Mutuality and Patriarchy in the Renaissance Family and Shakespeare's Macbeth

By Nicole Rogers, December 1996

The essay that follows was researched and written by Nicole Rogers as part of the course on Shakespeare by Individual Studies, 1996; it is reprinted here with her permission. While copyright is retained by Nicole Rogers and the University of Victoria, this material may freely be used for educational and non-profit purposes, so long as the author and source are cited.
Please remember that plagiarism is not research.

Since the beginning of recorded time, the basic human distinction in human social order has revolved around gender; our sex at birth determines the role we will play in our society, the status we will hold in our culture, and even the structure of our daily lives. The biological reality that women can give birth and men cannot has led to a habitual consciousness of two sex classes, and, in the past, these two classes coexisted with equality in co-operative communities; however, Marilyn French contends in The War on Women that as men began to build what would become patriarchy, or "male supremacy built by force," the female class became disempowered, marginalised, and subjugated to the will of the male class (9). Further, our Western creation myth not only celebrates male dominance over the natural world and those associated with nature, namely women, but also justifies "a male assault" against women by declaring that God *made* women subordinate to men by endowing men with reason, logic, and intellect while giving women traits that subvert proper order and rationality: chaotic emotionality, passion, and weakness (17). These arbitrary "gender principles," as French labels them, backed by religion and the state, have turned the dichotomy of the sexes into a battle between the two opposing spheres rather than a harmonisation of the masculine and feminine into an organic whole.

Though the male/female dichotomy is evident in every category of social existence, there is an exceptional awareness of the split and its implications expressed in the Shakespearean canon. For many feminist critics, including Juliet Dusinberre, Shakespeare's works are particularly compelling in that he "saw the men and women as equal in a world which declared them unequal" (Dusinberre 308). Though feminists disagree on how consciously Shakespeare explores patriarchy in his work, it is difficult to ignore the compelling questions that arise from Shakespeare's consideration of the moral qualities inherent in each gender in an age where the male/female split takes on immense social and political implications. Whether playfully resolved in the comedies or brutally exposed in the tragedies, at some level, all Shakespeare's works symbolically explore the conflict between male and female, or control and emotion, within society and the individual self (Novy 3); however, it is in the tragedies that Shakespeare moves beyond merely reflecting a woman's need to transcend socially imposed limitations to an in depth exploration of the dangers inherent in a worldview that prescribes the extreme devaluation and expulsion of the feminine in order to maintain masculine power and domination (200). In particular, Shakespeare's Macbeth is a play in which the masculine-centred world of the protagonist metaphorically and literally reflects the miserable alienation of both men and women when a fear of the feminine within society and themselves leads to chaotic disorder and the death of the soul.

In order to first understand the world Shakespeare wrote from and about, I will briefly discuss the male/female dichotomy within the Renaissance. Gender distinctions can be traced throughout Western history, but it is in a new conception of the family in the sixteenth century that patriarchy gains particular strength and momentum, and the widening split between male and female becomes institutionalised by the Church and state. Characterised by what Lawrence Stone describes as a shift from the "Open Lineage Family" to the "Restricted Patriarchal Nuclear Family," the family unit, beginning about 1530, turns from its loyalties to kin, lineage, and local community to a more universal allegiance to the Church and state (7). As the nuclear core family increases and its boundaries become more clearly defined, the family unit becomes an institution and metaphor central to the Renaissance concept of order; for the state, the decline of kinship-based loyalties means an increase in patriotic obligations and obedience to the sovereign, and for the Church, Christian values are brought within the home and sanctified by marriage (123). In the end, the microcosm of an inward-turning social unit with a male head paralleled the Protestant-directed "drive for the christianisation of society and the political "expansion of the bureaucratic nation state," and the nuclear family became the chief instrument for centralising authority within these powerful groups (132). Suddenly, a man, his wife, and their children became the most basic foundation of society, and it was the proper and moral ordering of this unit that would bring perfection and order to the Church and state in a time of immense transition and overlapping sensibilities.

As an institution central to the Renaissance concept of order, the family and the gender distinctions it encourages also become important to Shakespeare's exploration of the ironies and paradoxes inherent in a system that professes to value the husband and wife as a co-operative unit while at the same time encouraging the subjugation of the woman to the man. On the surface, it would seem as though the focus on a more organic relationship would increase the status of the wife and the feminine gender principles, and, to some extent, women did become increasingly significant in the Renaissance as contributing members of the family and, therefore, society; however, it was the external pressures concerned with the proper moral ordering of the family that created problematic paradoxes in terms of gender distinctions. While an increased focus on the family in the Renaissance did create the concept of an *ideal* marriage based on companionship and sharing, at the same time more traditionally valued gender associations continued to reinforce patriarchy within the family, even strengthening the power of the male over his family to the point of making him what Stone refers to as a "legalized petty tyrant within the home" (7).

For example, this paradox is lucidly illustrated by William Perkins' assertions on the "right ordering of a family" according to "the written word of God" in Christian Economy (157); as a well-respected and famous Puritan preacher and writer of the second half of the sixteenth century, Perkins' influential rules were widely "read and practised whenever possible by godly Puritans" (Intro. to Perkins 152). Perkins called for a "communion of man and wife...whereby they do mutually and willingly communicate both their persons and goods each to [the] other for their mutual help, necessity, and comfort," while at the same time referring to the female as the inferior sex (169); the wife's first duty includes submission to her husband and the acknowledgement of him as "her head in all things," and her second obligation, Perkins maintains, is to be unquestioningly obedient to her husband "as the Church yields obedience to Christ...to be commanded, governed, and directed" (172, 173). Though Perkins was a Puritan preacher, the Anglican marriage ceremony was equally paradoxical in terms of its definition of the appropriate relationship between husband and wife; the "Form of Solemnization of Matrimony" in The Book of Common Prayer lists the third reason for marriage as being "for the mutual society, help, and comfort that one ought to have of the other," while later expecting the wife to vow eternal obedience and servitude to her husband (5, 6).

