Women's discourse of power in Shakespeare's "Macbeth"

Scientific Essay, 2013

28 Pages, Grade: M.A



1- Introduction

2- The Problem of the Study

3- Methodology

4- Theoretical Background

5- Analysis
5.1 Literary analysis
5.2 Linguistic analysis
5.2.1 - Directives in Macbeth

6- Responses to Directives

7- Status and Power
7.1- Conflict and Topic Control
7.2 - Floor

8- Discourse of Power

9- Status and Power in Macbeth

10- Conclusion


Women in Macbeth (i.e., Lady Macbeth and the Witches) speak a strange language that is very similar to what women seek today. This language can be described as antilanguage (Halliday, 1978; Andersen, 1988): a language by which women can direct, control, and dominate men. This paper introduces a contradictory statement to the current views in discourse analysis, which indicate that women are powerless, trivial, dominated, and sexual objects (Andersen, 1988, Chaika, 1982; Lakoff, 1975) by showing women as powerful, serious, and dominating as men. In doing so, it focuses on the recent views of discourse, power, and women, taking Shakespeare's Macbeth as a field of application by analyzing Lady Macbeth’s turns of talk.

Key Words: Discourse, power, discourse analysis, ideology, dominance, Shakespeare ,Macbeth, Lady Macbth.

1- Introduction

Linguistic studies usually refer to women as powerless, trivial, dominated, and dependent; whereas men are always seen as powerful, serious, dominating, and independent. Women are denied access to power on the grounds that they are not capable of holding it as demonstrated by their indecisive behavior and weak nature. (Lakoff, 1975; Chaika, 1982; Andersen, 1988).

However, this paper swims against the current by showing the possibility of women to be powerful, dominant, and decisive like men. Shakespeare’s Macbeth represents a rich environment in which women present themselves powerfully, displaying influential characteristics like men. Novy (1984, p. 4) pointed out that “Shakespeare saw men and women as equal in a world which declared them unequal.’ Women are allowed to go beyond the limits, which the society puts on them, either through verbal language, or through non-verbal actions. Thus, it can be claimed that Shakespeare speaks a language that may be seen strange in his own time. This language shows how women play the powerful role, and how their power is structured in society by presenting two poles of powerful and powerless variables. In so doing, Shakespeare introduces a new language that shows how power is structured in society by presenting two poles of powerful and powerless variables of society: one is dominant and the other is dependent.

2- The Problem of the Study

The current views in discourse analysis indicate that women are powerless, trivial, dominated, and sexual objects (Lakoff, 1975; Coates, 1986; Chaika, 1982; Andersen, 1988). Spender (1980) pointed out that women are prepared for powerlessness and they are socialized on lowered self confidence and readiness to accept the notion that they are not capable of mastering certain situation. This paper, however, introduces that women can be as powerful as men, but they are socialized to be powerless. It is not the deficiency of women, but the deficiency of a social order in which they are not represented, in which they have been denied the means to produce and to sanction.

3- Methodology

This study is brought on discourse analysis theories of power. Linguistic studies provide some devices that distinguish powerful and powerless discourses. It shows that linguistic analysis complements the literary analysis, and broadens the field of interpretation by introducing new channels of analysis, e.g., textual and discursive. Regardless to these features, there are linguistic devices in women’s discourse indicating that they can exercise power and achieve their aims in the same way men can do to show their power, such as directives, topic control, status, and floor.

4- Theoretical Background

Stubbs (1983) argues that the person who can attract speaker's attention, control the topic, check understanding, specifying and developing the topic of speech is a powerful participant. Doctors, teachers, and judges are good examples on Stubbs’ (1983). Bernstein (1986) shows powerful discourse in terms of restrictive and elaborate codes. Unmitigated forms of imperative forms, e.g., commands and orders, are used in restrictive codes, whereas unmitigated forms of appeals and requests are used in elaborate codes. Andersen (1988) argues that power is stemmed from group identity and personal interaction. In the same vein, Fairclough (1989) and Watts (1991) show that powerful discourse can be achieved by topic control, interruption, and building one’s status that based mainly on subjects participants claim, relations between them, and effective contents they utter. Discourse involves social conditions of production (e.g., text) as well as social conditions of interpretation. It is the linguistic form of social interaction that is either embedded in social context of situation or that it interprets the social system that constitutes the culture of institutions or society as a whole. Three dimensions of discourse analysis arise accordingly: description that concerns the formal properties of the text, interpretation that concerns the relationship between text and interaction, and explanation that concerns the relationship between interaction and social context, (Fairclough, 1989, p.26).

