Feminist Criticism in Literature
Feminist literary criticism, arising in conjunction with sociopolitical feminism, critiques patriarchal language and literature by exposing how these reflect masculine ideology. It examines gender politics in works and traces the subtle construction of masculinity and femininity, and their relative status, positionings, and marginalizations within works.
Beyond making us aware of the marginalizing uses of traditional language (the presumptuousness of the pronoun "he," or occupational words such as "mailman") feminists focused on language have noticed a stylistic difference in women's writing: women tend to use reflexive constructions more than men (e.g., "She found herself crying"). They have noticed that women and men tend to communicate differently: men directed towards solutions, women towards connecting.
Feminist criticism concern itself with stereotypical representations of genders. It also may trace the history of relatively unknown or undervalued women writers, potentially earning them their rightful place within the literary canon, and helps create a climate in which women's creativity may be fully realized and appreciated.
One will frequently hear the term "patriarchy" used among feminist critics, referring to traditional male-dominated society. "Marginalization" refers to being forced to the outskirts of what is considered socially and politically significant; the female voice was traditionally marginalized, or discounted altogether. (http://www.wsu.edu/~delahoyd/feminist.crit.html)
Walt Disney's movie, The Little Mermaid and Hans Christian Andersen's story of the same name both enforce traditional, negative gender paradigms (witch, good girl) which, if internalized by the children viewing or reading them, will be perpetuated ad infinitum. The stereotype of the sensual, aggressive woman who reaches out independently for what she needs and desires as witch, and the beautiful, voiceless female as "good girl" teach children that there is no median ground in the female world, only extremes. Girls will remain afraid to express overtly their Ursula-like sides for fear of being labeled "witch". The traditionally white western ideal of the "good girl" will be maintained along with the patriarchal establishment. Traditional paradigms must therefore be abolished everywhere, even in fairy tales under the sea.
Feminist Criticism of Lady Macbeth
The most common interpretation of the play Macbeth is that no murders would occur without the influence of Lady Macbeth. It is hypothesized that Lady Macbeth is the cause of the evil in the play, and because of this she is seen as strong and independent; two very manly qualities. James L. O’Rourke maintains that, “Macbeth says that he has no desire to kill Duncan (‘I have no spur / To prick the side of my intent,’ [1.7.25-26]) (O’Rourke 219), and A.C. Bradley states that “neither his ambition nor yet the prophecy of the Witches would ever without the aid of Lady Macbeth have overcome . . . [Macbeth’s] resistance to the idea of killing Duncan” (qtd. in O’Rourke 219). This same, typical, interpretation can show that Lady Macbeth is not a strong character but in her attempts to unsex herself, she causes her own destruction.
Lady Macbeth’s first appearance shows her to be strong and determined. She reads the letter from Macbeth and immediately begins plans to murder Duncan to fulfill the prophecy from the three Witches. On Macbeth’s entrance, they discuss these plans and Lady Macbeth states, “and you shall put this night’s great business into my dispatch” (1.5.67-68). In this very act, Joan Larsen Klein says, Lady Macbeth is “assuming the feminine role of comforter and helper: ‘we’ll not fail?’ (1.7.61)” (244).
Lady Macbeth’s character often separates from the unsexed character she wishes to be. When the death of Duncan is announced, Lady Macbeth faints in order to stop Macbeth from indicting himself with the murder. This attempt to help her husband is very noble, but her attempt again proves her to be feminine. Fainting is a very feminine act, and makes her look weak. In general, Lady Macbeth shows feminine qualities: she never forgets about her domestic duties, playing hostess and housekeeper.
Lady Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s most famous and frightening female characters. When we first see her, she is already plotting Duncan’s murder, and she is stronger, more ruthless, and more ambitious than her husband. She seems fully aware of this and knows that she will have to push Macbeth into committing murder. At one point, she wishes that she were not a woman so that she could do it herself. This theme of the relationship between gender and power is key to Lady Macbeth’s character: her husband implies that she is a masculine soul inhabiting a female body, which seems to link masculinity to ambition and violence. Shakespeare, however, seems to use her, and the witches, to undercut Macbeth’s idea that “undaunted mettle should compose / Nothing but males” (1.7.73–74). These crafty women use female methods of achieving power—that is, manipulation—to further their supposedly male ambitions. Women, the play implies, can be as ambitious and cruel as men, yet social constraints deny them the means to pursue these ambitions on their own.
Lady Macbeth manipulates her husband with remarkable effectiveness, overriding all his objections; when he hesitates to murder, she repeatedly questions his manhood until he feels that he must commit murder to prove himself. Lady Macbeth’s remarkable strength of will persists through the murder of the king—it is she who steadies her husband’s nerves immediately after the crime has been perpetrated. Afterward, however, she begins a slow slide into madness—just as ambition affects her more strongly than Macbeth before the crime, so does guilt plague her more strongly afterward. By the close of the play, she has been reduced to sleepwalking through the castle, desperately trying to wash away an invisible bloodstain. Once the sense of guilt comes home to roost, Lady Macbeth’s sensitivity becomes a weakness, and she is unable to cope. Significantly, she (apparently) kills herself, signaling her total inability to deal with the legacy of their crimes.