“Eliminating the Female”: The Problematics of the State and Gender in Macbeth

  • cc icon

    Although Janet Adelman’s important “‘Born of Woman’: Fantasies of Maternal Power in Macbeth” first appeared more than two decades ago, her claim that Macbeth enacts an elimination of the female as a solution to the problems of masculinity still inspires much debate. However, rather than a “solution,” a term that implies resolution, this article posits that Macbeth intentionally leaves the audience ill at ease. This discomfort at the close of the play can best be elucidated by an application of two key Hegelian theories: the Hegelian state and the master/slave dialectic. Although Shakespeare offers a solution to the two large crises of the play—those of gender roles and disruption of monarchy—the solution is complicated by the play’s elimination of the female. Instead of leaving the audience with a sense of restoration of order, Macbeth illustrates that the enactment of an all-male realm is one that not only threatens the stability of both genders but that of the state as well.


    Macbeth , Simone de Beauvoir , sovereignty of the state , Hegelian state , master/slave dialectic , Janet Adelman

  • Adelman and the Fantasy of the “All-Male Family”

    Essential to Adelman’s argument in “‘Born of Woman’: Fantasies of Maternal Power in Macbeth” is the witches’ prophecy that Macbeth “Be bloody, bold, and resolute: laugh to scorn/ The power of man; for none of woman born/ Shall harm Macbeth” (4.1.93-95). As seemingly all men are born from a woman, Macbeth understands this prophecy to mean that he is invulnerable. However, the witches offer other warnings that are dismissed by Macbeth. He is warned that he is safe until “Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinan Hill/ Shall come against him” (4.1.108-109); yet, he reasonably believes it to be impossible for an entire forest to march as an army. He is also told to “Beware Macduff” (4.1.85), but again why should he fear this man if all men are born of a woman? Interestingly, he discounts two of the warnings due to their improbability, while fully accepting a prophecy based on a seeming paradox. However, when a messenger reveals to him that an entire grove of trees is moving towards Dunsinan, as soldiers in disguise, it becomes clear to not only Macbeth but also the audience that the impossibilities engrained in these prophecies can no longer be taken for granted.

    It is at this point that Macbeth becomes obsessed with the possibility of a man not born of a woman, for it is on this notion that his very survival hinges. Adelman notes that the remaining text contains variants of this phrase seven times (90). It is then revealed that a man can in fact be not born of a woman when Macbeth is told that “Macduff was from his mother’s womb/ Untimely ripped” (5.7.45-46). However, Adelman notes that this fascination of a motherless society has existed all along in the text. While discussions among the characters center on the definition of “man,” it indeed is the fantasy of the removal of the feminine that is enacted, as seen in the murder of Duncan, the sexually-ambiguous representation of the witches, the challenging of gender roles in Lady Macbeth, and finally the deaths of Lady Macbeth, Macbeth, and Lady Macduff.

    Adelman begins with the traditional feminist theory that “the play gives us images of a masculinity and a femininity that are terribly disturbed” (93). William T. Liston supports this claim in arguing that the play is “explicit in demarcating man from woman” (232). As Liston notes, the word “man” in its various forms appears more than forty times in the play, with “woman” and its forms appearing about one-third as frequently. What is interesting about the play’s use of these terms is that they appear “almost always with a conscious sense of defining the term” (Liston 232). In other words, Macbeth uses these terms to explicitly define or connote what it means to be masculine or feminine. Yet, as Adelman claims, these moments defining gender reveal a “disturbed” construction of gender, one in which only a male untainted by the feminine prevails. Her first example of this disturbance lies in the character of King Duncan. Adelman presents him as an androgynous figure, being both mother and father to the kingdom. While “he is the center of authority,” he is also responsible for “planting the children to his throne and making them grow” (94). However, she also points out that as a male figure, he is largely ineffectual, for the play opens in the midst of a rebellion. While the characters praise him as a person, noting his kindness and trust, Adelman posits him as a failed man. His feminine attributes have overtaken him, and the play’s solution is therefore to eliminate him (93-95).

