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Come you spirit,
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here.
More so than any other Shakespearean play, Macbeth functions the most vividly as a psychoanalysis of the state of humanity’s development of a sense of sexual self. Now, in a time where terms such a transgendered, pansexual, or heteroflexible are integrated into daily conversation as much as articles of political dispute or details of the latest Yankees outing, the play is all the more fascinating because it validates both Shakespeare’s breadth of genius and our developing notion of what it means to be a sexual human. The play functions in essence as a looking glass for any age into which one might peer to observe the manner in which we have grown or perhaps not grown; it is an honest reflection of society and socio-sexual prescriptions in all of their positive and negative ramifications. The play compels us explicitly to challenge those and implicitly all social prescriptions that limit our humanity because of ideas engendered by imperfect cultural evolution.
Specifically, the play is about social pressures and the consequent fissures within sexual identity. Readings of the line quoted above may eventually lead some or even many readers to mistakenly think that it is the desexualization or (perhaps worse) defeminization of Lady Macbeth that leads to her madness, and in anger label Shakespeare a misogynist and a chauvinist pig. Others may read into it as an empowering feminist line, in which Lady Macbeth is rejecting culture’s imposed gender on her and the tragedy lies in the fact that her detachment is fatal. Both of these interpretations are wrong2E Macbeth and his wife have their failure in not recognizing the difference between gender-stereotyped “emotions” and humanity’s inherent androgyny. This is difficult to see, especially since such a message is so radical compared to Shakespeare’s other plays. But even those plays, while supportive of the heteronormative, carry suggestions of a more liberated view of sexuality. Assertions that Mercutio was Romeo’s subconsciously spurned lover aside, Shakespeare’s plays abound with evidence towards his desire to break down cultural gender barriers. There is probably not a single play of his that does involve some character bemoaning what is “acceptable behavior” for his or her gender; it is the notion of transgendered behavior, however, and not simply anti-establishment tirades that provides the most insight into Shakespeare’s ideas about gender and the way “female” and “male” traits fit together. This is much greater than fleeting pleas by characters for a world free of social obligations that might restrict love (such as in Romeo and Juliet or All’s Well That Ends Well): Shakespeare is not rehashing the age old theme of a woman’s need to transcend socially shackles but rather exposing and critiquing a society that encourages defeminization to maintain patriarchy. Lady Macbeth becomes accomplice to both the socially subversive witches and the stifling social atmosphere, advancing the anti-life instead of pro-humanity agenda. She rejects what she thinks is her nature, but she is in fact rejecting Nature. This is the tragedy of Macbeth, and the singular cause for “this most bloody piece of work.”
It is clear that Shakespeare embraced the notion of marriage and union; readings of A Winter’s Tale or Romeo and Juliet reveal the weight the union of a man and a woman carried in his mind. Macbeth suffers no lack of unification imagery; it is the nature of the play, however, to present a topic by showing its perverted side. Early on in the play, we witness the three witches encounter Macbeth and Banquo, but immediately prior to the meeting a telling exchange takes place. The first witch, angry at a sailor’s wife for not sharing chestnuts, says of the sailor, “I will drain him dry as hay.” As a succubus, she will prevent the sailor from being a fully able husband by stealing sexual satisfaction from the wife. In a twisted sense, this sexual act gives birth to discord because of its unnaturalness. This looks forward to the murder of Duncan (an unholy act born out of marriage) as well as the estrangement of the marriage itself. The problem with sex with the witches is that they do not embody female characteristics; as Banquo notes, they are bearded and thus forfeit the appellation “women.” We shall return to the physiological connection with the psychological in a moment, but the main point is that the witches are perverted sexual creatures who reject social norms and relish the subversion and torment of others who are bound to operate within those norms.
Note that it is not their transgendered nature that makes witches evil; we have an example of successful meeting of female and male characteristics in the character of Duncan. In speaking to Macbeth, he expresses the intent of displaying “feminine” characteristics, “[m]y plenteous joys / wanton in fullness, seek to hide themselves / In drops of sorrow.” Duncan notably displays no sense of shame at this act. This should be no surprise; any consideration of his previous comment to Macbeth draws a comparison between Duncan and Mother Nature: “I have begun to plant thee, and will labor / To make thee full of growing.” There is a juxtaposition of paternal and maternal imagery in Duncan’s presence, bringing together stereotypical feminine traits such as caring, maternity, and tears as well as stereotypical male traits that include honor, courage, and a warrior spirit. This placement and Duncan’s obvious nobility and elegance give the sense that a synergy of male and female spirits is not only possible, but beneficial. The more important fact is that it can occur within a single person, separate from the consummation of marriage.
