How Shakespeare’s Female Characters Exhibit Wickedness through Masculine Values and Male Connivance and Victimization
Shakespeare is one of the most celebrated novelists of all times. With him, comes not just great works but very memorable characters that shake the whole literary world. Apart from the men of greed and of love, romantic couples that devastatingly die in the end, Shakespeare also presents a host of notable female protagonists and antagonists whose extreme personality often intrigues majority of the readers. Among the most unforgettable Shakespearian women characters which brim with devastating vindictiveness are Lady Macbeth and Goneril. In the novels where they are part of, both assume vile roles which – to a great degree – are strongly associated with masculinity. In this paper, the researcher presents a comparison of these two female characters following the premise that in Shakespeare’s works, wicked female characters requires the acquisition of male-attributed values and victimization of male characters in order to fully demonstrate and fulfill their abysmal goals.
One of the most male-attributed values that both Lady Macbeth and Goneril possess is the outstanding lust for power. Both women exhibited intense greed for gaining supremacy and rule, and this characteristic is only known to be commonly attributed to male characters. Without a doubt, one can only count few women personas in literary works that can compete with men with regards to power lust. What made Lady Macbeth and Goneril more distinguishable from the rest is the fact that they were willing to engage in very cruel means in order to achieve what they aspire for. Both women were willing to kill and manipulate.
In the case of Lady Macbeth, although she was not the one who suggested the killing, she encouraged – and to a certain extent, even forced his hesitant husband to kill King Duncan so as to fulfill the witches’ prophecies and ultimately achieve her desire to be a queen. Lady Macbeth wanted more despite the fact that her husband already had a rank of Scottish nobility for being thane of Cawdor. Her overwhelming desire for power is best shown when she received a letter from Macbeth noting that there was a prophecy of him being a king soon:
LADY MACBETH: “Great Glamis! Worthy Cawdor!
Greater than both, by the all-hail hereafter!
Thy letters have transported me beyond
This ignorant present, and I feel now
The future in the instant!”
(In Shakespeare’s Macbeth)
Goneril, on the other hand, manipulated his father and planned to kill her husband so as to gain more power than she’s supposed to. Knowing that the extent of her share from her father’s kingdom will depend on how she would express her love for him, she made an extensive effort to lie and exaggerate what an adequate daughterly love can be for her father. Knowing that her father was conceited and egoistic, Goneril filled her statements with elaborate embellishments that he would love to hear:
GONERIL: “…dearer than eye-sight, space and liberty;
Beyond what can be valued, rich, or rare…”
(In Shakespeare’s King Lear)
Apart from an extensive desire for supremacy, both Lady Macbeth and Goneril needed male characters in order to fulfill their goals. They had to “victimize” men through manipulation, deception, and seduction in order to compel them to do things that they were unable to accomplish on their own. Both Lady Macbeth and Goneril were portrayed as inadequate and derisory women who, despite of the wickedness, influence and power that they had, were still unable to independently realize the entirety of their plans on their own.
Clearly, Lady Macbeth cannot perform the killing of King Duncan alone – that was precisely why she had to work so hard at convincing her husband to do what she couldn’t. Lady Macbeth manipulated Macbeth with words that effectively targeted a popular weakness among most men – being named as a coward. She successfully prevailed over her husband’s objections by questioning his manhood.
LADY MACBETH: “Was the hope drunk,
Wherein you dress’d yourself? hath it slept since?
And wakes it now, to look so green and pale
At what it did so freely? From this time,
Such I account thy love. Art thou afear’d
To be the same in thine own acts and valour,
As thou art in desire? Would’st thou have that
Which thou esteem’st the ornament of life,
And live a coward in thine own esteem:
Letting I dare not wait upon I would,
Like the poor cat i’ the adage?”
(In Shakespeare’s Macbeth)
Upon instigating the topic of masculinity, Lady Macbeth placed her husband in a situation where he could not do anything more but to kill King Duncan in order to prove his worth as a man.
In the tragic play, Lady Macbeth demonstrated the need for a man not only through her manipulation of her husband but through a dialogue wherein she blatantly expressed her wish to become more like a man. She acknowledged the fact that she, as a woman, had more room in her heart for remorse and guilt. As such, she wanted to free herself from such feminine characteristics and instead, fill herself with “direst cruelty” which is commonly attributed to men.
LADY MACBETH: “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 of remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
Th’effect and it!”
(In Shakespeare’s Macbeth)
In the case of Goneril, there is no scene where she deliberately declares her desire to do away with her femininity. However, her need for a man is strongly demonstrated by the fact that the only way for her to achieve dominance was to win the affection of her father. In addition to that, it can be noted that Goneril would be just another weak character without the power bestowed upon her as the daughter of a King and the wife of a Duke, would be just a weak character. In other words, if she would be dispossessed from her relations with men, then she wouldn’t have any degree of control or supremacy despite the extent of aggressiveness and vileness that she possessed.
Furthermore, Goneril needed the help of accomplices to succeed. At first, she acquired the help of her sister Regan. Seeing such was inadequate (partly because they were both women), the two conspired with Cornwall, Regan’s husband. Goneril even considered the cooperation of her husband (the Duke of Albany) necessary so when he expressed a contradicting stance, she deemed that it was only fitting for him to die. Again however, she couldn’t accomplice the plot all on her own. That was why she connived with Edmund, her deceptive lover.
To sum it all up, both Lady Macbeth and Goneril possess the commonly male-attributed desire for power. Both were also very much willing to result to violent and brutal measures which they could not carry out on their own. As such, despite the strong female persona that they are trying to portray, they still reflect a great need for men. They need men to manipulate, victimize, or connive with, in order to execute their plans. As such, although Shakespeare seemingly demonstrated women power in his tragedies, he instead delivered an underlying discriminating concept of male-supremacy. This male-supremacy stance is further magnified by the fact that both female antagonists resulted to suicide in the end as their male counterparts (Lady Macbeth’s Macbeth and Goneril’s Edmund and Albany) persisted their goals.
“Text / Script of Macbeth a play by William Shakespeare.” William-Shakespeare.info. 23 Apr 2009 <http://www.william-shakespeare.info/script-text-macbeth.htm>
“Text / Script of King Lear a play by William Shakespeare”. William-Shakespeare.info. 23 Apr 2009 <http://www.william-shakespeare.info/script-text-king-lear.htm>