    The witches, in turn, embody the anxiety caused by the hybridity of the two sexes. As Banquo states upon first encountering them, they “should be women,” and yet their “beards” prevent him from deciphering their gender (1.3.5-6). While the witches physically exhibit attributes of both the feminine and the masculine, it is their affinity with Lady Macbeth that most complicates the gender question in Macbeth.2 Adelman is not alone in this assertion; Garber writes that the Weird Sisters act as metaphors for Lady Macbeth, being “physically a woman but, as she claims, mentally and spiritually a man” (Shakespeare after All 713). Peter Stallybrass argues that they “are difficult to categorize at all within the implied norm,” but that as Lady Macbeth “replaces” the witches, the play becomes more explicit in its “rejection of ‘womanhood’” (111). Her affinity with the witches can be seen in the following: while the witches are unisex, Lady Macbeth yearns to “unsex” herself; Lady Macbeth exerts control over her husband by questioning his manhood in comparison to witches who were often accused of emasculating their victims; and, most importantly, she calls on spirits to “take [her] milk for gall” (1.5.48) in much the same way that witches feed their familiars. This perversion of motherly instinct is further emphasized when Lady Macbeth ruminates on the possibility of dashing her own child’s “brains out” in order to accomplish her ambitions (1.7.58). It should be noted here that this speech has been a source of much debate. While the play makes clear that the couple is childless, she states here, “I have given suck” (1.7.54). Whether an anomaly or not, the line demonstrates the distorted motherly instinct within Lady Macbeth. Therefore, Lady Macbeth is a liminal figure—one who clearly cannot be labeled male due to the constraints placed on her by both her body and early modern society, nor can she be labeled female due to her inability to conform to gender expectations.

    Macbeth, of course, represents the exact same gender dilemma, for while he excels in the manly attributes of combat, he lacks strength of character and the control of his own actions. He relinquishes agency to his wife, the witches, and even phantasms such as the imagined dagger in Act II, Scene i. Most notably, he is accused of being “too full o’ th’ milk of human kindness” (1.5.16), milk clearly associated with that which women nurture their children. Hence, as Adelman argues, the characters of Macbeth demonstrate a gender confusion that is the crux of the play’s conflict. Female characters exhibit male traits, while the male characters are feminized and lacking masculine autonomy.

    To solve this dilemma of gender, the elimination of these characters appears to be vital. As the play appears to argue for a return to traditional gender roles, or a clear male/female binary, those who do not conform are removed. However, the murder of Lady Macduff then becomes problematic and most supports Adelman’s claim that Macbeth promotes the elimination of the female. While Adelman devotes little of her essay to this character, it is her murder—the elimination of a purely feminine woman—that I believe most strongly promotes the play as a “victory over the female” (Adelman 106), for if the play is meant to reestablish gender role expectations, then Lady Macduff—a character only shown as a mother and wife—should not be excised, but instead presented as the exemplar of femininity. Yet, with her murder, “the women virtually disappear at the end” (Adelman 109).

    However, Adelman seemingly ignores the continued existence of the three witches. She sets up her argument aligning Lady Macbeth with the witches, and implies that in her elimination from the play, the Weird Sisters have also been eliminated. This is the only reading of Adelman that accounts for her statement that the feminine has disappeared by the end of the play. It is perhaps due to their hybridity of gender—seemingly constructing them outside of gender rather than of both genders, as Stallybrass suggests above— that allows for Adelman’s claim. However, while the witches are no longer present onstage, they still exist within the realm of the play; in fact, as will be discussed below, their continued presence is one of the many aspects contributing to the ambivalent ending.

    Despite her avoidance of the issues raised by the Weird Sisters’ continued existence, though, Adelman does adeptly prove that the play moves towards the elimination of the female. What I take issue with is her contention that Shakespeare offers this move as a solution to masculine vulnerability. If “the purely male realm” is the solution offered at the end of Macbeth, as Adelman contends, then one would have to agree with Greenblatt—this truly might be an evil text. However, I posit that it is this excision of the feminine that is the greatest source of anxiety at the end of the play. While Adelman claims that the play enacts the fantasy of an all male society as a solution to the problems of masculinity, I instead propose that this elimination of the female is in fact what proves that this “fair” solution is in fact “foul.”

    1Although this line is repeated throughout the play, it first appears 1.1.11. The Oxford edition will be used for all references to Macbeth. For references to other works of Shakespeare, The Norton Shakespeare (2008) will be used. The Norton Shakespeare: Based on the Oxford Edition, 2nd Ed., New York: Norton, 2008.  2A discussion of the gender implications of the witch figure is far too great a topic to address in a project of this scope. However, works examining this issue include Deborah Willis’s Malevolent Nurture (1995), Diane Pukiss’s The Witch in History: Early Modern and Twentieth-century Representations (1996), and Mary Daly’s Gyn/Ecology (1977).

