An Exploration of Femininity in William Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Euripides’ Medea

In Medea and Macbeth, both Euripides and William Shakespeare present central female characters in ways that defied the social conventions of their respective eras, influencing different audiences – ancient, Jacobean and modern alike – to consider universal themes such as the feminine within the context of more traditional, patriarchal societies, and indeed our own.

One of the predominant themes present in Shakespeare’s Macbeth concerns female characters and the ways in which as a sex they are seen and treated. Indeed, in every event in the play –  even those seemingly carried out by men – the hand of one woman or other can be detected; thus, the structure of the play emphasises female agency. For Macbeth, the prime mover in the play’s political change, two influential groups – both female – provide the impulse and motivation for his actions: his wife and the three witches of the ‘blasted heath’.[i] For example, the witches first greet Macbeth with a prophecy and the appearance of premeditation; Shakespeare attaches tremendous strength and dramatic power to their words through techniques that give the impression of a spell being cast: ‘When shall we three meet again? / In thunder, lightning, or in rain?’[ii] Here, trochaic trimeter is used by Shakespeare in order to place the emphasis – and the physical stress – upon ‘when’ and ‘we’. This use of language makes the witches’ actions seem decisive, and the emphasis placed upon the collective pronoun increases the centrality of their efforts, focussing audience attention upon these important female characters in the very first scene. Furthermore, Shakespeare’s playful use of half rhyme – seen in ‘again’ and ‘rain’ – heightens this spell-like quality, adding further strength and power to their dialogue. Without doubt, a Jacobean audience would have been greatly exercised by the appearance of these witches; witchcraft and the occult played greatly upon the popular consciousness of the age and for audiences it was ‘a newly prevalent taste‘.[iii] Indeed, King James I had written a treatise on witchcraft, Daemonologie,[iv] in 1597; this allusion could be seen as Shakespeare appealing to his sovereign’s interests and vanity. A modern audience, by contrast, and one that would largely disbelieve aspects of the supernatural, would be less affected.

Later, Macbeth tells his wife of the prophecy by letter and she demands that the spirits ‘that tend upon mortal thoughts, unsex [her] here’[v] and fill her body full of ‘direst cruelty’.[vi] That the two are presented as analogous is interesting; it demonstrates Shakespeare’s acknowledgement of the traditional roles of women – roles he elects to subvert. In addition, the compound verb, ‘unsex’, creates a sense of loss; this language accentuates still further the subversion of traditional gender roles, continued by Lady Macbeth’s insistence that her husband do as the witches predict. Here, the supernatural and unnatural – additional, related themes – combine; the way women are treated, and Shakespeare’s commentary on gender roles more generally, are the structural foundation for the entire edifice of Macbeth. But in having Lady Macbeth further request that the aforesaid spirits ‘Stop up th’access and passage to remorse’,[vii] Shakespeare suggests that she can only succeed by altering her womanly nature; she must request mettle from the ‘spirits’. This seems to question the ability of women to fulfil their ambitions.


Similarly, while Medea is also a character created within a patriarchal society, Euripides uses features of the text to afford her uncommon importance. Jason, her husband, is a heroic character, respected and powerful enough to marry the king’s daughter, demonstrating the esteem in which the people of Corinth hold him.[viii] Yet Medea, a foreigner and a woman, is presented by Euripides as enjoying equal terms. For example, during the arguments between the two characters, especially at the play’s conclusion, Euripides’ use of a particularly Athenian dramatic technique, stichomythia, emphasises the intensity of the debate between them; but there is more than intensity here. The fact that their words are presented on an equal footing in debate and structure is important; it signifies an unacknowledged equality between two individuals who were at that time considered fundamentally unequal. Thus, the form of the play creates parity between a hero and a future murderess, emphasising the fracturing of Athenian social convention. A modern audience would probably be less perturbed by a man and a woman arguing as implied equals. However, audiences ancient and modern would diverge when evaluating the morality of Jason’s actions. For a modern audience, one for which marriage is popularly seen as a love match and a lifelong commitment, his betrayal of his wife would not be seen in positive terms. Indeed, C.A.E. Luschnig convicts Jason of ‘solipsistic insensitivity’[ix] in marriage.  An Athenian audience, however, would have seen no moral reason to deny Jason the implied honour of marrying above his social station; in fact, such successful social advancement was encouraged in Athenian culture.[x]

In Macbeth, our titular hero is introduced in reference to his wife, who is depicted as Bellona, the Roman goddess of war. In this, at the very start of the text, Macbeth appears secondary – he is merely ‘Bellona’s bridegroom’,[xi] and is described by Shakespeare only through the prism of his wife as Bellona. In addition, this allusion creates a powerful sense of Lady Macbeth’s martial and warlike nature, a trait not associated with women at that time. In fact, she is the power behind the throne in this regard, ‘prick[ing] the sides of [his] intent’[xii] and transforming his ‘vaulting ambition which o’er-leaps itself’.[xiii] Through these images of equine coercion, Shakespeare’s use of language demonstrates how Lady Macbeth galvanises her husband into indulging his own (and her) ambitions. The superiority of man over beast was a central tenement of Christianity in Shakespeare’s era; his use of it here creates a sense of Lady Macbeth’s superiority over her husband. The use of the verb ‘prick’, one which conjures images of the spur and attendant pain, gives a more visceral edge to the manipulation depicted. But there is also a hint of destruction at the heart of this metaphor: Shakespeare suggests that Lady Macbeth’s ambition might doom her husband and herself, deprecating women in positions of power.

For Medea, she too must confront her own agency; one statement of female power is uttered by the Chorus of Corinthian women, who couch their boldness in meek, circumspect language: ‘Though in fact women too have intelligence’.[xiv] Here, the use of the qualifying phrase ‘in fact’ furthers an idea of confrontation, as it appears that this statement – one that, for a modern audience, would seem ordinary – is spoken in riposte. However, it is immediately followed by a mitigating phrase, one designed to minimise the inflammatory effect of those words: ‘Not all of us, I admit; but a certain few … A few not incapable of reflection’.[xv] The double negative, meant to trivialise the strength of feeling expressed, goes some way to demonstrate the effects of Athenian ideas regarding femininity, which were very restrictive by modern standards. Indeed, women were expected to shroud themselves whenever they left the house, hiding from the gaze of unmarried men;[xvi] women were not considered full citizens, and could not participate in Athens’ prized democratic institutions;[xvii] and women could not attend the theatre alone – or even at all, in some cases.[xviii] In the prevailing Athenian culture of the time, such a statement (tentative and timorously delivered though it appears) would nevertheless have shocked. In writing as he does, Euripides permits Medea an inner life; she thinks, debates, and reflects upon the nature of her actions. Such a vividly drawn moral dilemma as hers requires audience empathy. Shakespeare does not allow Lady Macbeth the same privilege – her motivations are less discernible, and therefore the empathy of audience diminishes.

In the first scene of the first act of Macbeth, Shakespeare introduces the audience to matters supernatural, and the play is clearly and structurally prefaced with the actions of the three witches. This portrayal of the witches, while congruous with contemporary notions of witchcraft, still subverted the gender norms of the early 17th century; Shakespeare’s witches were evil – a given – but they were also seen as powerful – a trait with which women even in public life were not associated. Indeed, women were seen as ‘the weaker vessel’ – a term derived from the New Testament[xix] and referenced in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.[xx] Even Queen Elizabeth I – regarded reverentially at the time due to the ‘stability’[xxi] she personified and ‘acumen’[xxii] she brought to government – was viewed with some suspicion by religious and political leaders of the late Tudor era.


When Lady Macbeth and her husband conspire to kill Duncan – superficially unlike Medea, who conspires and commits murder unaided – it is the wife who provides impetus for the man’s actions. Lady Macbeth taunts her husband, accuses him of cowardice, asking the powerful rhetorical question, ‘Was hope drunk / Wherein you dressed yourself?’,[xxiii] and extorting him to carry out the deed. When it is done, and he is shaken, frightened and doubtful, she is calm: the very opposite of the clichéd ‘hysterical’ female character. There is irony, though, in the ease and flippancy with which she then washes the royal blood from her offending hands – ‘A little water clears us of this deed’[xxiv] – compared to her later episodes of madness; this leads both to her death and the interesting suggestion that Shakespeare’s women cannot remain in positions of power indefinitely.

Shakespeare does not allow a pleasant end for this powerful woman and this seems in direct contrast with Euripides’ intentions. Lady Macbeth’s sorrow and wanderings at the end of Macbeth are directly comparable to Medea’s weeping and sadness at the beginning of Euripides’ play. However, there is also a marked difference. Medea ‘is in her room / Melting her life away in tears’[xxv] at the beginning of the play, yet this passivity (as indicated in the image of ‘melting’, which lends itself to the idea of substances becoming weaker in both strength and form) does not last long. Rather than declining after such an episode, as Lady Macbeth does during her fits of madness, Medea uses her rage to institute an ingenious plot. At the end of the narrative, and having committed the crime of infanticide (itself a horrific act and one reviled by societies ancient and modern), Medea is spirited away by the Sun God, Helios – a literal deus ex machina. To the audience – one of any era – it seems as if she is allowed by Euripides to escape her crimes. For an ancient Athenian audience, one which learned tales of deities acting capriciously and even immorally, such a conclusion would have been relatively straightforward to rationalise. For a Jacobean audience, however, Shakespeare potentially providing some way in which Lady Macbeth might escape the divine retribution promised in Christian theology would have been unsatisfactory. To a modern audience – one that is, by dint of our prevailing culture, more aware than ever of natural and man-made injustice, and one which is more irreligious than ever – such a seemingly nihilistic conclusion as Euripides creates could well be the more realistic of the two. However, there is a contrary view. Marguerite A. Tassi writes that Shakespeare’s portrayal of Lady Macbeth’s death ends her ‘unfulfilled feminist possibility’[xxvi] and that she yields to a ‘Christian retributative pattern’.[xxvii] Medea, however, has no such feminist agency; when she adopts a feminist tone or position, it is ‘for her own, manipulative, insincere ends’,[xxviii] according to Douglas Cairns. This runs contrary to some received wisdom on the topic of Euripides’ play, which states that Medea is either feminist in intention or in result.

It has been suggested by Janet Adelman that Duncan is portrayed in a feminine fashion in the periods both preceding and succeeding the regicide. Shakespeare’s use of ‘Tarquin’s ravishing strides’[xxix] when Macbeth describes his intentions transmutes Duncan into Lucrece (or Lucretia), the victim of rape by Tarquin – an event to which Shakespeare dedicated an extended foray into poetry.[xxx] This description is important, because it both traduces and raises the perception of women in the play as created by Shakespeare. For the former, Duncan is diminished by the comparison that renders him as Lucrece – a largely powerless symbol whose classical role was to be the victim of evil. However, the depiction of Macbeth is also traduced by this portrayal; a classically literate section of the upper class – to whom this play was performed at the King’s court – would have known of the moral turpitude of Tarquin’s actions. The result, therefore, is a complex one: the depiction of Duncan as a woman is meant to demonstrate his weakness, and succeeds in making him a passive character, merely waiting for Macbeth to make the fatal move; but the depiction also presents women in a more positive light – they are seen as morally good individuals brought low by the depraved conduct of men. This picture is ambiguous, and would have meant more to an audience in the Jacobean era; the word ‘ravishing’ is too archaic and too associated with modern adjectival use to shock a 21st century audience. After his death, Duncan is described by Macbeth as ‘a new Gorgon’;[xxxi] this exacerbates the aforementioned effect, turning his ‘former father into a female figure’.[xxxii] It also creates a sense of the sinister in tandem with the feminine: the Gorgons were evil creatures of classical myth, notable for their perversion of femininity in pursuit of nefarious ends; both Jacobean and modern audiences would understand and draw negativity from the reference to Medusa and her sisters – the feminine and the supernatural were both wellsprings of evil in certain classical tropes. This can also be seen in some interpretations of Medea, which stress her supernatural ability in justifying and facilitating the murders of her children, Jason’s wife, and King Creon.

There are, moreover, many other female characters in Macbeth to examine in relation to these same themes: For example, Lady Macduff, childlike and petty while her son displays an understanding approaching the adult. Duncan’s faithful and pious Queen, the model of Christian virtues as praised by Macduff in his conversation with Malcolm – ‘the queen that bore thee, / Oft’ner on her knees than on her feet’.[xxxiii] The lady in waiting to the usurper Queen, willing to put her mistress’s secrets – terrible as they are – ahead of all other considerations. These women, though peripheral, demonstrate the depth with which Shakespeare considered the role of women in life as it was then lived. This is in direct contrast to Medea, where there are characters who represent women on stage, but in so doing they remain nameless; the Chorus of Corinthian women is one such example, and the unnamed Nurse another. This namelessness indicates a lack of significance, but the same is not true in Macbeth; there, Shakespeare declines to name the witches, but this only adds to their mystery, emphasising the unnameable power they appear to exert over Macbeth.

In his structural decision not to name other female characters, Euripides places Medea centre stage as the only significant female presence. This adds intensity to her plight, and could perhaps encourage a modern audience to sympathise with her difficulties. For an Athenian audience, however, this would only increase the extent to which she would be seen as an aberration, an exceptional example of the undesirable. This perception is only heightened by the way she is seen to deal with major male figures: Medea tricks the kindly but infertile King Aegeus into granting her sanctuary after her murderous deeds; and she wheedles an extra day in Corinth out of the well meaning but ineffectual King Creon. By the time Medea arrives in Athens, she will be ‘stained with her own children’s blood’,[xxxiv] viscerally increasing the horror contained within these betrayals. Both of those instances would have been viewed with especial opprobrium in Athenian times. The former action would have attracted this reaction because it represented a perversion of both fertility – a work of the gods – and the culturally significant Delphic oracle.[xxxv] The latter event, too, would have left an Athenian audience aghast at Medea’s actions; Creon was only acting in a respectable and honourable way, yet she used this action against him, and laid in place the plan which led to his death. Even a modern audience, one for whom much of the context surrounding oracles could be meaningless, would react adversely to such transparent manipulation.

In conclusion, both Euripides and Shakespeare present women in ways contrary to the archetypes of the ages in which they wrote. Euripides centres the narrative upon Medea, emphasising both her uncommon power and the unfeminine brutality of her actions. Similarly, Shakespeare presents Lady Macbeth as the power behind the throne, driving her husband on in the pursuit of authority, influence, and status. Alan Sinfield describes the brutality of her threat to murder the baby to which she has ‘given suck’[xxxvi] – in which Shakespeare uses the charitable language of ‘given’ to praise a mother’s love – as profoundly, shockingly ‘unfeminine’.[xxxvii] The three witches, too, hold a share in this Shakespearian portrayal of feminine power. But that is where the similarities end. Euripides’ text attempts to empathise with Medea, containing moments of great introspection and contemplation, in which Medea assumes the mantle of the tragic heroine. Shakespeare, by contrast, does little to prompt audiences to consider Lady Macbeth’s passions, motivations, and inner workings: her death at the end of the play (low-key and off-stage) confines her to relative obscurity within the moral tumult of the work. Moreover, the witches’ motivations go largely unexamined and unexplained. Collectively, then, Shakespeare does not explore femininity as deeply and personally as does Euripides; but both plays still break the social conventions of the eras in which they were written, challenging contemporary audiences – and audiences of a more modern setting – to examine the roles afforded to women in public life, spiritual matters, and the pursuit of art itself.

[i] Shakespeare, William: Macbeth, Act I, Scene III, line 75

[ii] Ibid. Act I, Scene I, line 1

[iii] Nosworthy, J.M. (ed.): Shakespeare’s Occasional Plays: Their Origin and Transmission, p.59. Cited in Ahmed, Shokhan Rasool: The Visual Spectacle of Witchcraft in Jacobean Plays: Blackfriars Theatre, p. 48

[iv] Tyson, Donald: “Introduction” in The Demonology of King James I, p. 40

[v] Shakespeare, William: Macbeth, Act I, Scene V, line 40

[vi] Ibid. Act I, Scene V, line 42

[vii] Ibid. Act I, Scene V, line 43

[viii]  Barlow, Shirley A.: “Stereotype and Reversal in Euripides’ Medea”. Greece and Rome, Vol. 36, pp. 158-171

[ix] Luschnig, C. A. E.: Granddaughter of the Sun: A Study of Euripides’ Medea, p. 73

[x] Smith, Bonnie G. (ed.): “Codes of Law and Laws” in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Women in World History, pp. 423-4

[xi] Shakespeare, William: Macbeth, Act I, Scene II, line 54

[xii] Ibid. Act I, Scene VII, line 26

[xiii] Ibid. Act I, Scene VII, line 27

[xiv] Euripides: Medea, p. 50

[xv] Ibid.

[xvi] Fay, Mary Ann: Unveiling the Harem: Elite Women and the Paradox of Seclusion in Eighteenth-Century Cairo, p. 37

[xvii] Osborne, Robin: Athens and Athenian Democracy, p. 33

[xviii] Henderson, Jeffrey: “Women and the Athenian Dramatic Festivals”, Transactions of the American Philological Association, Vol. 121, pp. 133-147

[xix] 1 Peter 3:7 (King James Version)

[xx] Shakespeare, William: Romeo and Juliet, Act 1, Scene 1, line 16

[xxi] Wood, Tara Sue: ‘To the most godlye, virtuos, and mightye princes Elizabeth’: Identity and gender in the dedications to Elizabeth I, p. 146

[xxii] Borman, Tracy: Elizabeth’s Women: The Hidden Story of the Virgin Queen, p.336

[xxiii] Shakespeare, William: Macbeth, Act I, Scene VII, lines 36-7

[xxiv] Ibid. Act II, Scene II, line 70

[xxv] Euripides: Medea, p. 21

[xxvi] Tassi, Marguerite A.: Women and Revenge in Shakespeare: Gender, Genre, and Ethics, p. 59

[xxvii] Ibid.

[xxviii] Cairns, Douglas: “Medea: Feminism or Misogyny?” in Looking at Medea, ed. David Stuttard, p. 133

[xxix] Shakespeare, William: Macbeth, Act II, Scene I, line 55

[xxx] Miola, Robert S.: Shakespeare’s Rome, pp. 18-42

[xxxi] Shakespeare, William: Macbeth, Act II, Scene III, line 69

[xxxii] Tredell, Nicholas: Macbeth: A Reader’s Guide to Essential Criticism, p. 139

[xxxiii] Shakespeare, William: Macbeth, Act IV, Scene III, lines 109-110

[xxxiv] Griffin, Jasper: “Murder in the Family” in Looking at Medea, ed. David Stuttard, p. 20

[xxxv] Niskanen, Paul: The Human and the Divine in History: Herodotus and the Book of Daniel, p. 94

[xxxvi] Shakespeare, William: Macbeth, Act I, Scene VII, line 54

[xxxvii] Sinfield, Alan: Faultlines: Cultural Materialism and the Politics of Dissident Reading, p. 77