Monday, January 26, 2009

Intersexed: Multifaceted Villainy in Shakespeare's Macbeth

Again, as an F.Y.I, I simply copied and pasted from the original Word document, so formatting was altered -- italics, spacing, and so on.

Jessica Mason
ENG 310 Later Shakespeare
Dr. David Willbern
April 26 2005

Multifaceted Villainy in Shakespeare’s Macbeth

Constructions of Baseness and Villainy

Individuals who associate with mainstream practices and beliefs are likely to be rendered inconspicuous, but those who are publicly vocal or active in expressing their divergent beliefs are often seen as threatening to the majority, and as a result, are alienated from society. The label of ‘villain’ is often cast onto deviant characters and humans who intend to harm or commit harmful actions against others. The word villain is derived from Old French for “feudal serf” and describes both a fictional character and a base-minded rogue (“Villain”). Base is an archaic word, rooted in Late Latin bassus, meaning fat or low in birth, rank, or position (“Base”). Baseness is not a term that is commonly used today, but Shakespeare was remarkably familiar with the word. One of Shakespeare’s famous explorations of the intimate relationship between baseness and villainy is The Tragedy of Macbeth. Among various definitions of base is the Latin definition for being corrupted by extraneous elements (“Base”). Unlike other Shakespearean tragedies, Macbeth merges different modes of villainy in such a way that provokes the questioning of villainy itself. If baseness is one of the darker aspects of the human condition, then hints of it exist in all of us. A villain who acts in accordance with his baseness has somehow allowed the darker facets of his psyche to overshadow all of the other facets. When we label fictional and real life deviants villains and monsters, it is an effort to separate ourselves from the darker aspects of our own humanity. Baseness exists in every human being, but action and choice have the power to create villains.

Even stronger than our understanding of villainy is our fear-provoked desire to use it as a common label. As with any commonly used word, there are variations in meaning. In Macbeth, Shakespeare challenges traditional notions of villainy that are still commonly held today through character development and supernatural devices. While villainy is traditionally associated with masculinity, Shakespeare challenges this association by constructing villainy as multifaceted and androgynous. Macbeth also explores masculinity and femininity through language and character development. Shakespeare’s construction of Lady Macbeth and the witches obscures and transforms Macbeth’s role as the villain, as well as villainy itself. Macbeth’s vulnerable relationships with both female characters and supernatural themes suggest that evil, self-control, fear, and power are both facets of Macbeth’s personality and of villainy.

Different standards exist for villains, according to their intention and precise role in a base act. There are also other factors that affect classifications of villainy in fiction and reality. Expectations for the fictional villain are modeled after the real-life experiences of people who act on their crude desires, but the fictional villain also allows us to observe the base thoughts that accompany the villainous act. This makes fictional villains less frightening, because their thoughts are accessible to us. It also makes them threatening because we can make comparisons between our own base impulses and the freely expressed ones on the page. Human beings who are labeled villainous are also threatening, but their thoughts are invisible. By focusing on base actions, we can separate ourselves from the villain. Having to see the villain as human requires that we identify on some level with him, and that is the power of fictional constructions of the villain. Shakespeare presents us with the intimate relationship between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, allowing us to see all of the facets of their base thoughts and actions. This fictional depiction of the villain works to bring us closer to baseness and to ourselves.

Macbeth: Neither King nor Queen

Shakespeare’s title, The Tragedy of Macbeth, is indicative of the way that Macbeth is presented to us and the ways the play differs from other Shakespearean tragedies involving villains. The title, The Tragedy of King Richard the Third, describes a singular, powerful, male villain, but Macbeth does not indicate a specific gender or political title. This is significant because it implies an outlandish union between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, as well as a struggle between masculinity and femininity. It also alludes to the ethereal forces that follow Macbeth, and the possibility that Macbeth’s position as king is unnatural. The lack of a gendered nametag is an appropriate indication of the struggles that Macbeth faces with his identity, as well as how the Macbeths work as one androgynous base individual. Historically, villainy has been masculine phenomenon. Macbeth brings together elements of masculinity and femininity. Lady Macbeth plays an active role in plotting murderous acts and in manipulating Macbeth, and doing so proves her baseness. Macbeth struggles with feelings of doubt, but he ultimately commits the base act. The division that Shakespeare created between the two characters reveals that they represent the complexity of villainy, and by combining the qualities that each character possesses, one complete villain is created. However, even if they act as one being, there are both obvious and ambiguous and supernatural forces complicating the villain, as a character type and actual identity.