It is symbolic, then, that it is Lady Macbeth who designs to kill Duncan. While it is clear that the witches are Duncan’s spiritual opposite, Lady Macbeth’s assumes a more immediate and voluntary position. In distancing herself not only from femininity but from humanity that forces her into the antithetical position of Duncan. Where he strives to nurture, she seeks to corrupt. Upon reading her husband’s letter she notes,
“[y]et do I fear thy nature; / It is too full o’ the milk of human kindness.”
This sentence is doubly damning both for what she says overtly and what she also reveals unconsciously. She reveals that her husband possesses “feminine” characteristics: his nature is full of “milk,” a distinctly female fluid. More telling, however, is her conception that there could be too much “human kindness;” this is referring, after all, to a man who has just returned from a battle in which “he unseam’d [Macdonwald] from the nave to the chaps, / And fix’d his head upon our battlements.” But the word that is truly traitorous to her thoughts is the word “human.” Lady Macbeth has separated “humanity” from “kindness.”
This failure to negotiate differences is repeated when she plots to murder Duncan. Her famous soliloquy begs to be misinterpreted, but we shall avoid that temptation.
Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full
Of direst cruelty! make thick my blood;
Stop up the access and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
The effect and it! Come to my woman’s breasts,
And take my milk for gall
Looking at it purely from a physiological perspective makes apparent her mistake; it is impossible to separate one’s self from one’s body, but she attempts to do so in the vain hope that physiological detachment will equate to psychological detachment from her “feminine” characteristics. The term “unsex” is accompanied by the demand to “make thick my blood” so as to “stop of the access and passage to remorse, / That no compunctious visitings of nature.” This plea may apply to the stopping of the heart, making one cruel and remorseless (and eventually dead) and immune to attacks of the conscience. Equally likely, however, is the supposition that Lady Macbeth is speaking of the uterus and the vaginal canal; “make thick my blood” to stop “compunctious visits” would then refer to menstruation. This would also fit with the physiological development of her thoughts, as she moves on from the primary female genitalia to the secondary by demanding that her breast-milk be turned to gall. These demands, especially when taken with her constant abuse of the thought that what is “Natural” is weak, make obvious the fact that she is mistakenly distancing herself from her humanity and not her femininity.
Continuing this line of thought reveals the truth about Macbeth’s super-masculinization at Lady Macbeth’s hands. Macbeth, as we know from Duncan and Lady Macbeth heels, has within him a complement of feminine characteristics. But, in true form to maintain a value of social criticism, Shakespeare has Lady Macbeth attack his masculinity for waffling in his decision to kill Duncan, asking Macbeth if he would “live a coward in thine own esteem”. As we know, Lady Macbeth succeeds, but at what is not precisely clear; if it was super-masculinization that she aimed for, why is that inherently evil? We discover that this is not the case, it is instead a defeminization that she succeeds in effecting and thus a separation from Macbeth’s correct nature. Much like an overzealous gardener, Lady Macbeth deluges Macbeth with masculinity (so much so that he makes a sarcastic remark about it) and drowns his inherent femininity and any chance that they might have had at salvation.
In the end, the epicene Macbeth and Lady Macbeth deteriorate into husks of human beings; Macbeth realizes “[that he] almost forgot the taste of fears” while Lady Macbeth finally kills herself in a final act of dehumanization. It is interesting and tragic, of course, that Macbeth learns to fear again and that Lady Macbeth goes insane: both of these are stereotypically “feminine” characteristics which they have struggled so mightily to eviscerate. Failure aside, the Macbeths do manage to disrupt society inasmuch as they buck the audience’s notions regarding the conventions of masculinity and femininity. “Look,” Shakespeare is saying, “the perversion of sexuality within our culture is capable of destroying nations, families, and couples.” Shakespeare is not, however, saying that social incarceration is a death sentence. He is instead speaking into existence the possibility of sexual elevation, wherein his readers would believe in a positive androgyny of feminine and masculine, and thus at least accept if not strive towards it.
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