How many children had Lady Macbeth?

‘How many children had Lady Macbeth?’ That, of course, is the title of a lecture delivered by L.C. Knights in 1933. Knights was challenging the idea that Shakespeare’s characters can be treated as if they are real people, with lives that existed before the plays and go on afterwards. Because of this, he didn’t answer the question at all. For Knights, Shakespeare’s plays should be seen as dramatic poems: he had no time for what E.C. Pettet referred to as ‘the critical game of constructing a world outside the given material of the play’ (Shakespeare and the Romance Tradition, 1949). Nowadays, we are keen to remind students that Shakespeare’s plays were written for the stage, not the page. And thinking about the stage, of course, inevitably involves thinking about what is going on beyond the words themselves. We get students to consider set design, costume and sound effects: we show them examples of different stage and screen interpretations and make use of the insights offered by actors and directors. Often, these insights do exactly what Knights was opposed to, constructing backstories for characters and considering why they might act in the way they do. This week, Year 10 and I have been exploring different interpretations of Lady Macbeth; and I’m going to argue that rather than ‘how many children had Lady Macbeth?’, a far more interesting question is ‘how many children did Lady Macbeth lose?’

A declaration of interest, before I go any further. I write as a woman who is unable to have children, and literary and dramatic images of childlessness, child loss and alternative ways of building a family are of great interest to me. I’m writing a book that touches on the representation of adoptive families in popular culture, and I’ve got a future post brewing on the unfortunate Mrs Lyons, one of the lead female characters in Willy Russell’s curriculum stalwart Blood Brothers, who is desperate to have a child and therefore does what all infertile women do and arranges an illegal adoption. In recent lessons, my students and I have watched a number of interviews with actors who have focused on Lady Macbeth as a childless woman, and these have intrigued me. So let’s have a look.

Possibly not that grief-stricken: Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth, John Singer Sargent, 1889. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

What do we know about Lady Macbeth and children? We know, of course, that she has ‘given suck’: she says so, in Act 1 Scene 7, where she manages to persuade Macbeth to kill Duncan. Macbeth is initially adamant that they will ‘proceed no further’ with their plan. He has weighed up the consequences for his immortal soul, and knows that he will be punished in Hell for all eternity. (Remember that doom mural I posted a couple of weeks ago? That’s what he’s scared of). Lady Macbeth throws everything she can into her attempt to change his mind. She calls him a coward. (‘She says he’s a pussy!’ said one of my Year 10s, delightedly, seizing on the reference to ‘the poor cat i’th’adage.’) She claims he doesn’t love her. She tells him he’s not a real man, even though he’s a warrior who was on the battlefield a couple of days ago, unseaming traitors with a sword that smokes ‘with bloody execution.’ And then she reminds him, horribly, of the fact that

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.

So at some point, Lady Macbeth has fed a baby. And, assuming that it’s unlikely that she would have been a wet-nurse, it seems that at some point, Lady Macbeth has had a baby. We know – because Macduff says so later, when he discovers that his wife and children have been murdered by Macbeth – that Macbeth himself has no children. So this baby is no longer alive. And even though Macbeth proclaims that his wife should ‘bring forth men-children only’, suggesting that she is still of childbearing age, there’s a hint that the Macbeths’ failure to produce a living heir is something that weighs on Macbeth’s mind. This comes in his soliloquy in Act 3 Scene 1, when he ponders the fact that it will be Banquo’s descendants who become kings, and not his own:

Upon my head they placed a fruitless crown
And put a barren sceptre in my gripe.

‘Fruitless’, ‘barren’: the implications are quite clear. And once we start to join the dots, we can invent a whole backstory for the Macbeths that rests on their absence of a family.

The actor Louise Lombard, in a series of short videos made for the BBC in 2012, critiques interpretations that depict Lady Macbeth as some kind of ‘pantomime witch’ – like the BBC’s own 1970 production for its Play of the Month series, starring Eric Porter and Janet Suzman. Lombard argues that it’s more interesting to try to understand Lady Macbeth, rather than to condemn her. Her words about the baby, for example, ‘can be played as pure evil – as if she doesn’t care. But I think the Macbeths cared deeply about this baby. And I think understanding this baby helps me to understand Lady Macbeth.’

