Femininity in the Past: Analysis of Lady Macbeth and The Tempest’s Miranda
The feminine characteristics of the Pre-World War era were founded on a set of behavioral and social norms, which were considered as the socially appropriate roles for women pertaining to cultural specifications and historical periods. Women in the past were governed by principles that ensured separation of their roles from those of men in all societies, though there were universally shared/observed feminine practices and roles. This universal set of characteristics includes a distinct sexual orientation, psychological makeup, and physique/ external manifestation (Feminine). These then defined their social roles as is supported by the Gender Role Theory, according to which girls and boys learn the socially acceptable attitudes and behavior from both their immediate family and from the wider society at large.
Therefore, this supports the notion that non-physical gender differences were a result of socialization. In the same breath, the Social Role Theory suggests that the causal force of gender differences is the existing social system. Thus, the sex-defined roles and behaviors are determined by the existing systems pertaining to division of labor. Men’s physical advantages pertaining to their upper body strength and overall body size ensured that they had an advantage over women, especially in social activities that required physical attributes i.e. warfare, herding, and hunting (Butler, 1990, p. 45).
Women, on the other hand, because of their biological capacity for child-bearing and reproduction, were limited in their involvement and in other social activities. This distinction between activities and roles led to the distribution of labor among the two sexes. With time, these characteristics, as pertaining to the specification of activities, became the people’s beliefs and perceptions about the dispositional attributes of either men or women. Thus, according to Gilbert (1998), the progression of correspondent inference and the division of labor present leads to the differentiation of gender roles, which ultimately brings up expectations of certain behavior of women or men occupying certain positions in society (Butler, 1990, p. 59).
Thus, women’s roles in society included childbearing and subsequent rearing, housekeeping, cleaning/ washing, and cooking among others. They were neither entitled to any position of power where major decision making processes occurred, nor were they allowed into activities such as combat, hunting, building, and construction among other physically exerting activities.
In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the character Lady Macbeth was of quite opposing character traits to the aforementioned division of activities or roles. She was frightening due to her different actions and thoughts, as was well illustrated by Shakespeare. First, she is introduced as a woman who encourages her husband to kill Duncan. She is depicted as being more ambitious, ruthless, and stronger than her husband. Her husband, Macbeth, is full of worry and almost abandons the attempt to kill Duncan. However, it is only through his wife’s resolute sense of purpose that he gets the courage to perform the deed. She is aware of her advantageous position and knows that she has to push him into committing the murder (Leggatt, 2006, p. 74).
She also at a given point wished she was masculine so that she could implement the deed. Her husband, Macbeth is of the opinion that a masculine soul inhabits her body; thus, shaping the intended theme of power and gender relationship that is pivotal to her character. The above clearly shows that Lady Macbeth was oddly out of place in the then British society, as it is expressed by Shakespeare. The period was that of Pre-World War era, when kings ruled through the English army and witches existed, as is espoused by the presence of the three witches in the play (Leggatt, 2006, p. 65).
Women then, in such a social construct, were duly distinguished in their roles of – child bearing and rearing, housekeeping, and other feminine chores/ activities. They were supposed to be feminine in nature due to their physical, psychological, and biological makeup. Lady Macbeth’s prodding of her husband to commit murder and her superior characteristics distinguishingly puts her apart from the other British women of then. Her husband’s reference to her as being a masculine spirit in a female body also brings out the notion of masculinity that is often linked to both violence and ambition. This again was contrary to the woman’s role and behavioral norms as per the Pre-World War British society.
She is able to manipulate her husband, exhibiting amazing effectiveness through her superseding perspectives to all of her husband’s objections and hesitations, as it is exemplified when he hesitates in his plan of murdering Duncan. She repeatedly questions him over his Manhood (that is characterized by decisive actions, clear thoughts, ambition, zeal or valor, and violence), until Macbeth eventually gives in and commits the murder. This manipulative characteristic is untypical of past British women’s roles and behavioral traits. They were obedient and subjective to their husbands, who were both the Superior and the Head of the homestead. Any questioning on the women’s part was often met with violent beatings, as then, wife battering was a social norm (Leggatt, 2006, p. 76).
She also displays extraordinary strength of will through her comforting and encouraging role to her husband when he eventually kills the king and after the action. This is quite unlike of any Pre-World War British woman, since warfare was often set aside for the masculine gender, and especially in the killing of a king, which was perceived as coup de tat - an act of aggression that was, therefore, punishable by death. These actions were carried out mostly by men, since this involved a lot of strength, will-power, ambition, and a lot of violent scenarios that would be difficult to a woman to handle.
However, soon after the king’s death, she slowly becomes mentally disturbed. Just as her ambition had strongly influenced her before the murder, guilt plagues her more strongly after the act, eventually leading her to committing suicide due to her lack of ability in dealing with the resultant legacy of the crimes she and her husband had committed.
In The Tempest, the character Miranda is a fourteen year old virgin daughter of Prospero. They together with Caliban, a hideous slave, spend a total of 12 years on an island. She is both compassionate and gentle, with a touch of relative passivity. She displays both an emotional and meek nature when she recounts of their lucky survival after the ship wreck. Her father Prospero chooses her husband for her in the form of Prince Ferdinand. She is later to fall in love immediately she set her eyes on the prince of the Naples (Willis, 1989, p. 48).
After offering his blessings to the two, Prospero proceeds to engaging the prince in a frank conversation on his daughter’s virginity and the prospects of pleasure while in the marriage bed, while Miranda stands by quietly. Given her passive and quiet nature, on two occasions, she also portrays both strength and forthrightness contrary to her naïve nature. The first (Act 1, scene 2) is when both she and her father argue with Caliban, whom Prospero alludes to have once tried raping Miranda. The rude and casual agreement Caliban responds to leads to Miranda’s violent response, which is driven by Caliban’s light attitude towards the perceived action.
The second occasion (Act 3, scene 1) is quite surprising, since Miranda proposes to marry Ferdinand, with the proposal coming a little after her having thoughts pertaining to her father’s caution for her not to talk with Ferdinand. The first instance exemplifies Miranda’s will to speak up for herself pertaining to her sexuality. On the other hand, the second is uniquely out of place in a social setting that was characterized by ship wrecks and princes. Marriage proposals are the duty of men; they are supposed to propose to the women whom they perceive to be up to the task in life after marriage (Willis, 1989, p. 68).
The plays bring out character traits and behavioral norms of women who represented two different social perspectives regarding gender roles. In the first play Macbeth, the character Macbeth was strong-willed and very persuasive, unlike her counterpart Miranda in The Tempest, who is both passive and naïve. One occasion, though, exemplifies a shared characteristic that happens when Miranda reacted violently to Caliban’s casual answer. This moment shows Miranda’s strength and will, especially in her sexuality. The second occasion when she proposes to marry Ferdinand also brings out the notion of a masculine trait due to the fact that it is men who should propose. Macbeth’s masculine traits are exemplified in her persuasiveness, strong-will, and manipulation of her husband. Miranda, on her part, showed conformity to the ascribed gender roles, showing her subtle, feminine side as both her father and prospective husband-to-be talked of her virginity (Leggatt, 1989, p. 80).
In conclusion, the first play brings out the character traits of a modern woman, who, through the agitation of equality and due to the persistence of the Feminine Movement, is able to take up more challenging vocations that were reserved for men. The second play The Tempest brings out the character traits of a woman who conforms to the present traditions and division of labor according to the existing gender roles.