Hey folks. Tonight is opening night, we’ve gotten through our previews, so I think it’s time for us to talk about something a little more serious, but relevant and necessary to understand for this show. Unfortunately not everything can be ghosts and magic and basketball; sometimes I have to provide more concrete context. And sometimes that context isn’t about something fun or old-timey, but is instead a dangerous and insidious real world problem that gave us an anchor point for the concept of this production. A problem like, for example, toxic masculinity. That’s right, I’m going to talk about the pernicious influence of masculinity on men, and the way that it impacts and can be identified in Macbeth, for 1500 words. If you’d rather not engage with this topic, first of all I don’t blame you, and second, why don’t you read this piece about acknowledging artifice on stage that I wrote a few years ago, and pretend we’re talking about that instead. It’ll still be relevant and it WON’T be a bummer!
Since you’re alive and Online in this, the Year of Our Lord Two Thousand and Nineteen, I’m certain you’re at the least aware of toxic masculinity. But in the interest of clarity it is helpful to define our terms anyway. Toxic, or hegemonic, masculinity is a restrictive and dangerous understanding of what it means to be a man, typified by the deadening of any emotion but anger, the demonstration of sexual prowess, an all-but-solipsistic view of the world, the necessity of being a dominant figure in the world around you, and the willingness, if not open eagerness, to impose that dominance through physical violence. It is also referred to as hegemonic masculinity, since (as a casual look at our society will no doubt demonstrate) it is and long has been the dominant force in the Western world. Ceaselessly upheld by just about every institution in existence, it is ubiquitous to the point that it has until recently been invisible, “just the way things worked”.
A necessary aspect of this culture is the denigration of those who do not fall into this carefully curated vision of manliness and a need to rebuke or correct them for their transgressions, preferably through the application of the aforementioned violence. Any such rejection of the values of toxic masculinity is regarded as what you might call gender treason, an admission of personal weakness, and an existential threat to the concept of manhood. It is, as you see, an extraordinarily fragile worldview, requiring near-constant external affirmation and outright antagonism towards other beliefs. For our purposes there are three main facets of toxic masculinity to consider: the death of feeling, self-policing, and its performative nature. Fortunately we are observing this through the lens of Macbeth and not that of Titus Andronicus, so I do not have to engage in this blog with the truly monstrous sexual violence that comes part and parcel with a need to dominate your surroundings, a hypersensitivity to perceived slights, and the arrogance of unacknowledged privilege.
[Side note: As a straight white cis man it seems to me that I am either the best or the worst person to talk about this subject, but since I’m the one whose job it is to write these blogs let’s defer to my lived experience in it instead of disqualifying me for my potential for blind spots. -KH]
Of all these aspects of toxicity, the murder of emotion is the one most harmful to the men themselves, as well as the aspect that can be most clearly observed in the character of Macbeth. Acknowledging feelings, and sharing those feelings with friends and loved ones, is feminine, and therefore weak. A real man doesn’t expose their weaknesses, and he ESPECIALLY doesn’t complain about how he’s feeling. The strong man is strong enough to bear any torment. And if he isn’t he suffers in silence, until he can take his revenge, because anger is the only acceptable emotion. This puts an often-unbearable weight on men to pretend they have no feelings, until either they’ve successfully killed their emotional sides, find a way to convert any emotion into rage, or snap and commit suicide.
Macbeth gives us a wonderful pair of examples of this attitude late in the show, from Macbeth and Macduff. Upon learning of his wife’s death, Macbeth responds with his most famous soliloquy, “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow”, which gives us a peek into the nihilism, desolation, and apparent death wish that now make up his psyche. Macbeth’s soul has been so consumed by his desire for domination and strength that he cannot summon up a tear or a sweet word for his wife and partner. Gone is the passionate lover, the loyal retainer, the man who joked with his friend Banquo; all replaced by a brief candle, lighting the way to dusty death. By contrast, Macduff makes no secret of the terrible depths of his emotion when he learns of HIS wife’s death, and when he is enjoined to “Dispute it like a man” by Malcolm, Macduff counters that a real man can, will, and must embrace his feelings. This exchange is riddled with Malcolm’s repeated insistence that Macduff man up, pull himself together, and use his grief to fuel his rage. There has been no hint at any point elsewhere in the play that Macduff is weak, but this display of emotion so upsets and discomfits Malcom that he demands, over and over, that Macduff stop crying and “[l]et grief convert to anger.”
This could not be a more perfect example of the self-policing that men do. It is very important to note that there is no outside observer setting or enforcing these standards, nor a biological imperative driving men to execute these masculine traits, despite what its proponents may lead you to believe. Baby boys aren’t born with a need to impose dominance on their surroundings. All of these attitudes and behaviors are learned from, and enforced by, other men. I regularly refer to masculinity as a Death Cult, and while there is no Messianic figure extolling these ‘virtues’ from on high, there is certainly a cultlike internal enforcement of these values between men. Look shortly before the banquet scene, when Macbeth recruits a “Murtherer”, whatever that is, to do his dirty work for him. Macbeth is able to provoke the assassin into action by calling his manliness into question, noting that there are as many different kinds of ‘men’ as there are dogs, and taunting him into proving his masculinity.
And the fact that this taunt works on the killer proves that, because it is entirely self-policed and self-defined, how performative toxic masculinity of necessity has to be. It’s a race to the bottom in an echo chamber, where every man assumes they are being judged by every other man and they must demonstrate their bona fides to each other at all times, lest they be outed and ridiculed, at best, for not being real men. It is the sort of thing that, in our society, leads men to feign interest in sports instead of poetry, or drink brown liquor instead of fruit-heavy cocktails, or wear nothing but utilitarian earth tones. And it is the sort of thing that Macbeth proves time and again. When Siward refuses to mourn his son’s death because he died fighting, he is performing his manliness. When Macbeth would rather die than be taken captive and be forced to kneel before Malcolm, he is performing his manliness. When he is frightened by the ghost of Banquo at the banquet, Macbeth angrily lists his credentials, all the things he isn’t afraid of, as evidence that this apparition is hideous enough to even frighten a MAN.
This show also clearly demonstrates that belief in the cult is not limited to men. Women can and often do buy in to the rules that men are expected to abide by. In that banquet scene it is not one of the male guests, but rather Lady M who calls Macbeth on being “quite unmann’d in folly”, and when he gets cold feet before the murder she is there to coax him into manly action. Lady Macbeth is so on board with this conception of masculinity that she openly laments her misfortune in being a woman, and wishes she were a man, or at the least, “unsex[ed]”, so that she would be allowed to seize the power that her husband apparently struggles with. As a woman she feels these aggressive, ambitious thoughts, but instead of accepting them as part of her personality she wishes she were a man, so those thoughts would be not only acceptable, but normal.
This is obviously a tiny, TINY primer on the pervasive danger of toxic masculinity. I have skipped over a lot of the inherent privileges and ALL of the sexual violence that is arguably its most appalling feature. And because I was viewing it through an inherently violent play I left most of the potential for physical violence to be inferred, instead of addressing it directly. But regardless I hope that this will help you interpret the toxic conceptions of masculinity that pervade not only our play, but the world we live in as a whole. If you want to see all of this play out on stage, tickets are available now! We are sold out for the rest of this weekend but the show runs until the end of the month!