During the Italian Renaissance, there were many credentials required to become a courtier to the king and queen. One of the requirements was being a man, but not just any ordinary man. In Baldassare Castigone’s The Book of the Courtier, Count Lodovico announces that the ideal man for the king’s court “should be fierce, rough and always to the fore, in the presence of the enemy; but anywhere else he should be kind, modest, reticent and anxious above all to avoid ostentation.”1 While this description exemplifies the difficult feat of becoming a courtier, it also presents contradictions within the nearly impossible expectations of what it means to “be a man.” These expectations are not exclusive to the Italian Renaissance era, however. Throughout history, the rigors of masculinity have tainted men’s understanding of themselves, their relationships with others, and the societies in which they live. Playwright William Shakespeare grapples with this idea of manhood in his tragic play Macbeth. Set in the backdrop of eleventh-century Scotland, the play follows the titular character who receives a prophecy that he will be crowned king. Tempted by power and glory, the male protagonist takes matters into his own hands by killing the king, taking the throne, and subsequently facing the repercussions of acting on his ignoble desires. Throughout the play, the main characters implicitly express their beliefs on what a man should be, revealing the societal expectations of masculinity. By analyzing the story of Macbeth, the dangers of masculinity can be presented through the ideologies of the main characters and their understanding of the ideal man.
A character who reinforces the rigorous traits of manhood is Lady Macbeth. Early on in the play, Lady Macbeth is introduced when she receives a letter from her husband. The letter details an encounter with three witches and their prophecy that Macbeth will overtake the throne from King Duncan. Immediately, Macbeth’s wife is eager for this power, insinuating that they must murder the King themselves in order for this prophecy to come to fruition. Lady Macbeth expresses her concerns however, when she worries whether her husband will be manly enough to follow through with this plan. Her fears are confirmed when Macbeth backs out of the plan shortly afterwards when he deliberates over the consequences of treason. Lady Macbeth, however, persuades her husband when she proclaims, “When you durst do it, then you were a man;/ And to be more than what you were, you would/ Be so much more the man.”2 It is within these lines that the paradox of masculinity is expressed. Although Macbeth exhibited ambition by conveying his eagerness to be the King of Scotland, he also exhibits his compassion through attempting to retract against the treacherous plot. Unfortunately, Lady Macbeth manipulates her husband and his understanding of masculinity by claiming that if he went through with the murder, then he would not only be a man, but “be so much more.” Dangling the enticing possession of a manly reputation over Macbeth, his wife’s cunning tactic succeeds in cajoling the tragic figure into killing the King, setting off a domino effect of chaos throughout the rest of the play.
After following through with Lady Macbeth’s plot, Macbeth transforms into a power-hungry leader who is paranoid of losing his new role as King of Scotland. This paranoia is evident when Macbeth expresses his jealousy towards his closest ally and friend, Banquo. Macbeth becomes cautious of his friend when the prophecy mentions that Banquo’s sons would become royalty in the future as well. As a result, this prophecy leads Macbeth to obsess over the possible threat to his crown. Macbeth shares his spite of Banquo when he proclaims,
He hath a wisdom that doth guide his valor
To act in safety.
There is none but he
Whose being I do fear; and under him
My genius is rebuked.”3
This passage uncovers not only Macbeth’s rationalization to ensure Banquo and his sons are killed but also presents the constant threatened state of masculinity Macbeth harbors within. While Macbeth has reason to be worried about Banquo’s children becoming kings, the character convinces himself that Banquo could also be a peril to his control due to his “wisdom” and “valor” which intimidates him. The protagonist presents the embodiment of an insecure man who is fragile in nature with the direct threat of a competitor, who happens to be his closest friend.
The competitiveness in masculinity is further developed in the scene when Macbeth convinces two men to murderer Banquo and his children. In order to successfully motivate the men to do as he requests, Macbeth makes the analogy that the distinction of men is similar to dog breeds. He elaborates that
The value file
Distinguishes the swift, the slow, the subtle,
The housekeeper, the hunter, every one
According to the gift which bounteous nature
Hath in him enclosed…
and so of men.6 Therein lies a pressure for men during the time period to distinguish themselves from one another, in such manly qualities as nobility, honor, loyalty, courage, and so on. For this reason, the expectancy to maintain a manly and positive repute with Macbeth precipitates the two men to follow his commands to murder Banquo and his sons.
