Macbeth and Manliness Essay

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One of the organizing themes of Macbeth is the theme of manliness: the word and its cognates reverberate through the play. Where it is deeply affirmative for Hamlet to say of his father. "He was a man ....", in Macbeth Shakespeare exposes the ambiguities and the perils in a career premised upon "manliness." At the first of the play, Macbeth's "manly" actions in war are not contradictory to a general code of humaneness or "kind-ness" irrespective of gender: but as the play develops, his moral degeneration is dramatized as a perversion of a code of manly virtue, so that by the end he seems to have forfeited nearly all of his claims on the race itself. Lady Macbeth initiates this disjunction of "manly" from "humane" by calling Macbeth's manhood (in a narrowly sexual sense) into question: he responds by renouncing all humane considerations, and, when he learns that he cannot be killed by any man of woman born, this renunciation of human kinship and its moral constraints is complete. Other figures in the play-Banquo's murderers, Malcolm, Macduff-to some extent follow Macbeth in his disjunction of aggressive manliness from humaneness (the virtues that distinguish the race). The play ends with Macbeth restored as a tragic villain to human-kind, and Shakespeare's question remains open for the audience if not for Macbeth's killers: what is a man, and of what is he capable as part of his sex and of his race? The most moving tributes the characters in Shakespeare's plays pay to each other are often the very simplest. The ambiguities in Antony's position as eulogist do not really undercut his eulogy of Brutus, "This was a man"-and nothing Hamlet says in the high style is as eloquent of his love for his father, of his grief, of the nobility of his own frustrated aspirations as that quiet declaration to Horatio-"He was a man, take him for all in all. I shall not look upon his
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