    “Fair is Foul”: The “Solution” of Macbeth

    By the middle of Act V, Scene vii, Macbeth has discovered the double meanings of the witches’ prophecies and warnings. Indeed, “fair is foul,” but he declares that he “will not yield” (5.7.57) unto Macduff, the man he was told to beware and has now been shown to be born not of a woman. He understands his fate and decides to fight to the death. When Macbeth is shown beheaded, Macduff exclaims to Malcolm, the new king, “Hail King, for so thou art./…/Hail, King of Scotland” (5.7.5,9). As the crowds cheer in honor of their new king, there is an abrupt scene change—a silent, gloomy shot of the forest, in which the audience—and the audience alone—views Malcolm’s brother Donalbain in search of the three witches, presumably to learn his own fate.

    For any reader familiar with the ending of Macbeth, two elements should be readily apparent about the description above. An infamous speech by Malcolm is missing, and the silent scene depicting Donalbain is an addition. This particular film adaptation, Roman Polanski’s Tragedy of Macbeth (1971), emphasizes the ambiguity that often accompanies the ending of this particular Shakespearean work. Garber notes that Polanski’s version highlights that “there is no escape from repetition”—that the ending is actually the beginning (Shakespeare and Modern Culture 107). Note that while Adelman may have forgotten that the three witches are still very much present in the world of Macbeth, Polanski’s Donalbain has not.What I find most interesting in this production is that it not only presents the witches as gendered beings but also highlights their threat to the sovereignty of the state. As Stallybrass notes, “Macbeth is constructed around the fear of a world without sovereignty” (107). The witches’ continued existence at the end of Macbeth, seen or unseen, embody this fear. While Adelman argues for Lady Macbeth’s elimination as symbolic of the witches’ disappearance, I think that is an overstatement, for they are not only threatening as ambiguous gendered creatures but as unruly ones as well.

    While Polanski’s film is unusual for its staging of the fifth act, it is by no means the only one to underscore the unease brought on by the events of the play. Marvin Rosenberg, in his The Masks of Macbeth (1978), offers examples of numerous productions highlighting this problematic ending. In one staging, Macduff realizes the Fascist regime he has helped create; in another, Malcolm becomes coldly calculating once having become king and rejects Macduff; and in the production starring Ian McKellan, Malcolm presents his speech tentatively to his weary and drained subjects (654). Both stage and film directors have altered the end of Macbeth in order to account for their own personal interpretations of the ambiguous ending. While in Shakespeare’s literal dialogue, seemingly all has been restored to order, in a world where “fair is foul,” the audience must be skeptical.

    In order to discuss the ending of Macbeth most clearly, I offer here the speech given by Malcolm, excised by Polanski and most specifically eliciting anxiety in directors and audiences alike, in its entirety:

    What should first be noted here is that the speech is remarkable for its “unremarkable” nature. This is not the St. Crispen’s Day speech in Henry V, a call to glory and brotherhood that relies heavily on pathos. Instead, Malcolm’s speech feels much like that of another play of the Henriad, King Henry’s closing words of 1 Henry IV. Just as Malcolm divides power, so too does Henry (5.5.35-41). Further, Malcolm’s call to postpone celebration is akin to Henry’s anticipation of stamping out the rebellion (5.5.42-45): they both look forward to a proper time to celebrate the fruits of victory. Of course, Henry’s postponement has a practical purpose—the war has not yet been won—and here is the interesting connection between these two closing speeches. Although only one is a speech that anticipates the action that will come in its play’s sequel, they both close plays that appear to be unresolved. Shakespeare ends this play with a speech that not only does not emotionally move its audience but also does not read as a conclusion, which alone is cause enough to elicit anxiety in the audience.

    However, the elements Malcolm chooses to emphasize in his language are telling. The three references to time within fifteen lines cannot be ignored. The first time it is used, Malcolm is not only addressing his few remaining haggard subjects onstage, but also the theatrical audience—indicating that although this is the briefest of all Shakespearean tragedies, the play is about to come to an abrupt end. Rosenberg notes that it is almost as if Shakespeare “is in a hurry to clear the stage” (652). While the play easily could have ended with a formal coronation of Malcolm, instead the text only indicates a flourish of “Hails” followed by this speech. Again, Shakespeare makes it difficult for an audience to feel appeased here. The other instances of time refer to the past and to the future, supporting Garber’s assertion (and Polanski’s interpretation), that the exact historical and textual moment of the play is of no consequence, for the plot is circular and unbreakable. Additionally, the play refuses to allow the audience to forget these patterns in time, for the only prophecy that has yet to come true is the one stating that Banquo will beget kings, but shall never be one (1.3.67). With his son Fleance still alive, one must wonder what struggles over power are yet to come.

    And, finally, there is Malcolm himself, the newly crowned King of Scotland. While natural order has been restored, in that it is his rightful place due to his lineage to be king, the audience must wonder if the turmoil caused by gender confusion has truly been resolved by the placement of Malcolm as king. As mentioned earlier, Adelman labels King Duncan as a feminized king based on his rhetoric of motherhood in nurturing his heirs and kingdom. In honoring Macbeth early in the play, Duncan states, “I have begun to plant thee, and will labour/ To make thee full of growing” (1.4.29-30). Malcolm mimics this language when he references “planting,” leaving the audience to wonder if he too will be a feminized king. Yet this nurturing rhetoric also rings false, for in his discussion with Macduff as to what constitutes a man, he argues in favor of anger and revenge as male traits (4.3). So what type of king will now rule Scotland? A true monarch, a despot, or an emasculated king? It is impossible for the audience to decide, as Shakespeare has only offered minimal but contradictory insight into this character.

    It is thus at the closing of Macbeth, then, that the audience is presented with what should be a solution to the many dilemmas posed in the play, the most important belonging to gender and sovereignty. A new king has been hailed, and order has been restored. Shakespeare offers all the trappings of what should convince an audience that a solution has been reached—and yet he does so in only the most minimal of ways, leaving the audience with an abundance of anxiety and two important questions: Has the state been rightly restored, and has the confusion over gender roles been resolved? As I hope to show in the following discussion, these two questions—as well as their answers—are inextricably linked and can be best explored through a feminist Hegelian analysis.

    Hegel and the “State” of Macbeth

    There are few names more recognizable in English studies than Shakespeare and few philosophers as influential as Hegel, and, yet, surprisingly, very little Hegelian analyses of Shakespeare exist in print. Although Hegel himself wrote on Shakespeare, most notably on Juliet in Aesthetics, theorists have tended to refrain from investigating where the two intersect. However, there are a few notable exceptions. The most significant example would be Walter Kaufmann’s From Shakespeare to Existentialism (1959), which makes the case that existentialism has existed since not only the early modern period of Shakespeare, but also can be found in the thoughts of Socrates. And while he exults Shakespeare, proclaiming in his Preface that the adage “Beauty is truth, truth beauty” can be found in his work, he ultimately focuses on the writer as an exemplar of Beauty himself.

    However, one of the only Hegelian analyses of a Shakespearean text readily available in English is Sara MacDonald’s examination of Midsummer Night’s Dream as a counter-example to Hegel’s discussion of Antigone in Phenomenology of Spirit. While she claims that the plots of the two plays parallel, tragedy turns to comedy because Shakespeare’s Athens is a state in which “both the individual and the state are fulfilled” (132). Uncovering her analysis of the state, and her position that Hegel’s philosophy allows for “the emancipation of women,” will not only illuminate the ways in which a Hegelian analysis can enhance a reading of Shakespeare, but will also suggest the ways in which Hegel’s construction of the state serves to illuminate the anxieties elicited by the closing of Macbeth.

    Since MacDonald begins with Hegel’s discussion of Antigone, a brief review is necessary before continuing forward. Hegel posits the problem of Sophocles’ Antigone as a struggle between divine law and human law. He defines human law as that which is governed by reason, and divine law as that which governs the family. He claims that “the former falls to man, the latter to woman” (para. 463). While the gender division is important in any feminist critique of Hegel, ultimately he defines the problem in Antigone as not one between male and female, nor even divine law and human law, but one between the universal and the subjective. While an ethical state balances the individual’s subjective needs with the universal, Sophocles’ Thebes is one in which “divine law sees in the other side only the violence of human caprice, while that which holds to human law sees in the other only the self-will and disobedience of the individual who insists on being his own authority” (para. 466). With Creon only acknowledging the realm of the state and Antigone only the subjective realm, they see “right only on one side and wrong on the other” (para. 466). Their limited views, and the inability of the state in Antigone to balance the two needs, “results in the tragic destruction of both characters” (MacDonald 112). In contrast, an ethical state is one in which the split consciousness of human and divine law is in balance. MacDonald writes, “The most rational state is one that recognizes this interdependence and permits the subjective freedom of its citizens; the most rational state endorses the freedom and subsequent rights of all people” (5).

    However, as divine law has been gendered female and human law male, many feminist theorists have taken issue with Hegel’s construction of the state. For Hegel, women are relegated to the responsibility of training children to be citizens of the state—“in educating them to independent personality,” but they are not granted the same rights in participating in that state (Philosophy of Right para. 521). However, MacDonald notes that Hegel insists on the historical progress of the state, and that he, as such, is bound to the gender expectations imposed upon him by his own historical moment (6-7). Yet, she also sees in Midsummer Night’s Dream that a Hegelian state not only works, but ensures the interests and happiness of both the universal and the individual.

    As MacDonald notes, Shakespeare’s text begins with “a conflict between the political community and its laws…and the subjective interests of individuals” (16), for the laws of Shakespeare’s Athens do not allow for the individual interests of Hermia and Lysander. However, she finds in Theseus’s reconsideration of the law a willingness of the reasoned state to accommodate its citizens, including the feminine. She writes, “The interests of the characters…collide but are ultimately reconciled without destroying the underlying social order. The Shakespearean state…avoids tragedy by finding a place for human subjectivity” (16). She also notes that “the original patriarchal order is overturned in favor of one in which the wider interests of its citizens, particularly women, begin to be recognized” (134). Therefore, MacDonald concludes that a Hegelian state (albeit in fiction) functions because it not only creates a space for the divine law and the human law to acknowledge and respect each other—that the individual is willing to make accommodations for the state because the state respects his or her needs—but that it also allows for the emancipation of women through an overturning of patriarchy.3

    Returning to Macbeth, does the notion of the Hegelian state, and in particular MacDonald’s feminist reading of the potential for that state, help to explain the anxiety caused by the end of the play? In short, possibly. One of the most important themes in the play is that of sovereignty of the state. When Macbeth murders Duncan, he has disrupted a natural order, that of monarchy. Hegel states in Philosophy of Reason that monarchy is the highest grade “of the development and realization of reason” (para. 542). According to Hegel, the “perfect form of the state, in which each and every element of the notion has reached free existence, this subjectivity is not a so-called ‘moral person,’ but an actual individual—the will of a decreeing individual—monarchy” (emphasis in original para. 542). He explains this by linking the monarch with what might be called the divine, in that his “natural” character is one which is inherently the “ultimate self” (para. 280). Therefore, although Hegel promotes the equality of all beings, he also promotes the innate ability for certain individuals to lead “through his birth in the course of nature” (para. 280). In others words, as long as the monarch respects the rights of his subjects, the lineage of monarchy must remain intact.

    The consequences of Macbeth’s disruption of monarchy are seen throughout the play, but most particularly in the way it also disturbs nature. Owls shriek (2.2.3), storms erupt strong enough to blow down chimneys (2.3.56), horses become cannibalistic (2.4.18), and the “earth/ Was feverous and did shake” (2.3.61-62). A discussion between Ross and the Old Man highlights the link between the murderous deed and the disruption of nature, when the Old Man states, “’Tis unnatural,/ Even like the deed that’s done” (2.4.10-11). As Macbeth embarks on mass-murder, becoming what Malcolm calls “the butcher,” it is clear that he has not only disrupted the order of monarchy but eliminated any ability for his Scotland to be an ethical state. In Hegelian terms, he has put his individual subjective needs not only before the welfare of the universal, but in place of the state itself.

    However, if the only issue causing anxiety in the play involved sovereignty and monarchy, then this unease would be relieved in the end as Malcolm takes his rightful place as king. And yet, and yet, as Greenblatt says (112). Clearly, the restoration of monarchy does not resolve this anxiety. While perhaps some of this apprehension may stem from the type of character embodied in Malcolm, for as Rosenbaum notes, “pale and diminished are the survivors, in contrast with the size and grandeur of the dead” (652), I contend that there is more at work here. For, if the restoration of the state does not allay the audience’s anxiety, then the “solution” to the other large theme of the work must be the cause. And, here is where this discussion must not only return to Adelman’s concept of the “excised female,” but look forward to feminist interpretations of Hegel’s lord and bondsman dichotomy.