Masculinity and femininity are defined in the play through androgynous presences and in relation to corruptness. Despite the inclusion of female characters, the play is dominated by masculine influences. Masculine characteristics exist in both female and male characters, and the femininity that Macbeth possesses is progressively overcome by the masculine features that exist in him and in the female characters surrounding him. Females are a strong influence, but femininity is not. This implies that both men and women are capable of villainy, but violent action remains a masculine behavior. Even Lady Macbeth’s manipulative use of her sexuality represents masculinity because it is active, rather than passive, and she uses it towards a masculine purpose: murder. She manipulatively uses femininity by acting needy, weak and passive, but the act is overshadowed when it is followed with orders or directions for Macbeth to follow, revealing that she is, indeed, a masculine agent. Masculinity is evident in Shakespeare’s construction of the witches, war violence, stormy weather, hierarchical structures and titles, destructive ambition, impulsivity, calculated planning, sexual possessiveness, and images of night (darkness). In Macbeth, femininity is embodied in qualities of vulnerability, weakness, failure, indecision, doubt, questioning, childbearing, repentance, and sexual passivity.

Maternal Fears & Disgust in the Villain

Primary agents of masculinity are Lady Macbeth, the witches, and Macbeth, but Macbeth is also the primary character who exhibits feminine qualities. Macbeth is swiftly made more masculine throughout the play by female characters who possess masculine qualities. Macbeth, who by nature possesses feminine qualities, is overcome by the supernatural influence of masculinity that is embodies in female characters. He is weakened and succumbs to the masculine power that his wife possesses, and the transformation that is inherent in the weakening suggests that possesses feminine qualities. His struggle with his own androgyny is perhaps what drives him to commit murder, murder thus being an attempt to stamp out his femininity which is being tested and countered by the juxtaposition of including highly masculine female characters. Just as supernatural forces affect our interpretation of Macbeth’s villainy, Macbeth’s discomfort with femininity is an authority over his villainy. Although Macbeth is committed to his wife, he holds a disregard for femininity and maternal figures:

They have tied me to a stake. I cannot fly,
But bear-like I must fight the course. What’s he
That was not born of woman? Such a one
Am I to fear, or none.
(5.7. 1-4)

Finally, Macbeth experiences hints of the powerlessness in himself that he detests and has fought throughout the play. His reference to flying is a look back at the impulses in himself that would have previously prompted him to run from confrontation, but he has come too far in his conversion into villainy. Because he feels the doom that his actions have caused, all that he has to hold onto is his masculinity. His conversion into villainy is synonymous with his conversion into the illusion of hypermasculinity. Macbeth sees his destiny as a villain, comparing his position to that of a bear that is set upon by dogs in a fight to the death. He clearly makes associations between masculinity and bearbaiting and femininity and childbirth. These dichotomous and distant associations (distinctions between masculinity and femininity) represent Macbeth’s outward and ill-fated attempt to separate himself from his own femininity.

Macbeth’s disgust with his connection to a maternal figure (the womb) explains his attraction to Lady Macbeth’s masculine ability to disassociate herself from her childbearing ability, and her readiness to reject the maternal instinct:
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums
And dashed the brains out, had I so sworn
As you have done to this.

Lady Macbeth’s manipulatively violent language and imagery is designed to provoke a response from Macbeth, and it works. By making such a dramatic, harsh statement, she disassociates herself with her maternal instinct. It is important to note, however, that she does not actually perform the act. Her ability to strategize violence fuels desires and disgust for his own femininity in Macbeth that allow him to act on his impulses, or the impulses she has suggested to him. Whether Lady Macbeth invented the sadistic urges or merely brought them to the surface by toying with Macbeth’s insecurities, Macbeth is the one who commits the violent acts. When Macbeth faces his final episode with Macduff, he attempts to insult Macduff, saying, “I bear a charmed life, which must not yield / To one of woman born (5.10.12-13). Again, his fear of and struggle to deny the presence of a maternal, feminine figure is present. It is obvious that Macbeth recognizes a connection between woman and childbearing, and feels disgust in response, disgust which stems from feelings of inferiority for being born of a woman, and therefore of being implicated as feminine. Macbeth’s equation of femininity with weakness results in his fear toward that quality in himself and in others. His desire for and vulnerability to Lady Macbeth, who verbally and physically clashes with femininity, is part of his struggle.

