The Shakespearean tragedy Macbeth explores and strays away from what would have been considered traditional gender roles of the time period and what the conventional behaviors are of a man and a woman through the use of the motif of children and family. Throughout the play, the female characters display a strong cumulation of masculine traits, while the male characters possess stereotypical feminine mannerisms. Men of the time period are typically expected to work, provide for their families, and be assertive and strong. Women of the time period are to be obedient, matronly, and are regarded as physically weak.
Having children and caring for children represent matronly tendencies that women traditionally uphold, as well as furthering family lineage. Lady Macbeth directly contradicts the expectation that motherhood should take priority over everything and everyone else, and instead confesses absolute loyalty to her husband over everyone and everything else when she says, “I have given suck, and know how tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me, I would while it was smiling in my face, have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums and dashed the brains out had I so sworn as you have done this” (1.7.63-67). In saying this to propel her husband toward the murder of Duncan, she also takes on masculine traits as murder, especially of a baby, is in no way matronly and is in contrast assertive and strong as is a man. This also shows the femininity of Macbeth as he is having to be coaxed into murder instead of going in willingly.
The challenging of gender roles is also evident in the weird sisters. Despite being regarded as “sisters”, the are portrayed through the writing as being ambiguous in their genders. Banquo says to them during an encounter, “You should be women, and yet your beards forbid me to interpret that you are so” (I.2.45-47). Their owning of beards likely symbolizes the need to be regarded as credible in the male-dominated society of Scotland during a time of war. The witches talked of “Draining the sailor dry as hay” (2.2.60-65), which is a curse on the reproductive abilities of a woman’s wife who crossed them. By making the Sailor impotent, is manlihood weakened as a man is meant to produce a lineage to carry on his legacy. This shows the importance of children and family in Macbethian society, as the witches would have never unfertilized the sailor if they didn’t feel that they were causing harm and hardship in doing so.
The importance of children is also expressed when Macbeth says to Lady macbeth, “Bring forth men children only. For the undaunted mettle should compose nothing but males” (1.7.83-85). This statement further stresses the importance of upkeeping a family, and asserts Lady Macbeth’s dominance as a masculine figure. Macbeth is attracted to the Lady’s strength and hopes that she can pass her nature onto men, making them strong and powerful, which will in turn make his legacy stronger. This upholds and supports a male-dominated society by implying that a man child is more valuable to him than a female, but challenges it by implying that Lady Macbeth will raise good man as she serves as a good example for how a man should be.
To conclude, the idea of set gender roles of a man and a woman are challenged in Macbeth in many ways, with the concept of children and family being a recurring outlet of doing so. The two main characters, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, both commit acts that display characteristics that would normally belong to their opposite. The stressed importance of maintaining a family and producing offspring not only reinforces the woman’s role as a mother, but also in some ways entertains the idea in the strength of a woman who asserts her authority in a marital relationship and a motherly one, and weakens the stress put on men to be the only role model for a child. The idea of male dominance is also both fueled and extinguished, as in wishing for male offspring implies that they are more desirable, but in wishing a powerful woman to raise one implies that women can also be dominant. It all boils down to to the worth each character places on children, and how that fuels their actions throughout the novel. The way that children and family are expressed as both something to be considered a blessing that can be taken away, or an obligation that is less important than other relationships plays a role in developing the characters into their masculine and feminine traits and how those traits then cause them to commit acts leading to the downfall of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth.