Subverting Authority and Gender Binaries in Macbeth

Grace Lapointe
10 min readMay 1, 2023

Grace Lapointe

CN: mention of cannibalism, infanticide, death in childbirth, genitals, sexism, LGBTQIA-misia, antisemitism, and ableism.

[Author’s note: In April, my coworker at Book Riot, Leah Rachel von Essen, published a great essay analyzing the origins of Malleus Maleficarum (Latin for Hammer of Witches).

The Malleus equated witches with “heresy” (here, meaning any spiritual or religious practices other than Roman Catholicism), with midwives, and with women’s bodily autonomy in general.

At least one author of the Malleus was an Inquisitor, although, as the BR article notes, the Inquisition officially rejected the book. The Inquisition also equated Jewish people and many Jewish traditions with witchcraft.

Reading this article, I remembered that I mentioned the Malleus Maleficarum in an essay about William Shakespeare’s Macbeth. I wrote it in fall 2010 for Helga Duncan’s Shakespeare course at Stonehill College and presented it in April 2011 at Stonehill’s Undergrad Literary Conference. I’ve copied the essay below but edited it slightly now. Like with my 2009 essay on The Left Hand of Darkness, I’d write it differently today. So, I tried to edit out any language that seemed unintentionally trans-exclusionary.

My thesis: it’s not “femininity,” which is hard to define anyway, that’s a threat to power in Macbeth. It’s more generally anyone who confounds or defies gender binaries and hierarchies. The play itself supports this reading — for example, when Banquo meets the witches and struggles to characterize their gender(s). As white, cis men created these hierarchies, they placed themselves at the top. Thanks for reading, as always!]

At the beginning of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the witches represent a visible and menacing threat to masculine order and authority. They create chaos and disorder, live independently from men, and appear to have magical powers that stem from their femininity. However, while the witches are visibly otherworldly, by the end of Act 1, Lady Macbeth embodies a destructive, power that seeks to subvert motherhood and challenge men’s authority. She exhibits characteristics frequently attributed to witches in the early modern period: she calls on evil spirits to suppress her maternal instincts, including her own capacity for nurturing children. This implicit link between Lady Macbeth and the witches reflects early modern fears of women gaining political and physical power. Through the characters of Lady Macbeth and the witches in Macbeth, Shakespeare portrays anyone not easily categorized as a cisgender man as a source of destructive power and a threat to masculine authority.

From their first appearance in the play, the witches signal an inversion of the accepted social and moral order. Their cryptic usage of language shows that they are trying to undermine the authority of language. At the end of the opening scene, they say, “Fair is foul, and foul is fair” (1. 1.10). By yoking together opposites, they try to make language meaningless while suggesting that good and evil are morally equivalent. Their words presage the characters’ amoral actions later in the play. The witches also challenge the expected social order because they are impossible to categorize as either male or female. When Banquo first meets the witches, he says, “You should be women,/And yet your beards forbid me to interpret/That you are so” (1.3.42–44). Because they defy gender expectations and classifications, the witches immediately signal a threat to order and stability.

Paradoxically, the witches gain control over Macbeth by appealing to his masculinity and his desire for power. They greet him, saying, “Hail, Macbeth, that shall be king hereafter!” (1.3.48–49). By greeting Macbeth using titles that he has not yet attained, the witches pique his curiosity and manipulate his desire for power. By speaking cryptically to Macbeth and withholding information from him, the witches gain control over him. In the play, language and information are sources of authority. By speaking obliquely to Macbeth, the witches make him feel insecure but also increase his longing for power.

The witches’ equivocation of opposites in the first scene is also an indirect reference to the early modern belief that witches inverted the social and moral hierarchy. The three witches in Macbeth fit three of the most common criteria for witches in early modern Europe: they are “female, older, and poor” (Wiesner 280). Women who were accused of witchcraft were frequently widows, unmarried, or independent from male authority in some other way. Merry Wiesner views witchcraft as a product of women’s legal and social disenfranchisement. Women’s perceived physical weakness, as well as their lower social status, made them more likely to become witches.

During the early modern era, one of the most popular texts on witchcraft was Malleus Maleficarum, published by two German Inquisitors in the late fifteenth century (266). Malleus Maleficarum claimed that women were much more likely than men to be witches because they were particularly susceptible to evil. Thus, not only were almost all witches female, but women in general also had capabilities which made them “potential witches” (276). These beliefs elaborated on Christian teachings that blamed Eve for the fall of man and the entry of sin and death into the world (24). Witches passed down their spells from mother to daughter, parodying the ways sons inherited property and family trades from their fathers. While men held authority, women, particularly witches, were often associated with disorder and chaos.