Denying his connection to women allows Macbeth to deny his own ability to feel guilt and take accountability for his actions. His attempt to become a villain is not only an attempt to achieve power, but also an attempt to gain masculine autonomy by breaking with femininity completely. To be freed from the womb would be to be freed from his femininity, but it would also free him from his humanity at the same time. In Suffocating Mothers, Janet Adelman’s core interest in Macbeth lies in her understanding of maternal power as an agent outside of the characters, which is stirred up by the presence of witches and Lady Macbeth. She suggests that Macbeth’s fears are fears about maleness and identity, and these fears become apparent through his interactions with female characters. Macbeth’s relationship with the witches is brought to life through Shakespeare’s carefully crafted language (Adelman 131). Becoming the villain doesn’t achieve the results that Macbeth intends to achieve, because he is only able to assume the role of the villain by associating with women to reach his goal (and therefore is not autonomous). Together, Lady Macbeth and Macbeth prove to be a villainous entity, but without each other, their villainy is questionable and weak. They share the villainy, creating one autonomous villain, a villain comprised of intent through the female personage of Lady Macbeth and action through the male character of Macbeth.

Ambitious Beginnings and Violent Ends

Lady Macbeth is both likeable and detestable. Severe language renders her a villain, but she does not commit the brutal actions that she insinuates. She is a powerful influence, but she works toward a corrupt purpose. As Freud points out in his essay, “Some Character Types Met with in Psycho-analytic Work,” Lady Macbeth’s great resolve is geared toward a criminal act (159). Her presence is most intense in early scenes, in which she exudes confidence and determination. Following her initial appeals to Macbeth, she appears to maintain her sanity, making excuses for Macbeth’s confused and wavering state of mind. Macbeth’s sanity is brought into question at various moments, when he battles with supernatural visions, but Lady Macbeth’s doubt is less obvious and does not involve the supernatural elements. Lady Macbeth’s base intentions exist in purely human forms of intention and desire, but Macbeth’s baseness requires the guidance and motivation of other supernatural forces (or “extraneous elements”) (“Base”). As Macbeth acts on the intentions that Lady Macbeth has devised, they trade places in their levels of security during the play. As Macbeth acts, his doubt disappears, and as this transition occurs, Lady Macbeth gradually suffers from “disillusionment” (Freud 161). Macbeth’s fears and doubts occur before the crimes whereas Lady Macbeth’s come only after the crimes have been committed. By the end of the play, Macbeth is deeply in denial about his accountability and Lady Macbeth is overcome by accountability. The couple that was unified, at one point, by its villainous role, divides, and the path of each separate half leads to a destructive end. Their return to the same place, death, is indicative of their likeness and need for one another.

Family Commitment and the Villainous Identity

In “Wives, Mothers, and Witch: The Learned Discourse about Women in Early Modern Europe,” Beate Popkin explains Macbeth’s entanglement with witches as a conflict with the ideal role of manhood in the home. She describes Macbeth as a “male drama” because of Shakespeare’s involvement of witches and “witch-like women” (Par 31). Lady Macbeth fits well into this classification of character. The strain on men to create an identity in the home occurred during the establishment of the monarchy. Lady Macbeth’s effort to encourage Macbeth to kill for power is also an extreme form of encouraging him to fight on behalf of the family interests. Such an effort to build up a man’s self esteem would eventually reverse the efforts and result in its deterioration (Par31). This overpowering support is one way to interpret Lady Macbeth’s intentions for her future with Macbeth. It was not uncommon, after all, for men to engage in foul play for power. War involves the slaying of other human beings, but it is not considered villainous, for many of Shakespeare’s male characters enter into duels and wars, and are not villains for their participation. In accompaniment, many women encourage and support their partners in their involvement in war, and they are not chastised for it. What makes Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, and the witches different is that they are vocal and brazen with their feelings and predictions. Shakespeare’s creation of deeply involved mortal and supernatural characters challenges conventions of good and evil. Combining conventional causes involving power and family with characters who express base desires transforms the story of honor to one of villainy. The blindly placed, modern labeling of the villain renders human baseness invisible, but Shakespeare’s creation of villainy in Macbeth acknowledges the complex range of desires and behaviors that humans are capable of experiencing.

Works Cited

Adelman, Janet. Suffocating Mothers: Fantasies of Maternal Origin in Shakespeare’s Plays Hamlet to The Tempest. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Freud, Sigmund. Writings on Art and Literature. California: Stanford UP, 1997.
Greenblatt, Stephen. “Macbeth.” The Norton Shakespeare. New York: W.W. Norton & Co. Inc., 2555-2562.

Morris, William, ed. “Villain.” The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. New York: American Heritage PC, 1971.

Popkin, Beate. “Wives, Mothers, and Witches: The Learned Discourse about Women in Early Modern Europe.” Journal of Women’s History 8.3 (1996): 32 pars. 14 Apr. 2005 .

Shakespeare, William. “The Tragedy of Macbeth.” The Norton Shakespeare. Ed. Greenblatt, Stephen, et al. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1997. 2564-2617.

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