Gruadh (Lady Macbeth) lives in a world strictly segregated by gender. Women in the eleventh-century Scotland of the novel are expected to be quiet and domestic, to either be wives and mothers or to pursue some female-dominated occupation like midwifery. Their lives are dedicated to running a household and to producing and raising babies. Everything outside of the walls of the home, meanwhile, is the domain of men. Gruadh, too, is burdened by expectations that she will act like a “lady”—that is, that she will be docile and subservient, content to do little more than sew and rear children. However, Gruadh is not satisfied with being boxed in, and in the end, this trait serves her well. As a queen, she is required to be both traditionally masculine and feminine, soft and maternal yet unsentimental and brave. Gender roles are more flexible than they appear, and it is only by incorporating aspects of masculinity and femininity into her identity is Gruadh able to be a successful ruler and equal partner to second husband, and eventual king, Macbeth.
Gruadh is constantly pressured to be more lady-like and stick to women’s work. Early in the novel, her father, Bodhe, rejects her request to learn sword craft. He points out that she knows how to read and run a household, and suggests this, and the knowledge she will once day have a powerful husband, is enough. He sees being a woman, even a powerful woman, as antithetical to being a warrior. Gruadh learns how to run a household (a woman’s traditional job) from Dolina, her stepmother, and runs the households of both her first husband, Gilcomgan, and her second. Although sometimes when Gilcomgan is gone she is able to practice sword fighting, he discourages her, saying, “I want sons of you […] not wounds.” He only wants her in one role—that of a wife and mother.
Catriona, a medicine woman, argues that men “understand life and death differently than women. Ours it to give birth, life, and comfort. We cannot bring ourselves to take life, knowing its struggle and value.” Gruadh resents this “saintly show of opinion,” and, indeed, the novel ultimately presents such expectations of femininity to be dangerously restrictive. Gruadh argues that she would kill if she had to, and later makes good on that promise, killing a soldier who attacks her and Lulach.
Gruadh is aware of how a woman should comport herself but finds it difficult to act in the way expected of her and often directly chooses not to. Maeve, Gruadh’s nursemaid and friend, tells Gruadh that she is infertile because “willfulness and old grief” are “poisoning your womb. You want to be a warrior, and you want to be a mother.” Her suggestion is that not only are Gruadh’s masculine attitudes unladylike, they’re literally changing her body so she cannot perform the duties expect of a contemporary wife.
After her husband is killed by Macbeth, who then comes to her castle to forcibly wed her, Gruadh does her best to show him that she is not frightened and refuses to run. Instead, although many months pregnant, she chooses to confront Macbeth herself. Maeve warns that “a woman will not dissuade men intent on mayhem,” but Gruadh is not deterred, grabbing a sword to defend herself and her home, reasoning that she could “let the edge of my blade turn them away.” Upon seeing her, Macbeth similarly notes, “It is not seemly for a woman to be warlike, especially one in your state,” but Gruadh doesn’t care what is seemly when she is protecting her family. Although Gruadh understands how a woman “should” act, when it goes against her priorities or principles she ignores societal pressure to be feminine.
In the end, Gruadh’s refusal to follow strict guidelines of femininity serves her well. As Macbeth’s wife, Gruadh understands that she must maintain the domestic sphere but also that she must learn more about traditionally “masculine” areas of politics and the military. She notes, “I knew that a mormaer’s wife must be aware of such issues, and the wider scope of the world beyond her household.” When Macbeth prepares to meet Duncan in battle, Gruadh insists on coming with him. She tells her husband “I will not wait in the hall with my needlework to hear word of your fate,” explaining, “You are Moray, and I am the lady here. Our region, and your very life are threatened this day. If the people see both of us riding at the head of our army, I believe they will rally behind Macbeth with greater loyalty than before.” Although he tries to resist Gruadh will not be dissuaded and the pair march together.
Graudh’s estimation proves correct: Macbeth observes, “Your presence is attracting more to our army, just as you thought,” and Gruadh even inspires other women to take up arms and join the attack. Although not quite yet a queen, she demonstrates that she has the intelligence, strategy, and bravery required.