In addition to rejecting their predetermined social role, witches attempted to use magic to subvert reproduction and motherhood. Many people believed that witches’ practices were corruptions of women’s traditional duties. Because women cared for children, elderly people, and animals, who could die unexpectedly, they were often accused of casting deadly spells. A woman’s role as a caretaker ironically contributed to the impression that she was a dangerous witch. Witches’ spells often directly attacked maternity and fertility: they caused milk to curdle and menstruation to stop, and they created herbal potions that were supposed to induce abortions (270). Witches drew power from their biological differences from cisgender men — which supposedly made them weak — to create destructive spells.

The seemingly miscellaneous ingredients of the witches’ spells in Macbeth reflect beliefs that associate witches with infanticide and cannibalism. The witches put a bizarre mixture of human and animal organs into their cauldron: “Nose of Turk, and Tartar’s lips/Finger of birth-strangled babe/Ditch-delivered by a drab” (4.1.26–31). The references to Tartars and Turks align the witches with a religious otherness. The “birth-strangled babe” echoes the belief that witches helped unmarried, pregnant women have abortions. The line suggests that a mother murdered her own baby, in contrast to the accusation that witches sometimes killed infants to use in their rituals. Instead of being solely responsible for the subversion of motherhood, the witches apparently draw their power from the destructive actions and desires of other women.

The witches’ link with maternity also associates them with Lady Macbeth. In Suffocating Mothers, Janet Adelman writes that in Macbeth, “maternal power is diffused throughout the play, evoked primarily by the figures of the witches and Lady Macbeth” (Adelman 131). Like the witches who draw on their reproductive ability to cause destruction, Lady Macbeth tries to subdue her own body’s nurturing capacities. When she persuades her husband to murder King Duncan, she articulates her desire to “unsex” herself as both a physiological and psychological suppression of her innately maternal qualities:

Come, you spirits

That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,

And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full

Of direst cruelty. Make thick my blood,

Stop up th’access and passage to remorse,

That no compunctious visitings of nature

Shake my fell purpose (1.5.39–44).

Lady Macbeth’s desire to stop “th’access and passage to remorse,” combined with her reference to her blood, recall witches’ spells that supposedly stopped the menstrual cycle. Rather than being socially constructed, qualities such as remorse and gentleness are inherent to her biological makeup. The phrase “compunctious visitings of nature” conflates her reproductive cycle with the pangs of conscience, implying that both are disruptive and biological. She invokes evil spirits to suppress these qualities, yet this requires her to pervert and destroy her nature. Adelman calls Lady Macbeth’s speech “an attack on the reproductive passages of her own body, on what makes her specifically female” (Garber 98). Adelman offers two possible glosses of Lady Macbeth’s line “take my milk for gall” later in the same speech (1.5.46): she could be invoking the demonic spirits to replace her milk with gall or asking them to use it because it actually is gall (98). If one follows the second interpretation, then it would be superfluous for Lady Macbeth to ask spirits to transform her because her own body is already toxic to motherhood.

Lady Macbeth further perverts her nurturing, maternal instincts when she speaks hypothetically about murdering her own child: “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 had done to this” (1.7.54–58). This speech is particularly jarring because it is the only time the play mentions that the Macbeths have ever had children. Although the audience does not know whether these infants died or are simply not mentioned, Lady Macbeth apparently did give birth at least once. Because she is trying to persuade Macbeth to prove his masculinity by killing Duncan, she may be speaking hyperbolically. However, she is still fantasizing about killing her child, whether or not she is actually capable of doing so. Her fantasy of infanticide contradicts early modern society’s expectation that women were physically designed to love and protect their children.

The imagery of breastfeeding is particularly disturbing because early modern scholars believed that nursing was one of the main ways women bonded with their children. In the early modern period, many wealthy women did not breastfeed. Fifteenth century Dutch philosopher Desiderius Erasmus urges upper-class women to feed their babies themselves rather than giving them to a wet nurse, saying that it will help them bond emotionally with them: “the son may love thee less, when the natural love is divided as it were between two mothers” (105). Lady Macbeth represents an extreme example of the stereotype that upper-class women became less emotionally attached to their babies than nurses and lower-class mothers.