Lady Macbeth uses directives, including imperatives and interrogatives. Imperatives are short and direct utterances, by which Lady Macbeth instills their partners certain ways to behave obediently. On the other hand, interrogatives give them a chance to take consensus-based decisions, and elicit compliant answers. Questions are the most important type of interrogatives that can give a short access to power through conveying more than one meaning at a time, i.e., stating facts, demanding explicitness, urging to do certain actions, etc. Imperatives and interrogatives require the powerless characters to give short answers, by which their counterparts can keep the floor and gain support. Women’s politeness, flexibility, and intimacy also play an important role in gaining support from others. With support, Lady Macbeth has a felicitous status that enables them to make, or at least, to affect others (i.e., their male counterparts) to take decisions based on their plans and views.

Based on the premise that no language can ever be neutral or objective (Fairclough, 1989; Watts, 1991), powerful discourse is shown as a point of view, a stance, a hidden or open agenda of assumptions according to which the participants interact verbally. Language is somehow turned into a type of ability to impose and maintain a particular structuring of some domain, keeping the parts demarcated from each other in particular ordering and hierarchical relations of two opposite poles: domination and subordination. Now the question is shifted from what is power to what are the features of power that may provide insight to its inner nature?

5- Analysis

This part presents the analysis of data in the light of literary and linguistic analyses. In so doing, this part is divided into two sections: the first shows the literary analysis of Macbeth, and the second applies linguistic devices to it, attempting to give an interpretation of women’s discourse of power from a linguistic perspective and prove that the two approaches are complementary and integrated.

5.1 Literary analysis

Women in Macbeth are powerfully represented by the witches and Lady Macbeth characters, so when the word ‘women’ is mentioned here, it refers collectively to these characters. Adelman (1992, 136) states that ‘Lady Macbeth and the witches construct malignant female power both in the cosmos and in the family.’ Female characters in Macbeth are complementary and Shakespeare merged them in one category; namely the powerful domain of women. Their effect on Macbeth is highly dominant and determined. It is dominant because they begin and end the play. They are determined because their views are unavoidable and destined. The witches’ prophecies control Macbeth’s future, and Lady Macbeth’s role gets this future to present.

Naturally, men are physically more powerful than women, and, because women realize this fact well, they develop other tools that fill such a gap of powerlessness. Women linguistically attain power either through using the very same tools men use and thus they adopt the dominant group policy (e.g., men power), or resist the dominant policy using their own ways of power. Lady Macbeth belongs to the first party that hold manly power in high esteem and find in adopting patriarchal principles of power her way to possess it. Lady Macbeth is ready to abandon everything, even her “milking babe” that gives her/him a suck, on the sake of her will coming true.

Lady Macbeth’s perspective about power is typically manly even in form; she appears and behaves like men, abandoning her feminine traits: ‘babies, milk, nipple, etc.’ on the sake of Macbeth to do the action she needs. When she incites Macbeth to murder, she “pours” these same ‘spirits’ into his ears, and like liquor, they make his will drunk, separating him from his hand and his hand from his actions. She drugs the grooms with wine and prepares a drink for Macbeth before he goes to murder Duncan. Her task is to initiate and prepare the stage for actions. The play unfolds on a holy and mythic atmosphere that creates the power of supernatural: ‘Fair is foul, and foul is fair: scene/ Hover through the fog and filthy air.

This ‘fair is foul, and foul is fair’ atmosphere reflects such weirdness of environment the play will display as well as this strange type of women (e.g., effective and dominant) to the Elizabethan age where women are characterized with obedience, fidelity, and chastity (Novy, 1984). The language came to confirm their power. The relationship between language and power is important; the former reflects content and form of the latter. Women language in Macbeth is varied between expositives of the witches and directives of Lady Macbeth.

Though the witches are stating acts that will happen in the future, all these acts come true throughout the play. In doing so, Shakespeare gave the witches a powerful tongue through which their characters empowered. Macbeth and Banquo, who represent the Elizabethan audience to the witches, do not believe in such power and they are confused whether they are men or women because they are living in patriarchal community, and deny women such power. However, Shakespeare empowered them by making their effects build up the whole play. Lady Macbeth helps complete this role of the witches through applying their words into practice, creating a unique experience to her nature as a woman.