As a mormaer’s wife and as queen of Scotland, Gruadh is required to be both hard and soft, to understand motherhood and the creation of life as well as war and the destruction of it. Although the binary of masculinity and femininity is reductive (men can and should be interested in domestic affairs and parenthood, women can and should be interested in politics), Gruadh manages to inhabit the best characteristics of both halves of this binary, and this helps her become a successful and powerful queen. What she understands, and what few others manage to grasp, is that the role of a queen requires strength and independence generally not expected from women. After Maeve argues that a woman “tends to matters inside the home” while a man “tends to matters outside,” Gruadh thinks to herself, “A queen tends to both.”
Gender Roles ThemeTracker
Gender Roles Quotes in Lady Macbeth
Drostan, who has long known me, has a fine hand with a pen and hopes to write a chronicle about me. This would be an encomium, a book of praise, for his queen. I told him it was a silly notion. […] From what my advisors say, Malcolm Canmore—ceann mór in Gaelic, or big head, two words that suit him—will order his clerics to record Macbeth’s life. Within those pages, they will seek to ruin his deeds and his name. My husband cannot fight for his reputation now. But I am here, and I know what is true.
“A princess of Scotland has no use of those skills.”
“Scathach was also a princess,” I pointed out. “Scathach of the old legends, who had a school for fighting on the Isle of Skye and taught the heroes of the Fianna their skills—”
“I know the tale,” he said curtly. “Those were older days. It is not your place to fight, but ours to defend you, if need be.” […]
“I am your direct heir now,” I reminded Bodhe. “I must be prepared, since you say I could be a queen one day, and my husband a king. So men will always argue over me, and more deaths will occur on my account.” […]
“You have a warrior spirit,” he admitted, “for a gently raised daughter.”
“Scathach of Skye,” I reminded. “No one would have stolen her away.”
“The truth is in what Moray offers,” [Bodhe] said. “Every mormaer of that region has an ancient right tot be called Rí a Moreb, king of Moray. His wife can be called ban-rí, queen. Just now, Gilcomgan and King Malcolm support one another. But if the Rí a Moreb ever summoned men to revolt, the strength of that army would be such that the mormaer of Moray could himself be king over all Scotland.”
“And marriage to me could ensure that for Gilcomgan. Or for our son,” I added. […] He looked hard at me. “Even carrying the blood of Celtic kings, you cannot rule alone. You need a strong and ambitious husband.
“Our blood needs one,” I corrected bitterly.
In the afternoon I looked up toward the ridge of a hill and saw a stand of tall pikes thrusting up like slender trees. The point of each carried a decapitated head, black and gruesome, pitch-soaked to preserve them a long while, until they decayed to skulls […] Aella gasped, near to retching, and hid her eyes with her hand. Bethoc looked away. But I stared, horrified and transfixed, even when Ruari and Conn drew their horses alongside to urge us onward. I remembered that my guard and my only brother had been beheaded but […] never piked.
I would not shrink form the grim display Someday I might have to show toughness for such things, even if I quailed within. As wife to Scotland’s most powerful mormaer, it was in my interest to understand the ways of men and warfare. My own life might turn on that knowledge one day.
Together they had conspired to kill Gilcomgan and wrest Moray from him. Macbeth had overtaken my future, and my child’s, out of his own ambition and desire for revenge. My fingers let go the clutched yarn, red strands unraveling like blood to pool on the floor. I turned to leave, to suppress my anger, as Bodhe might have done. But I was not my father.
Swords sparked bright against the wall, where a few of them leaned, unused. One of them was my own. I snatched it up and turned back to face the men. “Upon this sword, which Bodhe gave to me,” I said, “I swear to protect my child from all your cold scheming. Listen to me,” I said through my teeth when Macbeth stepped forward. “No more of Bodhe’s blood shall suffer for your ambitions!”