Though never completely abandoning his belief in male legitimacy, Shakespeare does seem to consciously question these conflicting notions of mutuality and patriarchy within his plays and attempts to represent the benefits of authentically harmonising the moral qualities on each side of the gender dichotomy (French, Shakespeare's Division of Experience 17). Particularly in his tragedies, Shakespeare's characters link masculinity with control, strength, and success and femininity with weakness, loss of control, and disorder; in Hamlet manhood suggests self-control and action, and in King Lear the protagonist's definition of self is equally connected to emotional self-control. Lear refuses to let his daughters see "women's weapons, water drops" fall on his "man's cheeks," but it is his inability to show true emotion that drives Lear insane. Despair breaks Lear's heart "into a hundred thousand flaws" before he can be reunited with Cordelia, the symbol of his feminine psyche (2.4.276-7, 284). It is not the universal notions of masculine and feminine that Shakespeare exposes in the comedies, but a much more individualistic exploration that transcends the character's sex; Regan, Goneril, and Lady Macbeth are more "masculine" than many of the men in their respective societies, and, in turn, their lives come to an end as empty and tragic as their male counterparts.

In terms of the paradoxes inherent in the Renaissance's order of gender, it is in the fictional world of Macbeth that Shakespeare takes the characteristics of the gender split within his society's hypocritical ideal and compares them to a fictional social order that is completely based on violent masculine domination and the eradication of the feminine side. Even more so than in Hamlet or King Lear, masculinity is the means to domination and success. Macbeth's world is a masculine one in which the compassionate and life-giving elements of the feminine cannot exist; in fact, to be "of a woman born" is to be mortal in a world where battle-weary heroes cannot afford to be conscious of their mortality (Gohlke 157-8). The play opens with descriptions of battle after battle in which swords "smoked with bloody execution" and men were "unseamed...from the nave to th' chops," and this hellish existence is maintained until the final scene of the play (1.2.18, 22); in this dark, oppressive world, it seems everyone, man or woman, must deny any connection to the feminine sphere in order to survive, but at what cost?

This question is a compelling one; what is crucial to the irony Shakespeare develops in Macbeth is the elimination of the feminine principles which then results in the loss of the traditionally masculine features of honour and trust. Like the Renaissance family's paradoxical order between mutuality and patriarchy, the order in Macbeth's world rests on a precarious foundation composed of heroic honour and loyalty, which demands an emotional connection to king and country, and blood-thirsty coldness and self-denial of the feminine; consequently, this foundation collapses in when Macbeth murders his King. Duncan is a benevolent leader who vows to "labor/ [t]o make [Macbeth] full of growing" for his part in protecting Scotland from outside invaders, and Macbeth himself refers to Duncan as having "faculties so meek" and "clear in his great office, that his virtues/ [w]ill plead like angels trumpet-tongued" once he is dead (1.7.17-9). For Shakespeare, Duncan symbolically represents the successful amalgamation of the masculine and feminine gender principles, but, unfortunately, this mutuality cannot exist in the presence of patriarchy. In a world where male supremacy is being protected by brute force, honour, compassion, and trust cannot survive.

In the end, a definition of masculinity created from an opposition to what is feminine leads to emptiness and alienation. Macbeth murders Duncan in order to define himself as a man, yet in doing so, he denies a vital part of himself and must suffer the repercussions of that act; without his life partner, his friends and colleagues, Macbeth tragically faces his death alone and desolate. A world that maintains itself through patriarchy must separate from any idea of mutuality at some point in order to survive (French, Shakepeare's 243); thus, the ideal order of the gender principles in Shakespeare's England are equally doomed to failure. Whether or not Shakespeare was conscious of the dangers of patriarchy, his plays definitely anticipate the chaos and disorder that will eventually surface as tensions between mutuality and female subjugation increase to the breaking point; we are still dealing with this problem today. Mutuality is the answer to the family and society's identity crisis, but until masculine and feminine gender associations are viewed as equally beneficial in our society, authentic mutual subjectivity between two people will never come to be a reality.


Works Cited

  1. Dusinberre, Juliet. Shakespeare and the Nature of Women. London: Macmillan, 1975.
  2. "The Form of Solemnization of Matrimony from The Book of Common Prayer." Daughters, Wives and Widows: Writings by Men about Women and Marriage in England, 1500-1640. Ed. Joan Larsen Klein. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1992. 3-10.
  3. French, Marilyn. Shakespeare's Division of Experience. New York: Summit Books, 1981.
  4. ------. The War on Women. New York: Summit Books, 1992.
  5. Gohlke, Madelon. "'I wooed thee with my sword': Shakespeare's Tragic Paradigms." The Woman's Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare. Eds. Carolyn Ruth Swift Lenz, et al. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1980. 154-167.
  6. Novy, Marianne L. Love's Argument: Gender Relations in Shakespeare. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984.
  7. Perkins, William. "Christian Economy." Daughters, Wives, and Widows. Ed. Joan Larsen Klein. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1992. 151-173.
  8. Shakespeare, William. King Lear. Ed. Russell Fraser. New York: Signet, 1987.
  9. -----. Macbeth. Ed. Sylvan Barnet. New York: Signet, 1963.
  10. Stone, Lawrence. The Family, Sex and Marriage in England, 1500-1800. New York: Harper and Row, 1977.

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This page last updated 9 April 1997.