    3MacDonald avoids much of the ambiguity seen at the end of Midsummer Night’s Dream. While she is correct in portraying Theseus as the representative of both the state and of reason, his infamous speech in praise of reason at the expense of imagination and poetry is highly problematic—as he is a mythical figure himself (5.1.2-22).

    Feminist Appropriations of the Master/Slave Binary and Macbeth

    Arguably the most famous feminist discussion of the master and slave dichotomy is Beauvoir’s Second Sex.4 It is also perhaps one of the most reviled feminist works. Anti-feminists assert that she casts man in the role as villain or dismiss her as merely attaching herself to the work done by her long-term partner Sartre. Feminist critiques often center on what can be read as her essentialist notion of the feminine, while also rejecting her work as a mere substitution of the master/slave dichotomy with the male/female one. However, I agree with Bauer’s contention that Beauvoir does not merely supplant slave with female; instead she adapts Hegel’s master/slave dialectic to say something new about the subjugation of women. Before discussing the ways in which Beauvoir uses Hegel, an explanation of the lord and bondsman relationship as discussed in Phenomenology of Spirit will be given.

    “Lordship and Bondage” serves as Hegel’s explanation as to why the two categories of lord and bondsman exist—and here he is referring to a specific historical time period—for the question does not rest with why there is a master but why a slave submits to his position in this dichotomy. It begins with the self-awareness of one subject that self-consciousness exists. When two individuals happen upon each other, they each become aware of not only the other, but that they are viewed as the other. From that point on, selfconsciousness “exists only in being acknowledged” (para. 178). As both desire to be the subject, the solution to this dilemma is to negate the other. They enter into a fight to the death, for only in eliminating the other can they also eliminate being viewed as an other. However, “the trial by death” does not resolve the conflict, for in the death of the other, no one remains to recognize the subject (para. 188). Hence, “self-consciousness learns that life is as essential to it as pure selfconsciousness” (para. 189). Once this lesson is learned, it is inevitable that one of the two will back away from death, becoming the bondsman. The one who has risked his life becomes the lord.

    While in all outward appearances the lord has the power, Hegel makes an interesting turn here in claiming that the bondsman is closer to truth. The lord is dependent on the bondsman for not only his labor and the items it produces, but also for his identity. Additionally, his identity comes into question upon the realization that “the object in which the lord has achieved his lordship has in reality turned out to be something quite different from an independent consciousness” (para. 192). If the other is dependent, then his own self-consciousness is in turmoil. In contrast, the bondsman exists purely for his labor and is tied to the land; his identity is not constructed in relation to the lord, but to his work. Hence, he is “transformed into a truly independent consciousness” (para. 193).

    This elevation of the bondsman reveals a humanist perspective, which is often seen in Hegel’s other works as well. In Philosophy of Right, he states that “freedom should exist, that it should be man (and not as in Greece, Rome, etc. some men) that is recognized and legally regarded as a person” (emphasis in original para. 539). Yet, it is difficult to ignore, that despite the elevated consciousness he grants the bondsman, the bondsman in practice is subjugated.

    It is with this point that Beauvoir begins her discussion of the master/slave dialectic as a male/female relationship. Second Sex begins with her understanding that in defining herself she must always first state: “I am a woman” (xxi). In asserting herself as a woman, she is in some way defining herself as “not man”; in contrast, a male never defines himself with the statement: “I am a man.” This statement does not need to be made, for maleness is of “no peculiarity” (xxi). Therefore, she declares in her introduction: “He is the Subject, he is the Absolute—she is the Other” (xxii).

    At first, as Bauer notes, her discussion of the male/female dichotomy aligns with the Hegelian notion of the master and slave. Just as the lord defines the bondsman in relation to himself (and is ultimately troubled by just how much the bondsman differs from this construction), Beauvoir begins with the statement that “man defines woman not in herself but as relative to him,” and then spends the latter half of her tome detailing how unlike that construction woman truly is (xxii). Hence, in what Bauer calls the simplistic reading of Beauvoir, “Men are subjects and women are objects and that ending the oppression of women requires that they become subjects” (Bauer 80-81).

