top of page

Power Play: Unmasking Gender Roles in Macbeth and Fantomina

Gender and power are inexorably intertwined within the fabric of society and thus collectively shape individual experiences within societal structures. The evolution of a woman's role has reached elevated heights in the face of modernism wherein she is able to exercise her rights in a more accepting environment. However, during previous centuries, this was deemed a struggle due to the imposition of rigid societal barriers wherein the inferiority of women was a common motif. During the Jacobean era (1603 – 1625) there existed notable shifts in relation to the understanding of genders and their roles. Women’s roles during this period were limited to domestic chores including managing the household, raising children and providing support to their husbands. Education for women was limited alongside their political and legal rights. Similarly, during the 18th century—a period known as the Enlightenment—there existed profound shifts in thinking, scepticism, and reason. During this period, women laid the groundwork for later feminist movements through literature and feminist writing. For example, Mary Wollstonecraft challenged the traditional views inherently implicated on women and their societal roles through her book, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, published in 1792.

Two successful works that introduced new perspectives on the power of a woman by diminishing the superficial notion of their innocence and powerlessness are Macbeth by William Shakespeare (1623) and Fantomina by Eliza Haywood (1725). Macbeth, a play set in the 21st century, manifests the story of a man who unrightfully usurped power to the throne and followed a murderous path. Throughout the play, we see the power Macbeth's wife, Lady Macbeth, carries in provoking the negative aspects of Macbeth’s character and driving him to commit heinous acts in their pursuit of power and ambition. Shakespeare's Macbeth follows the regressive character dynamic of Lady Macbeth wherein she deconstructs and contends gender categories; throughout the play, she attempts to unfix the rigid cultural distinctions and attributes that typically define men and women. While Lady Macbeth openly rejects masculine power, she introduces an alternative gender identity which accepts a laxer culture with regard to constraints typically imposed on women (Chamberlain, 2005). Similarly, Fantomina's protagonist attempts to "reverse the deeply rooted gender roles and patriarchal sexual power relations" (Flórez, 2017) found within Britain's society during the 18th century. Fantomina explores the story of a woman transgressing societal norms and expectations by adopting various disguises and engaging in complex schemes to pursue her desires and navigate the constraints of her time. Her unwavering quest for forbidden love and exploration of her sexuality results in a gripping tale of deception, passion, and the blurred boundaries of identity in 18th-century English society. Through Haywood's expression of Fantomina's protagonist as "the other", the novel vividly showcases an archetype of feminine sexuality and mystery through a gender interplay wherein the switched roles of men and women are present.

Girl wearing a retro princess/countess dress
Figure 1: Girl wearing a retro countess dress (Master1305, 2018).

Power elicits hidden inconsistencies within human behaviour by regurgitating the meek persona of individuals in the face of ambition. The character regression of female protagonists in William Shakespeare's famous Jacobean play Macbeth and Eliza Haywood's feminist novel Fantomina inherently stemmed from the power they possess. Both texts collectively project the complex dynamic of power in satisfying the internalised desire of their female characters at the expense of their morality. Macbeth primarily elucidates the extensive power of corruption and tyranny through Lady Macbeth's implicit deception and lack of moral compass. Contrastingly, Fantomina highlights the potent impact of the unnamed protagonist's desire to stimulate power to ensure attainment. Macbeth and Fantomina challenge the ideal of subdued femininity to offset the societal, gender-biased values carried during their respective eras. Both characters present a united front in upsetting the "long-standing gender norms [associated with] [...] feminine nurturance, domesticity, and subordination that form the basis of Western constructions of femininity" (Findlay, 2011). Hence, the female protagonists' fanatic pursuit of power ultimately shadows the demeaning yet traditional norms found within the Jacobean and Enlightenment Eras.

Lady Macbeth's guise as a benevolent and submissive woman was extinguished through her lust for power wherein her devilish nature was exposed. She is illustrated as a Machiavellian who lacks emotional intelligence and is rather impulsive by nature. Shakespeare skilfully unveils Lady Macbeth's bestiality through an exaggerated metaphor; "and fill me from the crown to the toe top-full. Of direst cruelty. Make thick my blood. Stop up th'access and passage of remorse" (I.V. 40-42). This soliloquy explicitly foreshadows the insincerity of Lady Macbeth's power and her scintillating wit. Misogynistic ideals are thus challenged as Lady Macbeth embodies an extravagant and influential character which circumvents the dogmatic submission she was assigned. Her desired masculinity enables her to overpower her husband through her vehement orders: "look like the innocent flower. But be the serpent under't" (I.V. 63-64). This ironic clause implicitly denotes the masked femininity of Lady Macbeth and therefore exposes the deceitful malice of her power. Deceit is relayed as an empowering element for female protagonists, including Fantomina's unnamed protagonist. Concealment enables their consequent detachment from the societal standards set for them.