They stood still, king, husband, and housecarls. An oath made on a blade was a fierce thing and never taken lightly. I wanted them to understand that I was not helpless, no pawn to stand by while their plans destroyed by father’s proud line. Wild Celtic blood ran strong in me, a legacy of warriors, warrior queens, and sword oaths. It was not the wisest thing I have done; it was something foolish, something brave.
Peace and acceptance were not pretty threads in my wool basket that winter. I realized that I was alone in my resentment and anger. Others readily accepted Macbeth as the new mormaer, soon calling him Moray when they addressed him. […]
One day Maeve pulled me aside. “Find some peace for yourself,” she said. “This grief and torment will poison your babe.”
That night I sought out Elgin’s little wooden chapel, intending to pray for serenity and forgiveness. When I pushed open the door, I saw that Macbeth was already there, on his knees before the alter. He wore only a simple long shirt and trews, and for a moment I did not know him. His head was bowed, glinting dark gold in the light of candles. I saw him cover his face, and then he prostrated himself on the worn planks of the floor like a suffering pilgrim.
Faith is a private thing to my thinking, and here I witnessed an intimate side of the man. He appeared contrite, even tormented. I guessed at his sin, the murder of his first cousin Gilcomgan. By the teaching of the Church, it could blacken his soul and affect him for all eternity come judgment Day, if not expunged.
Backing away, I closed the door. I felt a stir of sympathy for a man who felt such clear anguish within himself. When I wanted to hate him most, I could not. By inches and breaths, my resentments faded, much as I strived to stoke them.
“I hear,” Macbeth said, “that wives of other mormaers, even kings, stay at home where they are safe, and keep mute about steel-games unless asked for their opinion.”
“I am none of that cloth.” […]
Walking through dry sand to meet my friends, having witnessed by husband do cold murder, I yet felt a stirring admiration for him as a capable warlord. That day, as at other times, he had demonstrated uncompromising will, as well as physical ability and courage. He revealed a strong sense of what was right and what was not, and what was possible between those points—and he took steps to achieve it.
Whether or not he knew it, I considered myself his capable equal, not a subservient wife. Raised by a warlord in a nest of warriors, I would not be regarded as significant in my small household circle, only to be dismissed beyond its boundaries.
“Men,” Catriona said, “understand life and death differently than women. Ours is to give birth, life, and comfort. We cannot bring ourselves to take life, knowing its struggle and value.”
Somehow this saintly show of opinion irritated me. “If I had to kill to save a life, mine or my son’s,” I said, “I would do it.”
“Rue is trained at arms,” Bethoc said proudly.
“Lady Gruadh has a stiffer backbone than I do,” Catriona said. “It is my work to bring life into this world. My heart is far too tender to destroy it.”
“That is not my intent,” I defended. “The lady of a powerful region must have a martial spirit as well as a virtuous one. I would not hesitate to put on armor and take up a sword, if such was needed for the good of all.”
“There must be some kind of justice and recompense for these deaths!”
“Justice will be brought,” Macbeth said low.
“When?” I asked, splaying my hands, slim fingered and beringed, on the table. Such feminine hands for such hard masculine thoughts. The urge sprang in me like a dark wolf within. I did not like it, but fed it nonetheless. It is the way of things, Bodhe would have said. “When will you avenge my kinsmen? Tomorrow? A year from now?” […]
“If one of Bodhe’s bloodline held the throne someday,” my husband then said, “it would be far more lasting revenge than bloodshed now.”
“The old legends are filled with such women—the great Irish queen, Macha, and Princess Scathach of Skye, who trained warriors in her fighting school, and also her sister Aoife, who bested Cu Chulainn and bore his son […] Celtic women have fought beside their men since before the names of kings were remembered. And even though Rome forbids Gaelic women to fight, it is rightful enough according to our customs.”
“They forbid with good reason,” Maeve said, bouncing Lulach on her lap. “Women have enough to do and should not have to go out and fight men’s battles, too.” […]
“The eyes of the Church cannot easily see beyond the mountains of the Gaels,” I said, “where warlike behavior in a woman is not sinful heresy, and is sometimes even necessary.” And I remembered my early vows—as a girl taking up a sword to defend herself, as a woman swearing on a sword to defend her own. Another facet of my obligation to my long legacy came clear: if others were so set on eliminating my line, and I and Lulach the last of it, then I would be steadfast as any warrior.