In addition to corrupting their role as mothers, witches also represent cis het men’s disgust and horror towards people with breasts or vulvas. The writings of Aristotle, which scholars had read in Latin for centuries and were first published in English in the sixteenth century, supported the idea that women were inferior to men. Aristotle regarded women as “imperfect” or “defective” men, calling femininity “a deformity, but one which occurs within the normal course of nature” (Wiesner 18). [Edit 2023: This is also an excellent example of the intersection of sexism, LGBTQIA-misia, and ableism.]

While men were supposed to acquire knowledge, women’s primary function was to conceive and bear children. During the Middle Ages and even into the early modern period, physicians’ limited understanding of biology caused them to dismiss the roles of the uterus and ovaries in reproduction. Although women were seen as defective versions of males, they were necessary to produce children.

Just as medieval writers considered penises superior to ovaries and uteri in reproduction, the fact that Macduff was “not of woman born” makes his mother seem alien and unnecessary. Several times, the witches repeat their prophecy that “None of woman born/ Shall harm Macbeth” (4.1.80–81). Adelman writes that this prophecy functions as “a talisman to ward off danger,” giving Macbeth an unwarranted sense of security (90). This is also one of the play’s most significant examples of the way the witches manipulate language. Macbeth assumes that every person is “of woman born,” and therefore the prophecy means he will be invincible. At the end of the play, just before Macduff kills him, Macbeth says: “What’s he/ That was not born of woman? Such a one/ Am I to fear, or none” (5.7.3–5). Here, the answer to the witches’ prophecy is posed as a riddle, with two completely opposite alternatives. Because he fits the witches’ seemingly impossible criteria, he is the only person who can defeat Macbeth.

By making Macduff kill Macbeth, Shakespeare reinforces the early modern beliefs that linked childbirth with death. Because so many mothers and infants died in childbirth, some physicians viewed birth as “pathological, associated with illness and death” (Wiesner 86). When viewed in this context, Macduff’s origins can be a “fantasy” of a reproductive process that makes the threatening presence of mothers unnecessary (Garber 93). Macduff’s birth by Caesarean section makes the connection to death even more explicit. In Shakespeare’s time, Caesareans were only performed as an emergency measure when the mother was dead or dying (Wiesner 83). When Macduff triumphantly tells Macbeth that he “was from his mother’s womb/ Untimely ripped,” early modern audiences would have immediately known that Macduff’s mother died in childbirth (5.10.14–15). The fact that Macduff’s birth involved almost no female agency gives him the power to become Scotland’s next king.

The witches in Shakespeare’s play Macbeth attempt to weaken men’s moral and political authority, illustrating early modern society’s fears that women would gain and misuse political and social power. However, Lady Macbeth becomes the most prominent figure who subverts motherhood in the play. She describes her nurturing instincts as parts of her own body, reflecting early modern beliefs that saw maternal, nurturing qualities as physiologically constructed. She also links herself with the witches at this moment when she calls on evil spirits to pervert her instincts. Like the witches in early modern legends, Lady Macbeth draws on her physical differences from [cisgender] men to channel her reproductive capabilities into a destructive force. However, by doing this, the play suggests that she is corrupting her own biological nature. Both Lady Macbeth’s invocation and early modern witches’ spells construe female power as a desire to reverse motherhood.

When Macduff defeats Macbeth, his victory marks the beginning of an imaginary era that functions almost entirely without women. Because men were thought to have the more important role in reproduction, Macduff’s birth via Caesarean section downplays his mother’s role. At the same time, the fact that their sexuality seems so threatening acknowledges women’s power. The play raises the issue of maternal power as a destructive force but cannot fully resolve it.

In January 2023, I blogged about the witches in the 2007 Doctor Who episode “The Shakespeare Code.”

Doomfinger, Lilith, and Bloodtide, the three witches from “The Shakespeare Code,” standing around a cauldron. The older-looking, greenish-skinned witches surround Lilith, a young-looking witch in the center. (BBC, Doctor Who)

Works cited:

Adelman, Janet. “Born of Woman: Fantasies of Maternal Power in Macbeth.” Cannibals, Witches, and Divorce: Estranging the Renaissance. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1987.

Adelman, Janet. Suffocating Mothers: Fantasies of Maternal Origin. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Aughterson, Kate (ed.). Renaissance Woman: A Sourcebook. London: Routledge, 1995.

Rose, Mary Beth. “Where are the Mothers in Shakespeare? Options for Gender Representation in the English Renaissance.” Shakespeare Quarterly. Vol. 42, №3 (Autumn, 1991), pp. 291–314.

Wiesner, Merry E. Women and Gender in Early Modern Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.