Female Characters in "Macbeth", "Othello" and "Hamlet"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2006
18 Pages, Grade: 2,0



I Introduction

II The female characters in Macbeth
II.I Lady Macbeth

III The female characters in Othello
III.I Desdemona

IV The female characters in Hamlet
IV.I Gertrude
IV.II Ophelia

V Conclusion

VI Bibliography

I Introduction

Why should one choose to examine the female characters of three of the most prominent Shakespeare plays although men are the protagonists in all of them ? Maybe because one may find certain parallels in the construction of woman characters in these Shakespeare plays which reflect the Elizabethan image of women in general. Maybe because Desdemona, Ophelia and Lady Macbeth are rather tragic figures with a developed character.

All main female characters seem to have the same tragic element attached to them – namely their early unnatural death. Potter sees this early death as an erotic quality which seems to be inherent in all of Shakespeare’s female characters[1]. All women seem to have loaded guilt upon them prior to their death. Lady Macbeth is guilty of at least helping in carrying out a murder. Gertrude is guilty of remarrying so quickly after her husband’s death. But finding guilt in Desdemona and Ophelia seems rather hard to manage. Desdemona is found guilty by her husband but the audience knows she is not, while Ophelia may be found guilty by the reader to have betrayed Hamlet by not requiting his love. Apart from guilt obedience seems to play a major role in the context of the female characters. Othello wants his wife to be obedient and fears she is not – independent of whether he is present or not – but when he is present he uses force to make her obedient. Ophelia is also very obedient to her brother and her father, which constitutes the falsehood of her character and may thus play a major role in Hamlet’s development. Gertrude is obedient to her husband the way a wife is supposed to be obedient. She does not have to be reminded and just blindly follows her husband in her words and deeds until the end of the play. Lady Macbeth may be an eception, but in the light of the reversal of order in Macbeth we may state that Macbeth is the obedient figure when he follows his wife’s command. When we consider Macbeth to be a photonegative of the world we can find the obedience motive again. One may argue that when a lack of obedience persists “chaos is come again” which is exactly the consequence of all acts of disobedience of women in the three plays. The three witches who are not obedient to anyone, Lady Macbeth and the consequences of Desdemona’s felt disobedience may serve as an example for the consequences of female disobedience.

II The female characters in Macbeth

The tragedy of Macbeth lists five female characters in the dramatis personae: Lady Macbeth, Lady Macduff, a gentlewoman attending Lady Macbeth, Hecate (who is not a character after all) and the three witches, who will only be called by numbers from one to three in the course of the play. The three witches as well as Lady Macduff are flat characters, but they can still tell us something about the Elizabethan reception of women. Yet Macbeth deals with clear cut phenomena like male/female, sacramental/diabolic, familiar/alien, living/dead and reverses them in order to illustrate the state of total chaos[2], where “nothing is but what is not”[3]. I will only inquire into the character of Lady Macbeth at this point and may refer to the other characters at a different point.