The imminent threat of Macbeth is most arguably felt by King Duncan’s son Malcom, who flees to England to seek safety from being murdered as his father was. Malcolm is forced to face the troubles at home when Macduff, the Thane of Fife, travels to England to beg the rightful heir to the throne to return to Scotland and defeat Macbeth. After a pivotal discussion between the two men about the pressures and temptations that are inherent within being a ruler, a messenger interrupts them to inform Macduff that his wife and children have been murdered by Macbeth. In response to this horrid news, Malcom commands the grief-stricken widow, “Dispute it like a man.”7 This line insinuates the ubiquitous ideology about masculinity: that in order to be a man, one must be able to fight “like a man” and stand up for themselves. Malcolm bestows his belief onto Macduff when he advises, “Be this the whetstone of your sword. Let grief/ Convert to anger, blunt not the heart, enrage it.”8 Within this remark, Malcom advocates for anger and revenge, promoting the masculine ideology in violence as a means to an end. Ironically, these lines proceed their conversation about the downfall of nations and their rulers. An evident trouble to this universal issue can be blamed on wars and their destruction of societies. Rather than civilly settling the dispute, Malcolm personifies the inherently dominant male ideology that presumes combat and killing are inevitable and, therefore, necessary to gain power and glory.
Although he listens to Malcolm’s advice, Macduff touches upon the issue concerning expressing emotions in the universal expectation of manliness. As a rebuttal to Malcolm’s request that he fight “like a man,” Macduff counters this line by arguing, “But I must also feel it like a man.”9 This line hints at the rigor of masculinity during the time period that implicitly encouraged men to repress feelings of sadness. Even to this day, many men still feel ashamed and emasculated for expressing their emotions to others. While Macduff seems to be promoting men to be in touch with their feelings, this line could also be interpreted as a tactical response in justifying why he is upset, specifying that the manner in which he is grieving is manly. The line contains layers of ambiguity in Macduff’s stance on masculinity, however, fundamentally the statement insinuates the general stereotype that the typical man does not cry, nor reveal his emotions. Instead, as Malcom suggests, men are supposed to channel any form of internalized sadness into externalized anger.
Even though Shakespeare’s tragedy is a fictional retelling of the tragic demise of Macbeth, the real tragedy comes from the toxicity of masculinity that is pervasive throughout the story. Each character, within their own ideology, demonstrates the issues with masculinity’s rigid expectations. Lady Macbeth uncovers the constant need for men to strive towards ambitious pursuits, emasculating her husband in order to convince him to commit a nefarious act. Macbeth reveals the competitive nature of masculinity with his wish to kill his noble ally, expressing to Banquo’s murderers that being “a man” is inherently a competition amongst each other. Malcolm posits the belief that brutality and rage is the remedy to conflict, while Macduff insinuates that men may need to feel and be more in tune with their emotions—even if it perhaps means that there is a “manly” method to his madness. Despite the characters being fictional personas of historical figures written by William Shakespeare, the author personifies the embedded methodology of masculinity of the time period and the destruction that these characteristics cause men, their relationships, and even societies such as Scotland. Nearly insurmountable in nature, the pressures to be a man suggest that this impossible expedition to become the ultimate man causes destruction to those that have no control nor power over the indirect effects of masculinity.
- Baldassare Castigone, The Book of the Courtier, translated by Sir Thomas Hoby (J.M. Dent, 1994), 58.
- William Shakespeare, Macbeth (Penguin Classics, 2016), 1.7.49-51.
- Shakespeare, Macbeth, 3.1.53-56.
- Shakespeare, Macbeth, 3.1.95-101.4
Within this explanation to the murderers, Macbeth alludes to the importance in the how men categorize themselves. His detailing suggests that each man is left with a reputation for others to perceive, which then is engraved in a hypothetical “catalogue” that implicitly ranks each individual by their qualities—similar to dogs and their breed characteristics.5Shakespeare, Macbeth, 3.1.100.