The Unfortunate Reality of Gender Roles and Stereotypes “Gender roles are a social construct. When we attempt to assign strengths and weaknesses to either gender, we literally cut our potential as the human race in half.” (Brainy Quotes, 2014) This quotation, spoken by an anonymous person, perfectly exemplifies the issues that are caused by gender stereotyping.
In society, different gender roles and stereotypes may seem harmless, but they can easily become a ‘boundary’ on the decision-making process of both genders (Odyssey Online, 2017). William Shakespeare’s tragic play, Macbeth, explores and challenges different stereotypes and gender expectations that are seen throughout society by making the characters act in contrast to their stereotypical gender; this suggests that gender roles are not ingrained, but are a choice. All ideas explored by Shakespeare are through plot and character. The plot of Macbeth helps identify ongoing issues regarding gender roles and stereotypes.
For instance, female characters in the play, such as Lady Macbeth and the three witches, mock the stereotypical female traits by acting oppositely. Furthermore, male characters, such as Macbeth and Macduff, also surprise readers with their behaviour by not following the traditional expectations of ‘manhood.’Macbeth questions how both genders should be represented within society, specifically women. In the Shakespearean era and even now, women are depicted as people who are kind, soft-hearted, and caring. Despite these stereotypes, William Shakespeare challenges gender expectations by making the women in the play seem more powerful than the men. Through the ECD of character, it is evident that the main female characters, such as Lady Macbeth, do not act like their stereotypical gender.
Women in the Shakespearean era were expected to act motherly and nurturing, but the character of Lady Macbeth acts contrastingly. In Act I, Scene vii of the play, Lady Macbeth strongly emphasises her points on how Macbeth is a coward and weak-minded by implying that shewould prefer to do something violent rather than going back on her word:”I have given suck, and know How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me. I would, while it was smiling in my face, Have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums And dashed the brains out.” (1.
7.42-43)Lady Macbeth’s statement is highlighted as something ironic because women’s prime role in the Shakespearean era and even the current era is to be a loving and kind-hearted mother. However, Lady Macbeth is shown to be quite vicious and cruel.
Since there is a social norm regarding both genders and how each gender should act, Lady Macbeth and possibly other women are characterised as abnormal if they are assertive and display an aggressive attitude. “When a man states his opinion, he is considered to be influential, but a woman who states her opinion is considered to be ‘spiteful’ and ‘overbearing'” (Katz-Wise, NCBI, 2010). Women face this issue constantly when it comes to jobs and politics as they are judged through ‘a different criteria’ based upon stereotypes (Robin, HBR, 2016). Furthermore, through the development of plot and ECD of character, it is evident that the women in Shakespeare’s time were expected to be more passive and submissive towards men. However, the women in Macbeth are depicted as more dominant than the men. In Act III, Scene v, the witches discuss their plan for Macbeth’s downfall:”He shall spurn fate, scorn death, and bear His hopes ‘bove wisdom, grace, and fear. And you all know, security Is mortals’ chiefest enemy.” (3.
5.124) The witches are shown to be the active agents of the entire play, which is ironic since men have always been expected by society to take on the active role of leadership. Women, in contrast, are expected to be more submissive and passive towards the men in their lives.
But, the witches actively seek to make Macbeth overconfident and in this way, they gleefully plan for his destruction. Because of what the witches have demonstrated in the play regarding power, they signify that women do have the potential to be powerful people. The play suggests that the ideal of a passive and submissive woman is just a stereotype. However, this particular stereotype still plays a major role in current society. There have been many doubts about the strength that women possess, and many females in society are disregarded from many job opportunities and leadership roles.In Macbeth, William Shakespeare also decides to depict the roles of men differently as he makes them appear more feminine than the female characters in the play.
As seen through the aspects of plot and character, it is evident that the main male characters in the play do not act like their stereotypical gender. Specifically, men at this time would have been expected to be brave, ruthless, and vicious, but characters like Macbeth act contrastingly. In Act I, Scene vii, Macbeth refuses to play the role of the ambitious warrior who will do anything to get what he wants:”We will proceed no further in this business.