II.I. Lady Macbeth

“Everything is but what is not”[4] and “Fair is foul and foul is fair”[5] are the two quotes that best characterize the reversal of order in the tragedy of Macbeth. Lady Macbeth fits into this state of disorder as she does not seem to have typical female traits. After having received a letter informing her about the prophecy that would make her husband king she is without doubt that she has to pour her (evil) spirits into Macbeth’s ears[6]. Immediately after she is informed that the king is due to arrive she lays off the last female traits that remain by begging the spirits to “unsex” her[7]. Yet she does not wish to see the wound her knife makes[8] which might “empower her as a kind of supe-rmale”[9]. But she has become the “innocent flower” with “the serpent under it” and recommends her husband to act like that[10]. Unlike Macbeth who rather seems like a henpecked husband she is not only willing to carry out the murder of the king but does also carry out the planning. As it is symbolized by calling the castle “her battlements” she is the person in charge[11]. She is able to manipulate Macbeth in order to work for her, e.g. she compares Macbeth’s unwillingness to proceed any further in the plan to kill the king to an unwillingness to love her (“such I account thy love”)[12]. She also questions Macbeth’s masculinity in all the cases that Macbeth tries to convince her that it is not a good idea to carry out the murder. In her criticism Lady Macbeth reveals to the audience her rather simple concept of manlihood as that of a person who acts[13]. At the same time she reveals her evil character that is without love and respect for other people’s lives as she tells us that she would have killed her own baby while it was feeding if she had sworn to do so[14]. But it turns out that she cannot kill the king because he resembled her father[15]. After all Lady Macbeth is without remorse after Macbeth had killed Duncan and is convinced that “a little water” will clear them of the deed[16]. She further advices Macbeth not to think of the deed anymore as this would only make them mad[17]. How well Lady Macbeth has already digested being part of the murder of the most important person in the Elizabethan chain of being is nicely symbolized in her reaction to the discovery of Duncan’s murder: “What in our house ?”[18]. The fainting fit Lady Macbeth has a few scenes later is regarded to be pretended and seems to be rather out of place (the annotations tell us that this line was probably added later)[19]. Lady Macbeth seems to be a master of disguise in all scenes to come where she continues to tell her husband not to think of the murder anymore and to be “bright and jovial among [his] guests”[20].In yet another Banquet scene she keeps calm while her husband is seeing the ghost of Banquo. She tries to calm everybody down and questions Macbeth’s manhood[21] just like she had done when Macbeth had wanted to proceed no further in the killing plan[22]. As Macbeth is continually troubled by the apparition of the Banquo’s ghost Lady Macbeth is only worried about spoiling the feast and thus the bright image of their reign everybody is supposed to have[23]. “To show with false face what the false heart knows” is so crucial for Lady Macbeth that she sleepwalks washing her hands, yet discovering stains that may tell of her evil deeds and the smell of murder that cannot be washed off with “all the perfumes of Arabia”[24]. Lady Macbeth seems to have become insane by what the doctors report to Macbeth as a late result of her guilty conscience which she is no longer able to hide[25]. Zimmermann interprets her urge to wash her hands and her insanity as a result of daring to be a man without being one[26]. Lady Macbeth initially tries to keep her distance from the actual act of murder even though she seems mentally able to carry it out. Her unableness to carry out the murder reveals her lack of masculinity[27]. She is unable to repress her female nature, e.g. when she fails to kill Duncan because he resembles his father. Lady Macbeth finds herself in a world where a sense of women is “rooted in a traditional pattern of feminity – mother, wife, helpmeet”[28] which is emphasized when Macduff says (after having looked at the dead king) : “O gentle lady, ‘tis not for you to hear what I can speak: The repetition in a woman’s ear would murder as it fell”[29]. Yet after she had to come into direct contact with Duncan’s blood it seems consequential that she becomes mad in the end as Duncan’s death becomes an ineradicable image in her mind[30]. Even when she sleepwalks she constantly carries a light with her and seems unwilling to shut her eyes which can be interpreted as an unwillingness to surrender to the darkness that surrounds her character[31]. The sleepwalking Lady Macbeth illustrates according to Dusinberre that by having been unsexed Lady Macbeth has not become a man but less than a woman – only a shadow of what she once was[32]. When Lady Macbeth dies two scenes later Macbeth reacts indifferent by saying that “she should have died hereafter”[33]. The original young and happy couple that was kept together by love has finally been driven apart by bad conscience and insanity[34]. Probably the marriage between Lady Macbeth and Macbeth is yet the most intimate relationship between a man and a woman in all of Shakespeare’s plays[35].


[1] Potter, p. 156

[2] Zimmermann, p. 321

[3] Macbeth, I.III.142

[4] Macbeth, I.III.142

[5] Macbeth, I.I.11

[6] Macbeth, I.V.1 – I.V.30

[7] Macbeth, I.V.41

[8] Macbeth, I.V.50

[9] Zimmermann, p. 330

[10] Macbeth, I.V.65

[11] Macbeth, I.V.40

[12] Macbeth, I.VII.35 – I.VII.45

[13] Dusinberre, p. 284

[14] Macbeth, I.VII.55 – I.VII.58

[15] Macbeth, II.II.11

[16] Macbeth, II.II.66

[17] Macbeth, II.II.70; Macbeth, II.II.33

[18] Macbeth, II.III.85

[19] Macbeth, II.III.117

[20] Macbeth, III.II.29; Macbeth III.II.10-13; Macbeth III.II.35

[21] Macbeth, III.IV.57

[22] Macbeth, I.VII.51

[23] Macbeth III.IV.107; Macbeth, III.IV.83, Macbeth III.IV.73

[24] Macbeth, I.V.17-65

[25] Macbeth, V.III.38

[26] Zimmermann, p. 330

[27] Dusinberre, p. 284

[28] Dusinberre, p. 284

[29] Macbeth, II.III.81-83

[30] Zimmermann, p. 330

[31] Zimmermann, p. 330

[32] Dusinberre, p. 284

[33] Macbeth, V.V.17

[34] In Act I and II Lady Macbeth regularly speaks of love and the relationship is shaped by caring and loving behaviour. In Act III.V.145 Macbeth points out that they are not young anymore and in the scenes to come the dying of their love becomes obvious.

[35] Bevington, p. 223

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Female Characters in "Macbeth", "Othello" and "Hamlet"
University of Wuppertal
Shakespeare's Late Tragedies
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Female, Characters, Macbeth, Othello, Hamlet, Shakespeare, Late, Tragedies
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Timm Gehrmann (Author), 2006, Female Characters in "Macbeth", "Othello" and "Hamlet", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/68982


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