Date of Degree

9-2019

Document Type

Thesis

Degree Name

M.A.

Program

Liberal Studies

Advisor

Tanya Pollard

Subject Categories

Classical Literature and Philology | Literature in English, British Isles

Keywords

Shakespeare, Early Modern England, Reception, Classical Mythology, Anger, Aeschylus

Abstract

This thesis attempts to understand the fabulously complex and poisonously unsettling Lady Macbeth as a product of classical reception and intertextuality in early modern England. Whence comes her “undaunted mettle” (1.7.73)? Why is she, like the regicide she helps commit, such a “bloody piece of work” (2.3.108)? How does her ability to be “bloody, bold, and resolute” (4.1.81), as Macbeth is commanded to be, reflect canonical literary ideas, early modern or otherwise, regarding women, gender, and violence? Approaching texts in the literary canon as the result of transformation and reception, this research analyzes the ways in which Lady Macbeth’s gender, motivations, and words can be understood as inherently intertextual. By tracing the provenance of Lady Macbeth’s character to figures from Greek and Roman mythology—particularly Clytemnestra, the Furies, Medusa, Medea, and Orestes—this work reckons with how Lady Macbeth’s catalyzing of violence receives mythological ideas regarding women and wrath.

When we see rage or violence in Lady Macbeth, it is in some way coded for figures of wrath in classical mythology and their afterlives. By appropriating and translating these figures (as Bottom is ‘translated’), Shakespeare's depiction of Lady Macbeth renegotiates the extant gender binary, opening up new possibilities for gendered behavior that neither embrace nor fully disown binary concepts of womanhood and femaleness. Examining sources from early modern literature—including medical texts, poetry, and translations of Greek and Roman mythological works—this work dives into the ideological framework that both establishes and complicates Lady Macbeth’s identity. This thesis suggests that, by identifying pervasive background of classical mythology in Macbeth, we can perform a more nuanced analysis of Lady Macbeth’s poisonous maternity and destabilizing impact upon the patriarchal settings of the play. Her drive towards violence can, as a result, be seen as a concurrent and traumatic intensification and repudiation of emotions or characteristics typically perceived as feminine or maternal. By evoking and sometimes explicitly quoting rageful or violent mythological women, Shakespeare simultaneously renders Lady Macbeth dangerously feminine, disruptively masculine, and stubbornly ambiguous.

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