It’s a fascinating idea, and one that my students enjoyed exploring. In Lombard’s version, Lady Macbeth sees herself as the victim of some kind of cosmic injustice. In a society where the main role of a woman was to produce children, she has been unable to give her husband any living descendants. (And let’s not forget that Shakespeare’s audience, in the early seventeenth century, would have been finely attuned to the issues of inheritance, of bringing forth men-children in order to secure the line of succession.) Are Lady Macbeth’s actions fuelled by a desire to right these cosmic wrongs?

Similar interpretations of the Macbeths and their marriage have cropped up in a number of productions. Julia Ford’s depiction of Lady Macbeth in the 2011 production for the Liverpool Everyman was described by Alfred Hickling in the Guardian as expressing ‘a despairing hope that an empty throne might compensate for a barren womb.’ The 2015 film version, starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard, begins with the funeral of the Macbeths’ child, and sees Lady Macbeth talking to the ghost of her dead child during the sleepwalking scene. In such interpretations, the Macbeths become less a butcher and his fiend-like queen, and more a couple whose reactions to the world have been distorted by grief.

The idea of a Lady Macbeth consumed by her childlessness puts an interesting spin on her reference to the one character in the play who is actually a mother: Lady Macduff. ‘The Thane of Fife had a wife; where is she now?’ I’m imagining a Lady Macbeth twisted by her inability to give Macbeth a living son; a totally unhistorically-accurate and un-Shakespearean Lady Macbeth who has spent a lot of time at family gatherings surrounded by women who have done what they’re supposed to and produced brood after brood of pretty chickens. She’s there, sitting on the sidelines, consumed by failure. I can sympathise with this Lady Macbeth, because I’ve been there. I’ve never asked for evil spirits to fill me with direst cruelty or urged my husband to commit regicide, but I know that sense of wanting to rage at the universe because of what you’ve been unable to do. Her sleepwalking words carry the dark spite of someone who feels vindicated: you thought you had it all, down there in Fife with your perfect family, and look where it got you.

When I teach plays, I’m always keen to get students to imagine what’s happening on stage: not just where people stand and how particular lines will be spoken, but what might be happening in the gaps and silences. This is particularly important with Shakespeare, whose stage directions are so minimal. A brilliant example of this is in King Lear: what’s going on with all those riotous knights, and why does Goneril get so angry about them? In the RSC’s 2016 production, it’s made abundantly clear. They stomp around everywhere, have food fights, overturn furniture, make rude gestures with bread rolls, and try to grope the serving-maids. I’d be a bit cross if that was going on, especially once the Fool got up on the table and started arsing around with a ukulele. So can we imagine what Lady Macbeth might be doing, how she might be spending her time while she’s waiting for Macbeth to return from battle? Is she sitting beside her dead child’s cradle, struggling with her grief? Is this a recent loss, or an old one that she is still mourning? Why is she so isolated? What might she be looking at?

None of this, of course, is necessarily what Shakespeare intended, and it certainly wouldn’t please L.C. Knights. But it’s part of the whole process of playing with ideas and pushing interpretations to see how far they’ll go, and that’s one of the things that makes teaching English so interesting.

2 thoughts on “How many children had Lady Macbeth?”

  1. Fascinating, and I wish I had been taught like this! (Perhaps I was, and was too dense to get it.) I suspect I wasn’t, though, because I do remember as we neared the end of a collective class reading of Animal Farm, the English teacher saying “Um, you do all realise, don’t you, that this is all a metaphor for the Russian Revolution?” and my inward response was “OMG what on earth is the Russian Revolution, and why did you have to go and ruin a perfectly nice story about animals by telling us that?!” Anyway, I also wanted to add that I briefly mis-read “starring Eric Porter and Janet Suzman” as “starring Janet Street-Porter”, who I think would make a very… interesting Lady Macbeth 🙂

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    1. That would be very interesting! I do think she’s a far better character than Macbeth. I wonder how she spends her time, up there in Dunsinane. In the modern-day version of Macbeth that exists in my head, she spends a lot of time on Mumsnet.

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