The Children of Macbeth
The child of the Macbeths, although never seen, unravels the presence of masculinity, brutality and rage.
In Shakespeare’s England, boys and women were similarly viewed as politically marginalized subjects. In their early years, all children were dressed in long skirts and kept within the domestic space with the women. It was only at the age of seven that gender differentiation became culturally marked: boy children were breeched (i.e. dressed in breeches) and moved out of the feminine sphere. The first few years of childhood, and indeed the word ‘child’ itself, were therefore gendered female.
As we see in many of Shakespeare’s plays, to be female is to be weak, vulnerable, and ultimately powerless. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the violent world of Macbeth.
At the level of language, childhood in Macbeth equals emasculation. Lady Macbeth accuses Macbeth of looking with ‘the eye of childhood’ when he balks at returning to the body of the murdered Duncan. Later, trembling at the appearance of Banquo’s ghost, Macbeth berates himself for being ‘[t]he baby of a girl’ – either a girl’s doll or a baby girl. Only when the ghost has disappeared can he be ‘a man again’.
‘Pity’ is also described as a ‘naked new-born babe’. But there is no room for pity in this world – it must be extinguished like the children of the play. Lady Macbeth imagines tearing the suckling baby from her breast and dashing its brains out. The witches put the finger of a baby, strangled at birth, into their cauldron. Even Macduff is ‘untimely ripped’ from his mother’s womb.
The worst act of brutality towards children, however, does not occur merely at the level of language but happens in front of our very eyes. In Act 4 Scene 2, the play brings two new characters on stage – Lady Macduff and her young son – simply to have them ‘savagely slaughtered’ by Macbeth’s hired assassins. It is a shocking scene that can feel gratuitously violent in performance. Indeed, it was omitted from performances of Macbeth from the Restoration throughout much of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries because it was deemed too graphic.
The short but tender exchange between Lady Macduff and her son prior to their deaths only adds to the feeling of horror when they are both murdered. By humanizing the boy and drawing attention to his youth through epithets such as ‘bird’, ‘monkey’ and ‘prattler’, Shakespeare heightens the pathos of his heroic defiance in the face of the killers.
Macduff’s son is humanized and individuated, yet he remains nameless. In the speech prefixes in the First Folio of 1623, the first printed edition of the play, he is merely called ‘son’. This is significant because it enables him to function as an emblem of childhood innocence, while simultaneously eliciting audience empathy as an individual.
What is particularly interesting about this scene is that Shakespeare deliberately reworks his source material, the historical chronicles known as ‘Holinshed’, to reinforce further the helplessness of the innocent child in the face of tyrannous power. In Holinshed, Macbeth knows of Macduff’s flight and yet expects him to be still at home when he attacks the castle: ‘he came hastily with a great power into Fife, and forthwith besieged the castell where Makduffe dwelled, trusting to have found him therein’. The target of Macbeth’s murderous rampage is thus Macduff himself and not his unprotected family.
In Shakespeare’s play, on the other hand, Macbeth specifically orders the murder of Macduff’s wife and children, in full knowledge of the fact that Macduff has already fled to England to join forces with Malcolm. He determines to ‘surprise’ Macduff’s castle and murder ‘[h]is wife, his babes, and all unfortunate souls / That trace him in his line’. By making Macbeth’s prior knowledge of Macduff’s flight so unequivocally clear-cut, Shakespeare presents the murders as senseless, premeditated and motiveless acts of brutality borne out of a generalized hatred towards children and what they represent.
Moreover, Macbeth receives no intelligence that suggests he should fear the descendants of Macduff. The apparitions that are summoned during his visit to the three weird sisters warn Macbeth to ‘beware Macduff’, but the ‘show of eight Kings’ in response to his question ‘shall Banquo’s issue ever/ Reign in this kingdom?’ are not Macduff’s descendants but those of Banquo.
Ironically Fleance, Banquo’s son, is the only child to escape the clutches of Macbeth’s hired murderers. He runs away in Act 3 Scene 3 and is never seen again. The play is silent on the eventual fate of Fleance, leading directors in recent years to fill in the gaps and bring him back in the final scene.
One notable example is Justin Kurzel’s 2015 film adaptation, which sees Fleance ripping the sword from the grasp of the murdered Macbeth and running towards the castle where the newly crowned Malcolm is ensconced. Fleance is back, as this closing montage suggests, to fulfill the witches’ prophecy and seize the crown by as violent and bloody means as Macbeth himself.
The child that has haunted both scholarly writing and the production history of the play does not appear on stage but exists merely as a ghostly absence. That is the missing child of Lady Macbeth. The play is notoriously equivocal on this subject. Lady Macbeth says that she has ‘given suck’, meaning that she has nursed a child, and yet Macbeth talks of a ‘barren sceptre’ and a ‘fruitless crown’. Moreover, in response to hearing that his family has been murdered, Macduff says, presumably referring to Macbeth: ‘He has no children’.
What are we to make of these apparent contradictions? Sigmund Freud described Macbeth as a play ‘concerned with the subject of childlessness’ and directors in recent productions have tended to agree, taking the text’s ambiguity and resolving it into a backstory of child-loss.
‘The child that has haunted both scholarly writing and the production history of the play does not appear on stage but exists merely as a ghostly absence’
According to this reading, the Macbeths are motivated to murder because they are grieving the loss of their child. Andrew Hilton’s 2004 production at the UK’s Bristol Tobacco Factory, for instance, had Lady Macbeth sleepwalking in a room with a shrouded cradle and rocking horse. Taking a slightly different approach, Maja Kleczewska’s Polish-language Makbet staged at the Globe in 2012 had a heavily pregnant Lady Macbeth later appear flat-stomached and grieving the loss of her baby.
Of course, we will never know what Shakespeare intended nor how the textual ambiguities were resolved in the play’s first performances. However, as Shakespeare’s most child-obsessed play, Macbeth provides rich material for theatre-makers to explore what childhood and childlessness might mean – both then and now.