Macbeth: 3 women

In a typically cast production of Macbeth, there are three women (not counting the witches): Lady (then Queen) Macbeth, Lady Macduff, and Lady Macbeth’s gentlewoman/attendant.

Not exactly an extensive cross-section of the gender.

The last is but a servant, who–by both class and gender–feels unable to provide important information without a “witness to confirm [her] speech” (V.i. 18).

The two Ladies are of the same social class, at least they were until the ascension to the throne by the Macbeths. Unlike the Macbeths, however, we never see the Macduffs as a couple together. When we meet Lady Macduff, her husband has already gone to England to convince Malcolm to invade Scotland and take the throne. Because of this, he has been branded a traitor by Macbeth and those loyal to him.

Lady Macduff views Macduff’s absence as evidence that “he loves [his family] not” (IV.ii.8), an act she views as not “natural” (IV.ii.9). In fact, as if to tie into this concept of nature, she speaks frequently in bird metaphors: “wren” (IV.ii.9), “birds” (IV.ii.10), “owl” (IV.ii.11), “flight” (IV.ii.13), “poor bird” (IV.ii.35). Her son even picks up on this, saying that he’ll live “as birds do” (IV.ii.33). I find it fascinating that when Macduff learns of his family’s slaughter, he refers to them as “all [his] pretty chickens and their dam” (IV.iii.218), cementing their familial cohesiveness through avian language. Also interesting: that from this point on, Macduff will no longer use human imagery when he references his dead family (“chickens,” “things” [IV.iii.222], “ghosts” [V.vii.16]), as if removing their humanity will lessen his feelings of guilt.

When Lady Macduff learns of the arriving murderers, she speaks of “that womanly defense // To say I have done no harm” (IV.ii.78-9 emphasis mine). The implication here is that male offense is to do harm. Of course, she’s chased off the stage by the harm-intending murderers less than ten lines later.

A side-note: the word “woman” (and variations) are used 14 times in 12 speeches by six characters in the play (Macbeth uses the word/variations seven times in five speeches, but all of them are referencing the Second Apparition’s prophecy that “none of woman born [IV.i.102] can harm him): Malcolm uses it once (when referencing his virginity and innocence), Lady Macduff once (as seen above), her husband twice (both denoting a kind of weakness–a “woman’s ear” [II.iii.83] could not survive the description of Duncan’s murder, and his equating of his tears with “play[ing] the woman with [his] eyes” [IV.iii.230]), and Lady Macbeth twice (once in her “unsex me here” speech–wanting to replace her “woman’s breast” [I.v.46]-milk with gall–and a “woman’s story” [III.iv.66] in reference to her husband’s fear at the banquet). Not exactly full-throated “I am woman; hear me roar” statements of female empowerment.

And what of Lady Macbeth? Beyond the two uses of “woman” in speeches by her (most of her gender references go to the male), we can only look at her actions. She is unable to carry out Duncan’s murder because he “resembled // [Her] father” (II.ii.12-13). She attempts to comfort Macbeth post-murder and post-coronation; she is effective at neither. And by the end, we only have history’s (Malcolm’s) report of her: a “fiendlike queen” (V.viii.69), reducing her to something inhuman.

Maybe we don’t need a huge cross-section of women to get to the core of view of women in Macbeth’s world…