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Female Roles In Medea And Macbeth

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Female characters in gothic texts both challenge and reinforce prevailing standards of gender difference within the patriarchal society at the time that they were written. In Macbeth and Medea, both Shakespeare and Euripides portray women as a symbol of defiance, challenging the gender constructions and the male-dominant system by appropriating traits then-known to be masculine.

Whether we talk about the Athenian audience or the Jacobean audience, both expected women to act elegant and stay calm and collected but the main characters of the two texts have broken this stereotype at every turn of the play. Euripides and Shakespeare have portrayed their female characters as frightening and powerful women. Appropriating the masculine traits, the two characters desire to be unassociated with their femininity. Although in the start of the play Medea welcomes the audience with her feminine side, we later see how Medea yearns to get rid of her femininity. She says, “Away with women’s fears!”. During that period of time, women were completely dependent on men, a women couldn’t ask for divorce from her husband. So when Jason leaves Medea and she gets banished by Creon, she has practically nowhere to go, she has no protection from her husband. This desperation makes her wish “if only she were a man” because that is the only way for her to survive as she would be someone with power. Lady Macbeth is also represented as an uncharitable individual who prays to the dark spirits to be made masculine in order to finish off Duncan herself. She says “unsex me” which clarifies her intensions to forsake her femininity for a mere murder which would later haunt her to her death.

The two texts portray women as manipulative and vindictive in contrary to what society expects of them. In order to thrive in the society they are in, they must manipulate men in order to get what they want. When Macbeth hesitates to kill Duncan, Lady Macbeth exploits the very well known Achilles heel of any man- his masculinity. She pushes Macbeth to kill the King by accusing him of cowardice. She says: “What beast was’t then,…more the man” Act 1 Scene 7 Page2. She doesn’t subordinate but takes a stand and points her finger directly at her husband. We see a gender reversal after the deed is carried out, Lady Macbeth is calm whereas Macbeth is frightened and full of guilt. She says ‘A little water clears us of this deed’. This is opposite of how a female character would normally respond—hysterically. Whereas Medea plays along Jason’s chauvinism by sympathizing with him and ends up manipulating him to gain her confidence. She says, “First I’ll send a slave …soft talk”Line 774-75. She subordinates herself as a weakling and plays the pity card to manipulate Creon into giving her one more day to plot her revenge on Jason and her new wife. She says, “As a suppliant, I …innocent children down”Line 712-714. In a similar fashion she tricks Glauce with gifts that causes her and her father Creon’s death. We see many times in Medea, Euripides tries to make a statement about women in general. His intricate portrayal of the main character Medea suggests both positive and negative aspects of a woman. On one hand he presents her as clever and powerful but not the other hand he portrays her as manipulative and dangerous. It almost diminishes the line between the two aspects, meaning a woman can only be clever because she manipulates and powerful because she is dangerous. There is no in between which is not the case with men. Although both Shakespeare and Euripides highlight women’s power in the patriarchal society that doesn’t offer much of it to them, we find a difference in the way Shakespeare and Euripides portrayed women in their plays. Here one side we see Medea being straight up manipulative and brutal while Lady Macbeth being more of an authoritative figure. The plays bring upon the rebellious trait of women that was repressed during that age of time.

One of the many repercussions of these women being such forceful and self-assertive characters is the rejection of motherhood. While contemplating her children’s murder, Medea says, “Children are sweet as the buds in spring..trouble all their lives”. On the other hand Lady Macbeth didn’t kill he children because she didn’t have any, however blinded by ambition she denounces the role of motherhood and idea of children. Her words are poignant and insensitive, she says, “I have given suck, …sworn as you. Have done to this.” She is the mastermind of the murder of King Duncan but we never see her kill anyone herself.

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In Act 1 Scene 1 of Macbeth, Shakespeare while introducing us to the supernatural realm through the Weird Sisters also disrupts the notion of femininity by physically portraying them as masculine with Banquo going so far as to say, “You should be women,/ And yet your beards forbid me to interpret/ That you are so”. These witches are also depicted as powerful and evil which is the trait we find in Medea and Lady Macbeth— a trait women were not associated with during that time. Medea is often associated with the dark world. She is known as the “sorceress” and calls upon Hecate and other dark spirits. She says, “If you dwell in …..witness your divine power”. We have also seen Lady Macbeth’s association with the spirits, she however may not be a sorceress but she definitely plunges out of the norm. When Lady Macbeth reads Macbeth’s letter enclosing the witches prophecy, she worries that her husband is “is too full o’ the milk of human kindness” and calls upon the spirits “that tend upon mortal thoughts….thick my blood”. Furthermore requesting them to “Stop up the access and passage to remorse” suggests that she can only succeed in fulfilling the ambition by giving up or by altering her feminine qualities. This undermines women’s capabilities to fulfill their ambitions and raises questions about Shakespeare’s views about the gender norms in the 17th century.

This theme seems to be consistent across all the women in both of the plays. Many other female characters can be examined with regard to this theme. For example, Lady Macduff, who is fierce, outspoken and questions her husband’s actions and loyalty. She furiously says, ‘He loves us not” and ‘His flight was madness.” ‘What had he done to make him fly the land?” However, unlike Medea and Lady Macbeth she is a protective mother and is not a controlling figure as her husband just abandoned her and her children without her counsel. Also the in Medea, the chorus is just the embodiment of the society more so the female counterpart which help Euripides in gaining the empathy from readers for a woman who killed her children.

Gender roles are the structural foundation of both the plays however the similarities end when we try to understand Euripides decision to keep Medea in the spotlight emphasizing the powerful presence. In contrast to Medea, other characters like the Chorus of Corinthian women as well as the nurse are unnamed. This emphasizes the lack of significance. This is not the case in Macbeth, all of the female characters hold significance in the flow of the play. Shakespeare decision to not name the witches just adds to the mystery emphasizing the unpredictable power that lies being the supernatural door. Another major difference is the fate of the leading female characters. Medea despite being the cold blooded killer she was gets to escape on her chariot whereas Lady Macbeth, haunted by the guilt and horror of the murder succumbs to her conscience and dies of remorse. This is not the case with Medea she doesn’t fall prey to her conscience, her wickedness remains constant throughout the play. Lady Macbeth was conniving from the beginning but her end leads us to sympathize with her but in Medea’s case we sympathized with her at the start of the play when we come to know about her husband’s betrayal and her banishment, however as the play progresses that sympathy starts to vanish.

Despite everything both Medea and Lady Macbeth believe in the power of marriage and love their husbands dearly. And this devotion helps in building their character and fuel their respective stories. They play the dirty role for the men and are responsible for their husbands success which the men don’t appreciate them for. Throughout the play, Lady Macbeth is loyal to her husband. Macbeth’s letter portrays her as his “dearest partner of greatness”. It is her love and ambition for Macbeth that drives her down the evil path. Her willingness to commit heinous crimes so that her husband can be crowned king makes her character credible as a human being. Medea is also presented as the faithful one in her marriage with Jason. She helped Jason get the Golden Fleece. Her passionate love towards Jason and his betrayal drives her from being suicidal to homicidal in the course of this play. In all, both plays remain successful in establishing the fact that female characters broke the social conventions of the respective eras in which they were written. This defiance lays the foundation for most if not the entire edifice of Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Euripides Medea.

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Female Roles In Medea And Macbeth. (2022, Jun 09). Edubirdie. Retrieved September 24, 2023, from
“Female Roles In Medea And Macbeth.” Edubirdie, 09 Jun. 2022,
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Female Roles In Medea And Macbeth [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Jun 09 [cited 2023 Sept 24]. Available from:
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