Girl carrying crown
Figure 2: Lady Macbeth (Sargent, 1889).

Lady Macbeth's manipulative yet haughty persona is driven by her insatiable desire for power. Her disillusionment catalysed her psychologically abusive relationship with Macbeth: "[...] I have given suck, and I know, How tender 'tis to love the babe that milks me. I would, while it was smiling in my face, Have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums. And dashed the brains out, had I so sworn as you, Have done to this" (I.VII. 56-58). Lady Macbeth's rhetorical manipulation to explicitly degrade Macbeth's manliness is evidenced through an acrimonious tone wherein she chastises her husband's dithering behaviour. Janet Adelman, a renowned literary critic of Shakespearean literature, relays the impeding influence of Lady Macbeth's destructive desire; "[she] notoriously makes the murder of Duncan the test of Macbeth's virility; if he cannot perform the murder, he is in effect reduced to the helplessness of an infant subject to her rage. She begins by attacking his manhood, making her love for him contingent on the murder that she identifies as male potency" (Adelman, 1987). Macbeth's abasement is symbolic of his meekness against Lady Macbeth's treachery; Lady Macbeth's defiant disclosure and incomprehensible brutality shatters the gender constraints of a loving, harmless woman as she was wilfully ready to commit murder during a "moment of great intimacy between a mother and [her] child" (Chamberlain, 2005). Hence, her strong-willed nature enabled her to embody the traditional male role in marriage and defiantly oppose the values of her stringent patriarchal society.

Fantomina’s unnamed protagonist simultaneously indulged in and controlled the expression of her desire; this liberating yet paradoxical achievement for an 18th-century woman encourages breaking past superficial representations and understanding the essential, defining depths of the character's mind and heart (Anderson, 2005). The continuous exploitations executed by the novella's nameless female protagonist to satisfy her sexual desires are indicative of her immorality and putative weakness against her expedient inclinations (Garcia, 2020). The heroine's deviant conduct, as affirmed by Marta Kvande, an associate professor who specialises in 18th-century British literature; "draw[s] on different elements of cultural context, emphasising rhetoric over expression of identity [...] [and therefore,] does not rely on [the] appropriation of [...] culture" (Kvande, 2013). "She had discernment to foresee and avoid all the ills which might attend the loss of her reputation, but was wholly blind to those of the ruin of her virtue; having managed her affairs so on to secure the one, grew perfectly easy with the remembrance she forfeited the other" (V.I. 49). This juxtaposed clause re-establishes the persona's power due to her usurped control over her narrative; however, her promiscuous entanglements have catalysed the loss of her morality and the consequent development of her crass nature. The heroine's acceptance of premarital sex and deceiving others to ensure the attainment of her desire despite societal captivity elucidates the extent of her power in evoking moral perversity.

Book front cover
Figure 3: Front Cover of "Fantomina" by Eliza Taylor Haywood (Unknown, 1725).

"She was so admirably skill'd in the Art of feigning [...] she had the Power of putting on almost what Face she pleas'd [...] to form her Behaviour to the Character she represented, that all the Comedians [...] are infinitely short of her Performances" (V.I. 57) the manifestly metaphorical image illustrated through this clause highlights the protagonist’s ability to manoeuvre past prerogative barriers; into a variform of social classes. Therefore, her untamed power enabled the attainment of momentary pleasures while maintaining an unpurged social image due to her concealed identity. Similarly, Lady Macbeth vigilantly ensured her ascension to power by concealing her savagery and exploiting her apparent femininity. Both women are hence passive agents in pursuit of their desires and, by fulfilling this role, they actively avoid falling into the helpless victim of circumstances that society typically painted women to be during their respective eras. Hence, Haywood's expression of vilified freedom through Fantomina's protagonist contributes to the liberating feminist trope; a transformed literary tradition (Garcia, 2020).

