Sunday, 8 December 2013

‘My dearest love’: The Macbeths; or how to succeed at marriage

When Duncan and Banquo arrive at Macbeth’s castle, they take a moment to enjoy the surrounding landscape and local wildlife: 

This castle hath a pleasant seat, the air
Nimbly and sweetly recommends itself
Unto our gentle senses.

                                    This guest of summer, 
The temple-haunting martlet, does approve,
By his loved masonary, that the Heaven's breath
Smells wooingly here; no jutty, frieze,
Buttress, nor coign of vantage, but this bird
Hath made his pendant bed and procreant cradle;
Where they must breed and haunt, I have observed
There air is delicate.

Now, we can read this as just a nice little passage; some light relief from all the dark, claustrophobic, demonic things that happen elsewhere in the play. The little martlet does ‘haunt’ the castle, but it does so benignly; it’s a bird that only breeds if the air is good and wholesome, or ‘delicate’. There isn’t a cannibalistic horse in sight (2.4.18)—yet. But there is something more interesting going on here; something about how the martlet uses the Macbeths’ castle, and about that couple’s own domestic situation.

‘[T]his bird | hath made his pendant bed and procreant cradle; | where they must breed

This is the perfect Scottish retreat in which to bring up children. Banquo and Duncan realise this, as do the birds. So why do Macbeth and Lady Macbeth have none?

This is actually a question that has been asked by many critics and directors of the play, and there isn’t really a satisfactory answer. Indeed, most people tend to fudge what I argue is one of the key interpretative issues in the play: the Oxford editor, Nicholas Brooke, admits that ‘it should be impossible to go behind the direct assertion of a dramatic character and question its veracity unless the context gives her the lie. Macbeth does not retort “When did you ever give suck?”; so there it is, she did. Or did she? […] it is impenetrably ambiguous whether she means it, let along whether it is true or not.’ (Macbeth, p. 14) This is typical of criticism, but, I think, misguided.

The internal evidence in Lady Macbeth’s ‘I have given suck’ speech (1.7.47–59) briefly alluded to above, seems to offer a conclusive answer to the question: she is sure about the reality of her once-upon-a-time motherhood. The speech makes a big deal out of the move from the indicative (‘I have given’, ‘I know’) to the conditional/subjunctive (‘I would’, ‘had I so sworn’), which is in turn answered by Macbeth’s hedging ‘If we should fail?’ (59). It is interesting that Lady Macbeth should make the transition from concrete declamations of action to hypothetical ‘what ifs’; