Discuss how the characters Lady Macbeth in Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Gertrude in Hardy’s The Withered Arm change during the course of the texts. Explore the similarities and differences between the characters and explain the changes in relation to the contexts.
In both the play “Macbeth” by William Shakespeare and the short story “The Withered Arm” by Thomas Hardy change is a reoccurring theme. Both the main female characters Lady Macbeth and Gertrude Lodge go through a sequence of changes over the course of each text which can be linked to the contexts in which the texts were written in as in both the Jacobean era and the Victorian era women lived in a patriarchal society and were below men hieratically and the idea of the perfect woman and the requirements that are associated with that play a large part in the characterisation of both Gertrude and Lady Macbeth. Lady Macbeth is an over-ambitious and immoral character however as a woman in the Jacobean period her ambition was essentially useless because women were powerless and lived a life that was sub-ordinate to men. Her ambition is only valuable when Macbeth puts power behind it and once he does this she subsequently has a mental breakdown and kills herself. Her character was a type of warning to the Jacobean female audience to reinforce the consequences of a woman stepping out of line in society. Gertrude Lodge also changes however she goes from being the ideal and perfect beautiful obedient Victorian wife to being a disobedient and disfigured and although the changes she goes through are different, the outcome is the same as she dies as a result of her disobedience similarly to Lady Macbeth, her death was likely a warning against woman stepping out of line. I will explore the similarities and differences between the characters and how they both change throughout the play.
Both Lady Macbeth and Gertrude have a clear understanding of their expected place in society, and how they are expected to behave. In Act 1 scene 5 Lady Macbeth shows her awareness of her role as a female in society when she says “Shake my fell purpose” and continues to express her dislike of how she is expected to act by saying “Unsex me here” implying that her gender is holding her back from something positive. From the very beginning of the play she is displaying a dislike against her role in the patriarchy and showing no sign of living up to how she is supposed to act as a woman. She further shows her more masculine and unwomanly side in the same scene as she encourages Macbeth by saying, “Thou wouldst be great, / Art not without ambition.” She continues to erode her obedience to the ideal Jacobean woman as she takes a very feminine and motherly act of breast feeding and turns it into an appeal to the supernatural as she says “Come to my woman's breasts, / And take my milk for gall,”. Although Lady Macbeth shows full understanding of her place in society, she does not put on any kind of front to protect this image and seemingly has no loyalty to this image. Contrastingly to Lady Macbeth, Gertrude in the beginning is the ideal Victorian wife. Victorian wives were expected to be beautiful and obedient, both traits Gertrude undeniably possesses at the beginning. She is aware of her beauty and how important it is to maintain it in order to remain loyal to her title as a good wife. Farmer Lodge says to her “O yes you must expect to be stared at just at first my pretty Gertrude” to which she replies “I do,” she holds her beauty very highly and expects to be sought after and stared at. A large difference between the two characters is that Lady Macbeth begins the play by in no way embodying the ideal Jacobean woman however Gertrude at the beginning holds her association with being the perfect wife very highly. Similarly, at the end they also have opposite characterisations from both each other and their own characters at the beginning of each text as Lady Macbeth has swapped her evil and more masculine side for a guilt-ridden, weak and feminine character as opposed to Gertrude who has become horribly disfigured, disobedient and superstitious.
Both Lady Macbeth and Gertrude are presented with situations in which remaining within the expectations of society would not benefit them. Lady Macbeth is presented with a position of power as the wife of the King. She has as much ambition as Macbeth, if not more. To behave as a moral Jacobean woman would not further her ambition for “the golden round.” Although not actually that powerful a position it is the highest position she can obtain as a woman and she is almost desperate to do so. Gertrude is presented with the opportunity to remove the disfigurement that she says she “shouldn’t mind so much” if she “hadn’t the notion it makes her husband dislike me-no, love me less” with the objective of winning back her husbands love she would have to stray away from her perfect and essentially ideal characterisation as she would have to disobey her husband, as he told her to stay home. At first she rejects the idea of appealing to the supernatural and when she finds out Conjuror Trendle’s methods are unorthodox and involve the supernatural she says “O, how could my people be so superstitious as to recommend someone of that sort!” Farmer Lodge had also expressed an implication of a dislike and disbelief as he mocks the reliability of Gertrude’s “apothecary messes and witch mixtures” after he expresses his disbelief in the quality of Gertrude’s cure attempts Gertrude tries to be obedient, like a good Victorian wife, but she still thinks of the cures however she still “obediently destroyed” them.