Power radically exposed the savage nature of female protagonists within medieval texts, including Lady Macbeth and Fantomina's unnamed heroine, who formidably pushed past gender barriers imposed by their modulating societies. As victims of societal bias, both female protagonists were controlled through prejudice and discrimination, however through attentional overload, they easily established a feigned stereotyped-based character to fit their assigned roles. However, despite their succession in usurping their controlling power, it was considered an internecine weapon since resultingly both parties embraced a corrupt value system. "Yet who would have thought the old man to have so much blood in him?" (V.I. 35), Lady Macbeth's rhetorical question connotes her insensitivity and lack of emotion despite the brutal murder of a dominant male figure. Further, the broken structure of iambic rhyme implicitly denotes her madness as prose signified lunacy during the Elizabethan Era.

old fashion costume with mask and teacup
Figure 4: Young woman in old-fashioned costume (Master1305, n.d.).

Similarly, anachronism is used to express the tenacity of Fantomina's nameless heroine; her justification for deceiving Beauplaisir and her repugnance towards committed relationships; "had he been faithful to me [...] [even] the most violent Passion, if it does not change its Object, in Time will wither: Possession naturally abates the Vigour of Desire… I have him always raving, wild impatient, longing, dying" (65). Evidently, her cynical view regarding short-lived sexual passions explicitly mirrors contemporary values regarding premarital sex. However, her austerity and overtly irrational justification for concocting an overambitious plan to deceive Beauplaisir conveys her inability to deny immoral inclinations surged through power. Both Shakespeare and Haywood demonstrate the extensive power a woman can bear while relaying the consequences of such power; Lady Macbeth, driven by her guilt, becomes suicidal, while Fantomina's protagonist faces both personal and societal consequences upon being discovered. Thereby, through deception, Lady Macbeth and Fantomina's protagonist ensure the attainment of their desires at the impeded expense of their social status. Both characters devised methods of manipulation and thus inaugurated new standards and expectations for women.

Ultimately, the placement of ridiculed yet powerful female protagonists within medieval texts foreshadowed the initial movement for female empowerment. Macbeth and Fantomina encouraged their responders’ to critically digest the impeding influence of female subordination in creating beastly personas with no moral compass. Despite their justificatory measures, both protagonists experienced a degree of anguish due to their plight outcomes, resulting from their complete admission to power. Thus, through the introduction of influential and deceitful female characters, Shakespeare and Haywood skilfully erupted a passage for change within social boundaries.

Literature, in its essence, is a reflection of the societal fabric from which it emerges, capturing the zeitgeist of its era and offering insights into the complexities of human nature and societal structures. Macbeth and Fantomina are no exceptions. These works, though separated by time and thematic focus, converge on the intricate interplay of power dynamics and gender roles. Lady Macbeth and Fantomina's unnamed protagonist are emblematic of the struggles women faced in their respective periods. Both characters, in their unique ways, grapple with the confines of societal expectations, challenging and subverting the traditional roles assigned to them. Lady Macbeth's fervent ambition and her manipulation of Macbeth's actions, juxtaposed with Fantomina's cunning deceptions to satisfy her desires, paint a vivid picture of women who refuse to be relegated to the sidelines. Yet, their stories are not just tales of empowerment. They are also cautionary tales that underscore the perils of unchecked ambition and the societal consequences of defying established norms. Lady Macbeth's eventual descent into madness and Fantomina's entanglements highlight the double-edged sword of power. While it offers liberation and agency, it also brings with it the potential for self-destruction. Furthermore, the portrayal of these characters by Shakespeare and Haywood serves a dual purpose. On one hand, they critique the rigid gender norms of their times, highlighting the limitations and biases women faced. On the other, they also celebrate the resilience, cunning, and strength of their female protagonists, suggesting that even in the face of overwhelming societal pressures, individuals can carve out their own paths.

Woman holding mask and teacup
Figure 5: Young woman in old-fashioned costume (Master1305, n.d.).

In the grand tapestry of literature, Macbeth and Fantomina stand out as seminal works that challenge us to think critically about the roles society assigns to us based on gender and the lengths to which individuals might go to break free from these confines. As we reflect on the narratives of Lady Macbeth and Fantomina, we are compelled to consider the broader implications for contemporary society. How far have we come in our understanding and acceptance of fluid gender roles? And how does power continue to shape, and be shaped by, gender dynamics in the modern era? These works, with their rich exploration of these themes, remain as relevant today as they were in their time, urging us to continue the dialogue and re-examine our own preconceptions.

1 Comment

Oct 02, 2023

This is amazing!! Very well written Tia, looking forward to reading your future articles.

Author Photo

Tia Saad

Arcadia _ Logo.png


Arcadia, has many categories starting from Literature to Science. If you liked this article and would like to read more, you can subscribe from below or click the bar and discover unique more experiences in our articles in many categories

Let the posts
come to you.

Thanks for submitting!

  • Instagram
  • Twitter
  • LinkedIn
bottom of page