I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about Lady Macbeth’s attitude towards being a wife and mother. In order to specify how she feels about it, I have had to dig deeper into her feelings about gender roles overall, particularly her own limitations due to her sex/gender.
To me, this character is aware of her own abilities. She knows she’s smart, strong, cunning, and convincing; however, she thinks she can do more than she is able to. For example, she genuinely believes she is strong enough to kill Duncan herself, even though she later realizes she is not. In my opinion, at the beginning of the play, she views her sex/gender as the obstacle keeping her from being all that she could be. Although she views masculinity/manhood as strength, as evidenced by her pleas to the spirits during the “unsex me here” speech, she is aware of her own womanhood. Our production includes some female warriors–Lennox and one of the Murderers–which adds an interesting layer to the matter. It would be different if women weren’t allowed to be soldiers at all. Perhaps Lady Macbeth isn’t unable to achieve all of the things she wishes she could just because she is a woman, but also because of her higher socioeconomic status? Or, if she’s been a wife to someone else before marrying Macbeth (as I believe she has, both historically and within the context of the play), perhaps that is what kept her from living a life outside of being a wife/mother.
That said, I think Lady Macbeth takes the duties of a wife very seriously. Even though she believes she could be so much more than a wife, she wants to be the absolute best wife EVER, because that’s all she’s ever going to get. I think her main motivation throughout the play is rooted in her deep love & loyalty to her husband. She wants the best for him, and she wants to be a vital instrument in securing his success. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that she will get to be queen also, since her own success is extremely important to her!
Switching gears a bit: at the start of the process, I was on the fence about Lady Macbeth’s opinion on motherhood. Scriptwise, the mention of breast milk in the “unsex me here” monologue and the part where she says she “knows how tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me” indicates that she does have a child. The child does not appear in any scenes, however, and they make no mention of a specific child in the latter half of the play (that I have noticed). I wanted to do some more research in case there was something I was missing. Before spring break, I took advantage of the UMW Library’s archives and downloaded some articles that I thought might help me figure out how my interpretation of the character would feel about it:
- Marvin Rosenberg’s article “Lady Macbeth’s Indispensable Child”
- Stephanie Chamberlain’s article “Fantasizing Infanticide: Lady Macbeth and the Murdering Mother in Early Modern England”
- John Britton’s article “AC Bradley and Those Children of Lady Macbeth”
Rosenberg’s article took a different approach than I previously considered: claiming that the child mentioned is that of both Macbeths, and that providing a good future for him is their motivation for taking the throne (13). Rosenberg points out that Macbeth’s murder of Banquo comes after he has already become king, and that the reason he wants Fleance dead is so the part of the prophecy that says Banquo’s descendants will become kings won’t come true. Rosenberg also had some interesting things to say about the child’s influence on Lady Macbeth’s emotional journey over the course of the play (see below).
I agree that Lady Macbeth is a complex being with a softer side and a darker side. I also agree that Macbeth’s letter about Duncan changes her, and that her prayer to be unsexed and to give up her womanhood (and consequently, her motherhood as well) is not to be taken lightly. I even agree that Macbeth’s murder of Banquo and Fleance is directly related to his own feelings about fatherhood. What I don’t agree with about this article is Rosenberg’s assertion that the child’s father is Macbeth. From the discussions Neal and I have had about this topic, we agree that the Macbeths deeply want a child that is theirs, but that this desire has yet to be fulfilled.
I think Lady Macbeth views children as legacy. Macbeth can become king and create a legacy of his own, but that’s not enough for her. If they create a genetic line, their legacy continues on forever, even after Macbeth dies.
Chamberlain’s article was the most interesting to me, as well as the most helpful. It placed the issue within a broader cultural context, as she writes, “Lady Macbeth’s act one fantasy [of dashing her baby’s brains out] reveals much, in fact, about the early modern anxiety surrounding mothers’ roles in the perpetuation of patrilineage” (73). Of course, as Helen pointed out to us during scansion sessions, in this world kingship is not passed down through families. I did appreciate Chamberlain’s dissection of the fears surrounding maternal power and agency, because it provides another possible reason why Lady Macbeth may want to have a child with her husband. Whether it’s because it establishes a potential legacy or because she wants Macbeth to have what he wants, it is true that any child she bears could also become king someday. Therefore, a child is another avenue through which she can gain control and influence.
Chamberlain’s discussion of wet-nurses was also thought-provoking for me. The scholar was focused on Lady Macbeth’s rejection of the maternal role by threatening to “dash the brains out” of her breastfeeding child, but that section of the article sparked questions of a different subject for me…
I suspect the child Lady Macbeth is talking about breastfeeding is one sired by her first husband. At first, I thought she would most likely ignore the child because it would serve as a reminder to Macbeth that they do not yet have one together. After rehearsing the scene a few times, I changed my mind because it is a stronger choice for her to “dash the brains out” of something she genuinely loves. Now that I know she could have employed a wet-nurse but chose not to, I know she must love that child. If she has made the choice to breastfeed him herself and establish that nurturing connection with him, she must have a reason.
Britton’s article states that while the question of whether Macbeth had children is interesting in its provocation, the scholar AC Bradley and many other theorists believe the answer doesn’t affect the characters or the play. As you can tell from the rest of this post, I beg to differ. I think it was important for me to see the other side of that argument, however, so as to affirm my belief in the issue’s importance.
As rehearsals continue, I’m sure I will find new things about this topic. I will continue to study the script and keep an eye out for articles that might provide a new perspective. I can feel myself getting closer to figuring out who this woman is, and that’s really exciting for me. 🙂