    However, even this crude interpretation of Beauvoir, when applied to Macbeth, helps to illuminate the causes of anxiety at its closing. If man is master and woman is slave, then a reciprocal recognition is required according to Hegel. They are dependent on each other in many ways, but most notably in terms of selfconsciousness. Hence, if as Adelman has shown, the female is eliminated from Macbeth, creating an all-male realm, then this would be akin to the Hegelian idea of negating the other in the death trial. As a reminder, Hegel posits that in the death of the other, there is no one left to acknowledge one’s subjectivity, thereby causing an unstable self-consciousness. There can be no subject without the other, and therefore applying even a simplistic view of Beauvoir, there can be no male without the female. Only anxiety remains when an all-male realm has been achieved at the end of Macbeth, for an “allmale” realm cannot thrive. With the elimination of the other, there can be no subject—leaving the audience to wonder precisely of what this realm consists.

    However, while this simplistic statement may be where Beauvoir begins, this is far from where she concludes. Instead, by furthering Eva Lundgren-Gothlin’s work in Sex and Existence: Simone de Beauvoir’s Second Sex (1991), Bauer posits that woman actually escapes the master/slave dialectic. Bauer emphasizes the following passage in Second Sex: “This dream incarnated is precisely woman. She is the wished-for intermediary between nature, which is foreign to man, and the fellow [semblable] who is too identical to him….Thanks to her there is a means of escaping from the implacable dialectic of master and slave” (140-141). As Beauvoir explains in the chapter entitled “Myths,” before the invention of slavery, men and women were in a reciprocal and dependent relationship. He was not master to her slave, although this mutual dependency may mirror Hegel’s dialectic. Instead, as Bauer points out, he venerated her and feared the power she has over him (196). As he recognizes his dependency on her, the relationship cannot be labeled as master and slave, for in Hegel’s dialectic the lord never understands his dependency on the bondsman. However, once slavery is established, the male/female relationship shifts. She cannot take on the role of slave as she is at an economic disadvantage with her innate skill set. Yet, she is still essential to man as an escape from whatever role he plays in the master/slave dialectic, for Beauvoir states, “He is himself the slave of his double” (719). Therefore, she claims that it becomes increasingly essential for the man to subjugate the woman—to keep her as a source of escape. Beauvoir writes, “He is seeking in her the myth of his virility, of his sovereignty, of his reality” (719). However, while she is a source of escape for man, she has actually escaped the master/slave dialectic, leading to Beauvoir’s claim that she is the absolute other, or Other. To be clear, by escaping the role of slave, woman is in no better of a position, for an inequality exists in the male/female relationship: “The truth is that for man she is an amusement, a pleasure, company, an inessential boon; he is for her the meaning, the justification of her existence” (722).

    This unequal and disparate relationship may refer back to Hegel’s notion of the lord and bondsman; however, the dichotomy presented by Beauvoir cannot be philosophically glossed over by elevating the consciousness of the woman. Instead, the implications of man needing woman but only as a pleasure, highlights her diminished role in society. While man may require her as a source of escape, she is an escape from the “real” struggle of life—that which occurs between and among men. She is extemporaneous and runs the risk of being disposable. Beauvoir does not conclude with this thought; instead, she closes as many theoretical texts concerning any variant of the master/slave dialectic do: with a hopeful look forward. She argues for man and woman to be “equal in concrete matters” and states that “when we abolish the slavery of half of humanity, together with the whole system of hypocrisy that it implies, then the ‘division’ of humanity will reveal its genuine significance, and the human couple will find its true form” (731). Beauvoir’s emphasis aligns closely to that of Hegel; however, while she issues a call to action for her readers to enact in the future, he underscores the enlightenment that has come from the past. He claims the purposive nature of history, as throughout history an increased understanding of selfconsciousness, freedom, and who can embody the free consciousness has occurred.

    This idea is echoed in MacDonald’s reading of Hegel, in which she states that Philosophy of Right does not point to Antigone as a “final resting point… . Instead, a fully rational ethical life is one that recognizes the subjectivity of all its subjects,” both men and women (17-18). This understanding allows MacDonald to find Shakespeare’s Athens to be one of enlightenment and equality. However, as stated above, Midsummer Night’s Dream does not end with a lack of ambiguity; the recognition by the state of “the subjectivity of all its subjects” is problematic even here. Further, the issue of gender and its relationship to the state plagues Macbeth more so than in Midsummer Night’s Dream. That problem is mirrored in Beauvoir’s words above, for while she argues for the abolishment of female slavery, another solution to that problem is hinted at throughout her text: the elimination of the female all together. Hence, this tendency to look forward to an ethical realm, although understandable, does not bear out in the reality of Beauvoir or the art of Shakespeare.

