates her husband to achieve her goals.

Despite how the women influence Macbeth’s actions it may be argued that his ultimate downfall is due to his own character. Following Aristotle’s definition of a tragedy Macbeth has one fatal flaw; Ambition which allows the women to manipulate him. His ambition eventually grows so much that he wishes to secure the throne and so that nobody can challenge him. Although Macbeth does have “vaulting ambition” without the women in the play it would never have grown strong enough to overthrow the king. The Witches plant the idea of becoming king helping the idea to grow stronger and it is Lady Macbeth who confirms Macbeth’s fate. Macbeth may be ambitious but his wife is even more ambitions. This ambition is shown as she plans to convince Macbeth to murder Duncan by “pouring my spirits in thine ear”. This is another metaphor for her empowering Macbeth with the ability to murder the King.

The Three Witches cause Macbeth to have the idea of becoming king and the illusion of being invincible. This allows Lady Macbeth to manipulate easily manipulate one of the King’s bravest and most loyal soldiers to commit high treason against him. Therefore; although Macbeth has much ambition the Three Witches exploit his weakness to cause his downfall and Lady Macbeth has even more than her husband. The women in Macbeth appear to have a subsidiary role but are much more. They are pivotal to the entire action of the Elizabethan Tragedy.

-Jason Li 10L


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