Now for those of you who are thinking, o, Bill, it must be that time of the review cycle when you just love Love LOVE to dip into the ol’ concordance to show us what words are featured most prominently in the play at hand. I’d love to answer in the affirmative on that one. Only if Macbeth has a primary word, it ain’t “man.” If we take into account all the “man”-ly variations, Macbeth has 55 instances, which sounds impressive. Except comparatively speaking, it isn’t. The top four in the Canon (Much Ado About Nothing, Timon of Athens, As You Like It, and Julius Caesar) all have more than 100 uses, the top three all have more than double Macbeth’s. So there’s that.
Regardless, the concept of manhood does seem to be a major topic in the play.
From the first speech by a non-supernatural entity, the concepts of man and violence are linked: “What bloody man is that?” (I.ii.1), Duncan asks when he needs information regarding the battles taking place (interesting that the bleeding man will be the source of knowledge…any resemblance to our three witches is purely coincidental, I’m sure…not).
When Macbeth and Banquo encounter the witches, Banquo asks these supernatural entities, “Are you aught // That man may question?” (I.iii.42-43). A bloody man man answer, a man may question. Is blood knowledge?
But this is the generic man. What of the genderic man, the male? (and yes, I just made that word up. On more research, no, I didn’t… son of a gun, the damn word is in the Urban Dictionary [though, interestingly enough, not in the Oxford English Dictionary]…so much for originality)
Well, first, let’s go back to the “unsex me here” speech. Lady Macbeth wants to remove her female-ness. And how to make her more “male”? “Fill [her] from the crown to toe topful // Of direst cruelty” (I.v.41-42). Filling her with cruelty will make her more “him”-like. OK, I get that. And the phrase is wonderfully evocative of our contemporary cliche of “head to toe” only adding the goal–the crown–to the equation. But it’s interesting, and I may be reading too much into this, that the image is to fill the head first, as if cruelty is not an emotional or even instinctual aspect, but a mental one. She wants thick blood to “stop up th’ access and passage to remorse” (I.v.43). Remorse is not a feeling for Lady Macbeth, but rather a destination, a conclusion, a thought in the intellectual realm. (And now I’m wondering if from a feminist oppositional perspective this might be the classic male/intellect || female/body dichotomy. or maybe my Lit Crit class has taken over my brain…) She wants her breast milk replaced with gall. Beyond the female-centric act of nursing, she associates this act with “the milk of human kindness” (I.v.16), something of which she fears her husband is “too full” (I.v.16). Female = milk = human kindness while Male = bitter gall = male cruelty?
Later, when Lady Macbeth questions her husband’s courage and implies a level of “coward”-ice (I.vii.43), he immediately sees this through the prism of species: “I dare do all that may become a man; // Who dares do more is none” (I.vii.46-47). What he is willing to do here is think of the act; to do more would make him a beast. She mocks him by asking what “beast” (I.vii.47) made him tell her of the news. She says, “When you durst do it [tell her the news], then you were a man; // And to be more than what you were, you would // Be so much more the man” (I.vii.49-51). Again, we can see this as both a pivot from species to gender (be more than a human, be a man), and a growth from a mere man to a king (more than a subject). Of course, all this is prelude to another of Lady Macbeth’s nursing allusions–the image of her dashing the brains from a nursing baby–after which Macbeth says that her “mettle shall compose // Nothing but male” (I.vii.74-75) children.
If strength equals male, then it should be no surprise that Macduff would believe that “the repetition in a woman’s ear” (II.iii.83) of the news of Duncan’s murder would kill the “gentle lady” (II.iii.81).
Lady Macbeth seems to feel that the male domain is in the intellect; Macbeth doesn’t agree. When explaining why he killed Duncan’s guards–suspected of the king’s murder–Macbeth says that “no man” could keep “the expedition of [his] violent love // [from] Outrun[ning] the pauser, reason” (II.iii.107, 108-109). For Macbeth, the key to a male is “a heart to love, and in that heart // Courage to make’s love known” (II.iii.115-16). For Macbeth, manly strength is in the power of (violent) love.
Of course, less than two dozen lines later when Macbeth calls for he and the others to “put on manly readiness // And meet i’ th’ hall together” (II.iii.131-32), one has to wonder if that manly readiness is more intellectual or emotional?
When questioning the murderers, Macbeth discusses the different types within the “catalogue” (III.i.92) of men, in which there is a “worst rank of manhood” (III.i.103). What would put a man in that worst rank? Is it an intellectual, emotional, spiritual, or moral failing?
It’s clear what the criteria is in Lady Macbeth’s eyes: as before, it’s emotion. When Macbeth breaks down at the banquet, she questions, “Are you a man?” (III.iv.59) and blames his “fear” (III.iv.62), the kind of thing that “would well become // A woman’s story” (III.iv.65-6). When he continues his fit, she exclaims in exasperation, “What, quite unmanned” (III.iv.74).
Fear isn’t the issue in Macbeth’s view, however. What has him unnerved is real, it’s the supernatural entity he sees. “What man dare, I dare” (III.iv.100), he proclaims in a shortened line (emphasizing his “view”). Any man would be afraid of such a ghost. Animals, even a reborn Banguo to battle, would not cause him to tremble so, otherwise he says he would be “the baby of a girl” (III.iv.107). Not just a baby, not just a girl, but the baby of a girl. And when the ghost vanishes, he is “a man again” (III.iv.109).
The concept of soldiership and killing being the key to manhood is seen in Siward’s son who like other young men in the battle of Birnam Wood will “protest their first of manhood” (V.ii.11). War and death are what he experiences before “he was a man” (V.viii.40), and the fact that he had his injuries “on the front” (V.viii.47), instead of on the back as if running away, ensures that it was “like a man he died” (V.viii.43).
But are cruelty, courage, and killing the only signifiers of manhood?
When Malcolm, in his attempts to convince Macduff of his sincerity and innocence, claims to be “yet // Unknown to woman” (IV.iii.125-26), he seems to try to equate manhood with sex, the loss of virginity. But this is not a view seen anywhere else in the play.
Or is it?
When Macduff despairs after hearing of his family’s slaughter, his initial response to Malcolm’s call for revenge is: “He has no children” (IV.iii.216). Whether he refers to Malcolm or Macbeth doesn’t matter; it’s the children that are important. Malcolm tells him to “dispute it like a man” (IV.iii.220), but Macduff “must also feel it like a man” (IV.iii.221), which might seem like “play[ing] the woman with [his] eyes” (IV.iii.230), but remembering what was “most precious” (IV.iii.223) to him is necessary.
So what does it mean to be a man? Cruelty? Killing? Becoming a father?
Near the start of the play, Macbeth speaks of his “single state of man” (I.iii.140), as if being a man is just one thing. By the end, however, he speaks of his “better part of man” (V.viii.18). Is this growth of knowledge, and more importantly self-awareness, part of the tragic hero’s journey to an emotional state from which we see his fall as tragic and not merely as deserved?