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.

in thunder, lightning, and in rain

I’ve just started teaching Macbeth for the sixty billionth time. Okay, the fifty billionth time. Well, actually it’s the twenty-third time, but the point is that in the course of a teaching career there are some texts that come up over and over again. People think this must get tedious. My standard reply is to remind them of all the Maths teachers, teaching Pythagoras’ Theorem and quadratic equations year in year out, or the biologists with photosynthesis, or the French department conjugating present tense verbs: now that’s what tedious is. With Macbeth, at least you’ve got some blood and guts involved.

There are some parts of Macbeth that are fantastic to teach. I’ve just got to the end of Act One Scene Three with my Year Tens, and we’ve been focusing on how Shakespeare builds up a sense of Macbeth in our minds before we even meet him. There’s that tantalising mention by the witches in Act One Scene One: what do they want with him, exactly? And then there’s the account of his prowess in battle by the wounded captain in the next scene, telling us of his sword that smokes with bloody execution and of how he killed the treacherous Macdonwald by unseaming him from the nave to the chaps. Scotland has been invaded by Norway, and a number of Scottish thanes have betrayed their king: in fighting against them, Macbeth is cast as not only brave and ruthless, but also loyal. So, we’ve got mixed messages about him. It’s not surprising, then, that he reacts to the witches in the way he does. He starts, and seems afraid. It takes him a while to find his voice. And when he finds out that he is indeed going to become Thane of Cawdor, his mind starts to work overtime. On Friday, we looked at his aside in Act One Scene Three, where Shakespeare explores the thoughts that are beginning to take shape:

[Aside] Two truths are told,
As happy prologues to the swelling act
Of the imperial theme. — I thank you, gentlemen. —
This supernatural soliciting
Cannot be ill, cannot be good. If ill,
Why hath it given me earnest of success,
Commencing in a truth? I am Thane of Cawdor.
If good, why do I yield to that suggestion
Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair
And make my seated heart knock at my ribs,
Against the use of nature? Present fears
Are less than horrible imaginings.
My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical,
Shakes so my single state of man that function
Is smothered in surmise, and nothing is
But what is not.

Look at the quibbling in this speech. He doesn’t know whether the witches’ words are good or bad. If they’re bad, why have they brought him something good? If they’re good, why are they making him think of something so awful that he can’t even name it, so terrible that it makes his heart pound and his hair stand on end? Nothing is but what is not; fair is foul and foul is fair. This is a man whose world is about to be turned upside-down, who is contemplating something that goes against everything his identity has been built on.

Macbeth also introduces students to the idea that you need to know something about the context of a work of literature in order to inhabit its imaginative world. There are the obvious things that students can research – beliefs about witchcraft in Shakespeare’s England, the Divine Right of Kings, and the status of women – but I also like to show them images of Hell from the ‘doom paintings’ that decorated the walls of medieval churches, to show them that Hell was something that Shakespeare’s audience would have seen as very real and utterly terrifying, and therefore to underline just what Macbeth faces as a result of killing Duncan. There’s a fantastic example in the church of St Peter and St Paul at Chaldon in Surrey. It dates back to the thirteenth century, and depicts the seven deadly sins and the weighing of souls. In one image, the condemned are thrown into a boiling cauldron, with leering demons poking them with giant forks: in another, some poor unfortunate is suspended by his ears while his nether regions are roasted over an open fire. Imagine sitting in church every Sunday, looking at pictures of flame-grilled genitals and eternal torture: that’s what Macbeth has in store for him. The other thing I like to get them to do is to find out when Macbeth was first performed, and then to find out the date of the Gunpowder Plot. Why would James I have been so keen on a play that points out the evils of regicide? You can see the students putting the dates together. Oh.

Doom mural at St Peter and St Paul, Chaldon (Source: Peter Trimming at Geograph Britain and Ireland; licensed for reuse under Creative Commons)

The main problem I have with Macbeth is that it jumps the shark. There are the brilliant early scenes with Lady Macbeth, the murder of Duncan, the unravelling of Macbeth’s mind, the breakdown of his relationship with his wife (look at how he tells her, just before the murder of Banquo, to ‘be innocent of the knowledge, dearest chuck’, and contrast it with how much he needed her earlier in the play). There’s the chaos unleashed in Scotland, the banquet scene, and Macbeth’s return to the witches. And then there’s that tedious conversation between Malcolm and Macduff, and the unravelling of the second set of prophecies. And it’s all a bit rubbish. I remember sitting in a Year Eleven lesson when I was studying Macbeth for GCSE, and thinking, ‘is that it?’ Some verbal quibbling about a C-section, and a group of men cutting down branches? Compared with the end of King Lear, it seems contrived, a bit of a trick. You’d tell him to go back and have another go, if you were his beta reader.

I expect you know that Fleance, in Roman Polanski’s 1971 version of Macbeth, was played by Keith Chegwin, later of Swap Shop, Cheggers Plays Pop and, after several years in the wilderness, the Channel 5 gameshow Naked Jungle. Did you know, though, that Paul Farley wrote a poem about Chegwin’s role? It’s here, at the Poetry Society website. The most atmospheric Macbeth I’ve ever seen: the production in the crypt of the Norman church of St Peter in the East in Oxford, now the library of St Edmund Hall. It was December 1991, the end of my first term, and there were actual bats flapping around. And my favourite Macbeth-related moment: back in 2017, when we were driving up to Orkney, we passed through Birnam, and a group of forestry workers were cutting down trees.