“Your weapons practice and your desire for vengeance,” Maeve told me one day, “are hardening you, dulling the bed of your womb. How can you expect to conceive a child when you feed yourself on spite and anger? Those are poisons for the body.”
She made me think, I admit, and she made me wonder. But I did not stop, not then. […]
“Your wish for vengeance is sinful,” [Father Osgar] told me one day after confession, when we walked a little. “But it is understandable. Let prayer and faith heal you.”
“I cannot give it up,” I said. “I am not yet done with this.”
“Give it up or keep it close,” he answered, “but know that until you find some peace in your heart, I will pray on your behalf. Grief is sometimes like a sharp-toothed demon that gets hold of our hearts. But its grip weakens with time, and one day you will be free of it.”
“Your husband Macbeth will be remembered among the greatest of his ilk, the kings of Scotland,” she said. “One of your sons will be a warrior. Not the others.”
“Others,” I repeated, pleased. “Monks, then, or abbots? Bards, perhaps.”
“They will not be,” she murmured slowly, eyes very dark, “warriors.”
A shiver slipped down my spine. […]
“Carry this warning to your husband. I have told him the same, but tell him again from me. Beware the son of the warrior whose spilled blood will make him a king.”
I stared. Her cloak, when she turned, was a swirl of utter blackness, so that I stepped back for fear the portal to the other side, open that night, might overtake me.
I did not repeat her message to Macbeth.
Although I had a place on his war council, lately he had not included me, claiming I needed rest. I did not. I needed something more to do, for my household was smoothly run, and my son was finding his way in the world more and more without his mother. With no other little ones to fill my arms, as I should have had by then, I lacked enough to do. […] I watched carefully as I could over Macbeth’s Moray in his absence, and the responsibly was no chore. Later I realized that in small and large ways, I had begun to prepare myself for what might come. Queenship in its many aspects was not a teachable thing, yet instinctively I tutored myself with charitable works and sword training. Inch by ell, I became the small queen of Moray in more than name alone.
I brought my dilemma to Macbeth, too. “What if God is punishing me for grievances and ambitions, for sometimes wanting you to be king, no mater the cost?”
“Be patient,” he said, as he often did. “What will we give our children without the kingdom that is our lineage, and theirs? All will come to us in time, including sons.”
Maeve, who wanted me to produce another babe so that she could knee-nurse again before she was too old, said she knew what was wrong. “It is willfulness and old grief, poisoning your womb. You want to be a warrior, and you want to be a mother. A woman keeps to home and family, and tends to matters inside the home. A man keeps to war games an tends to matters outside.”
A queen tends to both, I wanted to say, but did not. She would not understand.
“I made a sword vow years ago to protect my own, and I will keep it. I have a home and a son to protect, and I have a husband to support as best I can. All my life I have lived a female among Celtic warriors. My sword arm is trained, my bow and arrow are swift, and I have already bloodied the blade. Know this—my determination is in place. I will go with you.”
Macbeth took my horse’s bridle. “Each one who rides with me contributes to the whole. Your skill I will not argue, but your fortitude is little tested. You would require guards to protect you, and that detracts from the whole.”
“Have you not made it your purpose to uphold the old ways, the ancient ways, of the Gaels and the Celts?” The horse shifted under me, and I pulled the reins. Macbeth still held the bridle. “Celtic women have always fought beside their men.”
Watching the prow of the boat surge through lapping waves, I knew that I had protected Malcolm from retaliation. By honoring my promise to his mother and following my own heart as a mother, I had prevented his murder as a boy. And he had returned, just as the mormaers had warned. I had brought this tragedy about.
But if that chance came again, I could not order the deaths of children. A devil’s bargain, that, to choose sin or grief. Closing my eyes, I rested my face in my hands and struggled, overcame a weeping urge. What I had done had been most rightful, though it came with a hard price. It was the way of things.