SUSPICION OF THE UNDECIDABLE
Gender ambiguity in Shakespeare’s Macbeth
Probably the most powerful lines lingering in the reader’s or audience’s memory after experiencing Macbeth are the hero’s words in reaction to the news of the death of his spouse:
“Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.” (V, 5, 23-28)
When life signifies nothing, does this play signify anything? However simple the question may seem, the answer is hardly straightforward. Trying to stay away from moralising about vaulting ambition that doesn’t pay in the end I would like to speculate about possible significations of the play, not necessarily connected to the plot, or to put it in another way, examine the possibly significant themes and motives recurrent in the play: ambiguity, uncertainty or indeterminacy of meaning. Equivocation is the term used in the play itself (e.g. the porter scene in III, i) and it well captures the theme of walking the tightrope above the abyss of single, definite meaning on one hand, and the endless proliferation of meaning on the other. One cannot escape the impression that the thematically prominent characters of the play (Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, the witches, the Porter) virtually evade committing themselves to definite meanings.
Here I have reached the point where it is appropriate to try and define the undefinable, namely to suggest my understanding of ambiguity and how it works in the play. Ambiguity is manifest either overtly in the lines of the characters, who may or may not be conscious of the double meaning of the words they are using, or it can be inherent in the text and not confined to a particular utterance of a character. Before examining these two aspects separately, let us look at the issue of ambiguity itself in more detail, as it comes to the fore in the play. Let us take, rather arbitrarily, perhaps, the term equivocation as a common denominator for phenomena like ambiguity, uncertainty, indeterminacy or undecidability, irony and dramatic irony could be included here as well for the purpose of argument. Subject to equivocation are the key issues like gender, identity, personal integrity. To proceed further from this point, we could start with the antitheses, the very antagonism of which is under sustained scrutiny.