The Role of “Manhood” and Gender Concepts in Macbeth – British Library



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Macbeth is the tragedy of a man torn apart and destroyed by the conflicting conceptions of masculinity at war within him. But it’s also a tragedy that glimpses beyond that conflict the prospect of humanity’s liberation from the destructive male fantasies that still plague it and threaten its survival.

In case the play’s obsession with manhood escapes us, Shakespeare enlists that scurrilous wise fool the Porter to bring it into focus. In the immediate aftermath of Duncan’s murder and its traumatic impact on Macbeth, as the dreadful knocking at the gate subsides, the self-styled ‘porter of Hell Gate’ (2.3.2) treats Macduff to an incongruous comic lecture on the fate booze has in store for the sexually aroused male:

Lechery, sir, it provokes and unprovokes: it provokes the desire, but it takes away the performance. Therefore much drink may be said to be an equivocator with lechery: it makes him and it mars him; it sets him on, and it takes him off; it persuades him, and disheartens him; makes him stand to, and not stand too; in conclusion, equivocates him in a sleep, and giving him the lie, leaves him. (2.3.29–36)

But on closer inspection the Porter’s lewd gag turns out to be anything but incongruous. What it provides, in the guise of light relief from the tension of the preceding scenes, is a vulgar comic version of Macbeth’s tragic plight. In a sly plebeian parody of the play’s ‘imperial theme’ (1.3.129) Macbeth’s disabling agonies of conscience before and after killing his king are reduced to the embarrassment of impotent lust. This covert caricature of Macbeth’s ‘Thriftless ambition’ (2.4.28), which fails to be satisfied by regicide, as a failure to translate desire into deed by maintaining an erection, pinpoints what’s ultimately at stake in this tragedy: male power and masculinity itself.”


Article from the British Library exploring the role “manhood” and “conceptions of masculinity” play in Shakespeare’s tragedy, Macbeth.


  • Kiernan Ryan


  • Manhood and the ‘milk of human kindness’ in Macbeth


  • British Library


  • No date.


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