On Children and Natural Limits in Shakespeare’s Macbeth

Close readers of Shakespeare’s Macbeth will notice there is something curiously missing from the Scottish play –namely, a child of the Macbeth family. In one rare moment during which Lady Macbeth pushes her hesitant husband toward killing King Duncan (while Macbeth is in the midst of contemplating “Pity, like a naked new-born babe”), she claims to have once given tender suck to a baby. Though she also later admits that she would have bashed the child’s brains out in exchange for usurping the crown of Scotland. Her lust for power, perhaps a symptom of her dark prayer to become ‘unsexed,’ overwhelms her once-natural desire to nurture a child.

“I have given suck, and know
How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me:
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have pluck’d my nipple from his boneless gums,
And dash’d the brains out, had I so sworn as you
Have done to this.” (1.7, 62-67)

Where is this child she speaks of? Based on information in the text, we can infer that the Macbeths once had a child but that they do no longer. Perhaps the child died of illness, or it was killed. Whatever the case may be, the ghost of the child lingers over the Macbeth household like a dark omen. Later, after being shaken out of his regicidal hesitance, Macbeth commands his Lady to “bring forth men-children only!” Her gall and mettle is unyielding and Macbeth suggests her lack of tenderness would be unfitting for a daughter, however we in the audience are fully aware that the Macbeths will not produce any more children, either sons or daughters. Their family tree is dead at the root.

This obsession with untenable offspring indicates something unnatural about the Macbeths and their childlessness. All the other Thanes have produced offspring of their own –Banquo is a doting father to Fleance, Duncan plans to hand his throne to Malcolm while tending to his other son Donalbaine, while Macduff boasts a household with numerous children. In each case Banquo, Duncan, and Macduff all possess substance of their own, a family to protect and care for, something to occupy their minds rather than the naked pursuit of power. And also their children bring hope for the future, a hope which Macbeth lacks (as exemplified in his “tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow” soliloquy).

Also as a matter of politics, childbirth seems to be connected to the Scottish regime itself. The late King Duncan transformed the elected kingship of Scotland into a rule of primogeniture modeled on England, and thus the importance of producing heirs has become paramount. However during the evening when all the attendees engage in drunken revelry, Lady Macbeth admits “that which hath made them drunk hath made me bold” while Macbeth slaughters the king. And in the morning when Macduff bangs on the castle door, the Porter who answers the call mumbles about how alcohol is a potion that causes lechery, or to put it another way, the drink is a catalyst for the kinds of acts which might produce a child, but the Macbeths are not drunk in this way. They are concerned with only destructive activities. Instead of giving birth and growing their bloodline, they can only tear things down –the murder of Duncan, the murder of Banquo, the slaughter of the Macduff family, and even the calloused killing of the Scottish general Siward’s young son. Macbeth’s childlessness is linked to his tyranny. At one point, Macbeth acknowledges that his rule is a “fruitless crown” and a “barren scepter” –his parental status thus affects the unfolding tragedy of his kingship. Generally speaking, children provide grounding for a king, as well as natural limits on parents which, we might say, tempers certain unjust impulses in this case. The Macbethian regime is filled with injustice, it survives upon a cycle of death and vengeance which is apparently unredeemed even at the end of the play as Malcolm claims the throne even though the witch’s prophecy suggests Fleance will one day return and claim the throne for himself.

Shakespeare, himself, lived through the end of the reign of a childless monarch –Elizabeth I, the famed Tudor Queen who never married nor produced any offspring. Perhaps in this “fair and foul” play Shakespeare subtly acknowledges Elizabeth’s deprivation as queen, in a play that is widely accepted to have been written and performed before the court of the new Scottish Stuart king, James I, son of Mary Queen of Scots (Elizabeth’s notorious nemesis). Perhaps there is a lesson here for the ascendant king. Rulership is about more than simply assuming a title. There is something natural about a leader who biologically invests himself in his crown, who plants a seed in the ground and watches it grow, who embraces art and high culture, who fights his city’s foreign enemies (rather than his personal adversaries) while providing a vision of hope for the future. A ruler governed solely by personal ambition does not understand the true burden of leadership. The “tyrant” Macbeth had once made the false assumption that simply by murdering a king and claiming the hollow throne he could become king with little else to follow. In other words, he once believed any person could become a king, simply by exchanging robes and placing a crown upon his head. Instead, Shakespeare points us toward natural laws and limits not only placed upon a king, but also on a city itself.

For this reading I used the essential Arden 3rd Edition of Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

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