To this day, Macbeth remains one of Shakespeare’s most well-known tragedies, with the eponymous protagonist being the quintessential tragic hero. In the beginning, Macbeth is a moral man. He is the “brave Macbeth,” (1.2.18) who, with his “brandished steel, / Which smoked with bloody execution,” (1.2.19-20) was able to slice his enemies from “the nave to th’ chops.” (1.2.24) Unlike the previous Thane of Cawdor, he is loyal to his king. However, by the end he is transformed from a man that “smack of honor” (1.2.48) to one that is “smacking of every sin / That has a name.” (4.3.72-73) While we are led to believe that this transformation is caused by his unnatural ambition, the play taken as a whole strongly supports the idea that his primary motive is the assertion or preservation of a threatened masculine self-image.
One aspect of masculinity is its dominance over femininity. The first women that appear in the play are the witches. They “should be women,” (1.3.47) but they also possess androgynous features that demonstrate their masculinity. When they meet Macbeth for the first time, he “start and seem to fear” (1.3.54) their prophecies. While it is not explicitly shown in the play, there is also a desire within him to be more powerful, and thus, more masculine, than them. It is evident by the way he emulates the witches: as he prepares to kill Duncan, he invokes “pale Hecate’s off’rings”; (2.1.64) as he plans Banquo’s death, he describes a bat that “hath flown / His cloistered flight, ere to black Hecate’s summons.” (3.3.44-45) He is eventually able to “conjure” the witches “by that which [they] profess,” (4.1.51) demanding and receiving answers from them even when they ask him to “seek to know no more.” (4.1.118) It is this desire that compels him to commit acts that are unnatural, so as to become more like – and better than – the witches. By the end of the play, Macbeth has achieved this goal, not only in his evil acts, but also in his manner of speech. The prophecy that he chants repeatedly just before his final battle – “I will not be afraid of death and bane / Till Birnam Forest come to Dunsinane” (5.4.73-74) – rhymes just like the opening lines of the witches.
The next female character to appear is Lady Macbeth. Although Macbeth loves her and regards her as his “dearest partner of greatness” (1.5.11), a part of him resents her dominance over him. With Duncan’s murder, she tells him to “leave all the rest” (1.6.86) to her and attacks his masculinity directly by telling him: “When you durst do it, then you were a man.” (1.7.56) Macbeth acknowledges her masculinity, as he tells her to “bring forth men children only, / for thy undaunted mettle should compose / Nothing but males.” (1.7.83-85) Lady Macbeth also seems, initially, to be far more emotionally prepared for committing evil acts than Macbeth, for she is the one who carries the bloody daggers back to Duncan’s chamber when Macbeth, overridden by guilt, cannot. The fact that Macbeth is influenced by a need to become more dominant is shown when Macbeth formulates a plan to kill Banquo himself and does not tell his wife about it. Indeed, he stops sharing with her his plans altogether. When she finally commits suicide, Macbeth, has once again achieved his goal: where she has succumbed to her guilt, he has not.
Another aspect of masculinity is the phallus, which is a motif that can be found throughout Shakespeare’s body of works. For example, in Romeo and Juliet, Juliet declares her love for Romeo by stabbing herself with his dagger. Even though it was a tragic and horrifying end, there is nonetheless a sexual connation to her suicide. Like Romeo and Juliet, daggers serve as a phallic symbol in Macbeth, though here they accentuate Macbeth’s struggles with his masculinity. As he was about to murder Duncan, the father that “had begun to plant [him] and will labor to make [him] full of growing,” (1.4.32-33) Macbeth hallucinates that a dagger is hovering before him:
Is this a dagger which I see before me,
The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee.
I have thee not, and yet I see thee still.
Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible
To feeling as to sight? Or art thou but
A dagger of the mind, a false creation,
Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain? (2.1.46-51)
This dagger seems to represent Macbeth’s doubt and guilt; however, this interpretation does not sufficiently explain the fascination Macbeth has with the dagger. Instead, this passage suggests that he is in fact suffering from castration anxiety. Castration anxiety, in Freud’s psychosexual development theory, refers to the fear of emasculation the son has from his father for desiring his mother. Macbeth is thus fearful of his castration – in other words the loss of his masculinity – for desiring kingship, which rightfully belongs to his “father” Duncan. Indeed, he calls out to his phallus: “I have thee not.” The sexual overtones of the dagger can be seen further when he says, “come, let me clutch thee,” which implies a yearning for masturbation; the word “come” being a double entendre for orgasm. The “heat-oppressed brain” also implies sexual arousal. Essentially, Macbeth is attracted to kingship, but he is subconsciously afraid that he will be emasculated by Duncan. Therefore, to prevent that fate, he must either stop desiring his mother – which is impossible for him at that point – or he must murder him, which he does. The blood-stained dagger that he mistakenly carries with him back to his own chamber is akin to a phallus that has ejaculated, symbolizing how Macbeth has now attained kingship.
After he has become king, the final aspect of masculinity comes into play: the ability to sire a child. However, it has far more implications than just fertility – Macbeth has never mentioned that he necessarily wants a child. Instead, the king that has the right to rule, like how Duncan has remarked, is like a gardener that must be able to make his subjects “full of growing.” (1.4.32-33) Therefore, the fact that Macbeth is childless, while all the other male characters have sons, reminds us – and him – of his moral illegitimacy as king. During his meeting with the witches, Macbeth sees two apparitions of children: one that is bloody and another that is crowned. These children represent kingships. The bloody child represents Macbeth’s kingship; it is bloody and deformed because of his illegitimacy. On the other hand, the crowned child represents Malcolm’s kingship – a legitimacy that Macbeth will never obtain. In other words, it is from his childlessness Macbeth realizes that he is not as natural and noble – or masculine – as the other male characters. The sentiment is demonstrated by his fear of Banquo’s “royalty of nature.” (3.1.54) and that “there is none but he / Whose being” (3.1.59-60) he fears. Indeed, when the witches show him apparitions of Banquo’s descendants, he cries: “horrible sight!” (4.1.137) In an attempt to make the other male characters less masculine – and thus make him more masculine – he attempts to kill their sons: first Banquo’s son Fleance, then Macduff’s son, and finally Siward’s son. There is also almost a desire to transcend the other male characters and their masculinity; upon killing Siward’s son, he recants the prophecy the witches told him: “But swords I smile at, weapons laugh to scorn, / Brandished by man that’s of a woman born.” (5.7.17-18) – this recantation seems to be mocking the natural origins of the other male characters.
The interpretation of Macbeth’s masculinity brings another dimension of him into light. His struggles to protect his masculine image are almost ironic, for while doing so he is actually emasculating himself. By committing atrocious acts, he is straying away from his initial moral potency. By becoming as wicked as the witches, he is also becoming more and more like them. In the end, however, he seems to have regained partially his sense of manhood. When Macduff reveals that he is technically not born of a woman, causing Macbeth to realize that he is doomed; rather than fleeing, he resolves to fight until the very end.