He hath honored me of late, and I have boughtGolden opinions from all sorts of people,Which would be worn now in their newest gloss,Not cast aside so soon.”(1.7.42)Macbeth does not represent the stereotypical masculine ideal in society. He firmly decides not to play into the stereotype of being the ruthless and vicious male character he is expected to be.
Instead, he puts his foot down and decides to be respectful towards Duncan. This is ironic, considering that women are expected to be the kind and passive ones within society. Men are expected to be tough, independent, and competitive. According to the American Psychological Association, because of the challenges and judgement men face when dealing with masculinity, there has been many links to mental health issues such as substance abuse and depression (APA, 2016). Furthermore, based upon studies made by many psychologists, men and boys are afraid to share their true thoughts and problems with other people as they are expected by society “to put on a brave face” or to just simply keep every thought to themselves. Because of this, men live with stigma for the rest of their lives and different mental health problems eventually lead to their own death (NOMAS, 2015). Masculine expectations create a barrier which prevents men from expressing their true selves: they are made to feel vulnerable because of the fear they have of being seen as weak and delicate.
It is also clear throughout Macbeth that other male characters, such as Macduff, do not act like their stereotypical gender. Apart from being ambitious, men during Shakespeare’s time were also expected show no emotion and to be hard-hearted. However, Macduff willingly shows emotion. In Act IV, Scene iii, Macduff is distraught at the news of his family’s death and reacts very emotionally:”Merciful heaven!What, man! Ne’er pull your hat upon your brows.Give sorrow words.
The grief that does not speakWhispers the o’erfraught heart and bids it break.”(4.3.
172)Macduff firmly proclaims that men should not hide their grief. He also urges them to express their emotions and does so himself. This is ironic because men were expected to remain in control of their emotions, despite what they have experienced. Macduff refuses to obey what is expected of him as a man.
Society has a major issue with men crying as that is portrayed to be weak and unmanly. Because of this particular idea, a lot of men face a problem as they are identified as ‘not a man or less of a man if too much emotion is displayed’ (NOMAS, 2015). Women, in contrast, face no issue if they show any sort of emotion, besides anger. As showing emotion has become taboo for men, the biggest problem they can face is criticism from society.
As seen through different social trends and studies made by doctors, men critically think about how they should portray themselves to other people. They fear that if they show a more sentimental side of themselves to society, their masculine traits will be overridden (Huffington Post, 2014). However, by not showing the emotional side of their personality, everything starts becoming more difficult on men as they surpass the age of twenty-one. Mental health issues start to form, social roles and expectations start becoming more of an issue and it becomes difficult for men to show their grief to others considering that they have been forced to hide their emotions for a long period of time (NOMAS, 2015). Since society expects men to be absolutely brave and not show any grief, a lot of men face an issue regarding their true identity and mental health because they fear other people’s judgement.In conclusion, Shakespeare portrays the idea that gender roles are choices that people make and not something that has been permanently established in someone’s life.
By making the female and male characters in the play act oppositely to their stereotypical gender, William Shakespeare was able to emphasize on the point that there is nothing wrong with a person taking on the expected roles of the opposite gender. He highlights the female characters in Macbeth as more masculine by making Lady Macbeth seem like a cruel person and by allowing the three witches to take on the active role of leadership.Women that show an aggressive attitude and women that want to take on an active leadership role are highlighted as ‘overbearing’ and ‘spiteful’. Many females eventually miss out on a lot of chances to be the successful person they desire to be because they are held back by society’s discriminatory practices. Furthermore, the male characters in Macbeth are highlighted as more feminine through the evidence of Shakespeare portraying Macbeth like a coward and by making Macduff show grief and express his emotions. A lot of men eventually come to a point in their life in which they have to deal with mental health issues because of the stigma that has been stuck with them for the majority of their life, all happening because of the fear of not being called a man.
The simple phrase of “put on a brave face” and “keep it to yourself” has led many men down a pathway they did not ask to be in: death. As gender expectations are evident throughout society, a lot of men and women continuously struggle with expressing themselves and miss out on many opportunities to make a drastic change in their life because they are not identified as the ideal person they are expected to be.