Lady Macbeth expresses her anxieties about her husband’s nature that may make the deed (e.g., murdering the king) execution fail; the remedy is introduced in the directional phrase “To beguile the time,” certain requirements should be available to finish the process correctly. She uses short forms of sentences that guide the doer to do the deed properly. Lady Macbeth found directives are the most proper tools by which she can transfer her message to Macbeth: they are direct, short, informative, and full of guidance. Besides directive language Lady Macbeth uses to control her husband into her ‘dispatch’, she understands his psychology and nature: ‘a book where men / may read strange matters.’ She thought all people are like her and able to read ‘strange matters’ from his face. Macbeth is advised to be a serpent that can take its color according the medium in which it exists. Lady Macbeth determined the present and the future of Macbeth: the present is to ‘Look like…bear welcome…be …’, and the future is ‘shall put this night’s great business into my dispatch; which shall to all our nights and days to come’. Thus, Lady Macbeth’s power arises from two features: her valor of tongue and her intimate relationship with her husband that enables her to affect him.

Lady Macbeth described her husband as naïve, straight, and kind; he is “too full o’ the milk of human kindness to catch the nearest way”. She tries to newly nurture him, trying to prepare him to the task he will do. In this phase, Lady Macbeth is firm, powerful, and stiff, whereas Macbeth seems ambivalent, dependent, and unable to take a decision. She initiates the idea of killing when she first knows that Duncan will come to her place; she replied that he will ‘… never” go home again. Macbeth delays to speak in the matter, whereas Lady Macbeth persists in her views like a confident fighter: ‘leave all the rest to me’. Lady Macbeth concentrates her task on convincing her husband of her ideology of murdering Duncan. Macbeth is gradually convinced under the condition if the deed is done in such a way that it is not discovered. However, he is still infirm and ambivalent. His ambivalence comes from his long-sighted view: “if the assassination could trammel up the consequence… that we but teach bloody instructions, which, being taught”.

Macbeth has a different view toward the murder because the murdered is his kinsman and he should be a protector against any harm to his guest and not vice versa. It is not manly then to kill a guest and a relative. The natural result of this view is ‘we will proceed no further in this business…’ This is the clashing point, and power lies in turning one’s decision from refusal into acceptance. Daudi (1986) pointed out that ‘A’ has power over ‘B’ means ‘A’ affects ‘B’ to the extent that he/she can get ‘B’ to do something that would not otherwise do. Lady Macbeth’s power lies in her ability to make her husband take a decision of acceptance. She has a different perspective toward manliness and power: when you dare do it, then you were a man.

And, to be more than what you were, you would

Be so much more the man (1, 7, 56-57)

Here Lady Macbeth’s power is highlighted and she waged a verbal war against Macbeth, taunting his powerlessness and femininity that prevent him to prove his ‘valour’ and live as “a coward in thine own esteem’. Kahn (1981 p. 190) argues that “Macbeth …makes the fatal choice, is poised between Lady Macbeth and Banquo, the bad and good angels respectively…’ What makes the task easier to Lady Macbeth is that Macbeth himself has a potential desire to be in power, but he lacks the way to do so. Such pre-prepared psychology he shows early in the play towards his belief of the witches words:

Cannot be ill, cannot be good: if ill,

Why hath it given me earnest of success,

Commencing in a truth? I am thane of Cawdor:

If good, why do I yield to that suggestion

Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair

And make my seated heart knock at my ribs,

Against the use of nature? (1, 3, 140-7)

The idea of murder hovers over Macbeth, but he cannot imagine its application because, to him, it is ‘against the use of nature’. However, Lady Macbeth continues inciting him to prove his love to her and attain the ornament of life they dream of by doing the deed. Rhetorical power is shown in using fine words to refer to bad acts; Lady Macbeth never uses the word murder or killing, but she uses words encapsulated in fine shape instead like ‘deed’, ‘enterprise’, ‘act’, etc. Macbeth found no way but violence to obey his wife, avoiding her taunts that put on his ear all the time. Powerful women share their partners on making up their decisions, or rather decide and plan on their behalf.


Excerpt out of 28 pages


Women's discourse of power in Shakespeare's "Macbeth"
Discourse Analysis
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
594 KB
Discourse, power, discourse analysis, ideology, dominance, Shakespeare, Macbeth, Lady Macbth
Quote paper
Anwar Elsharkawy (Author), 2013, Women's discourse of power in Shakespeare's "Macbeth", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/345220


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: Women's discourse of power in Shakespeare's "Macbeth"

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free