    Where we truly are at the closing of Macbeth is a much more terrifying existence. In the elimination of the female, Shakespeare has offered what Beauvoir only implies could occur. If she is only a mere escape from the master/slave dialectic, as Beauvoir claims, then woman’s value is not only untenable but her existence is in jeopardy. As seen in Adelman’s argument, the fantasy of the all-male family and all-male realm plays itself out in Macbeth, a fantasy in which there is no need or room for the feminine. If a world can be created where she is no longer needed for childbirth (the biology of which both Hegel and Beauvoir discuss as being essential to her intrinsic value), and she is merely a source of pleasure (meaning inessential), then the woman truly can be excised.

    While Adelman calls this a solution to the question of masculinity, instead this Hegelian analysis of the state and the master/slave dialectic demonstrates that Shakespeare’s construction of the all-male realm illuminates how unstable the enactment of this fantasy is. In Macbeth, the female has been eliminated because she no longer serves her purpose in validating the myth of the surviving male characters’ virility, sovereignty, and reality—for it has been proven to be just that, a myth. Although the fantasy involves eradicating any gender confusion and disruption, instead the characters that remain and the hope of the realm that they will create can only be a paltry form of the state. While the surviving male characters may have viewed this fantasy as a solution, the enactment of the fantasy instead terrifies its audience. It is woman’s absence that calls the sovereignty of the state into question. It is her elimination that highlights the problems of gender roles and expectations. And, more importantly, it is her excision that causes the anxiety in Macbeth’s audience, for the enactment of the fantasy does not match up with what anyone expected it to be.

    4A note about capitalization: Some theorists capitalize “master” and “slave” (or “lord” and “bondsman”), either to imply an absolute relationship or in reference to Hegel’s characterization. For clarity, I will not be capitalizing these categories, unless I am referring to the actual chapter in Hegel entitled “Lordship and Bondage.” This becomes more important as Beauvoir makes a great distinction between “other” and “Other,” and I want that difference to be supported through the use of capitalization.

  • 1. Adelman Janet 1987 “‘Born of Woman’: Fantasies of Maternal Power in Macbeth.” Cannibals, Witches, and Divorce: Estranging the Renaissance. Ed. Marjorie Garber. P.90-121 google
  • 2. Bauer Nancy 2001 Simone de Beauvoir, Philosophy, and Feminism. google
  • 3. Beauvoir Simone de 1989 The Second Sex. 1952. Trans. and Ed. H. M. Parshley. google
  • 4. Garber Marjorie 2004 “Macbeth.” Shakespeare after All. P.695-723 google
  • 5. Garber Marjorie 2008 “Macbeth: The Necessity of Interpretation.” Shakespeare and Modern Culture. P.86-107 google
  • 6. Greenblatt Stephen 1993 “Shakespeare Bewitched.” New Historical Literary Study: Essays on Reproducing Texts, Representing History. Ed. Jeffrey N. Cox and Larry J. Reynolds. P.108-35 google
  • 7. Hegel G. W. F. 1974 Philosophy of Right. Hegel: The Essential Writings. Ed Frederick G. Weiss. google
  • 8. Hegel G. W. F. 1977 Phenomenology of Spirit. Trans. A.V. Miller. google
  • 9. Kaufmann Walter 1959 From Shakespeare to Existentialism. google
  • 10. Liston William T. (1989) “‘Male and Female Created He Them’: Sex and Gender in ‘Macbeth.’” [College Literature] Vol.16 P.232-39 google
  • 11. MacDonald Sara. 2008 Finding Freedom: Hegelian Philosophy and the Emancipation of Women. google
  • 12. Rosenbaum Ron 2006 The Shakespeare Wars. google
  • 13. Rosenberg Marvin 1978 The Masks of Macbeth. google
  • 14. Shakespeare William 1990 Macbeth. Ed. Nicholas Brooke. google
  • 15. Shakespeare William 2008 The Norton Shakespeare: Based on the Oxford Edition. 2nd ed. Eds. Stephen Greenblatt, et al. google
  • 16. Stallybrass Peter 1996 “Macbeth and Witchcraft.” Shakespeare’s Late Tragedies: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Susanne L. Wofford. P.104-18 google
  • 17. 2002 Tragedy of Macbeth. Roman Polanski. Columbia, 1971. google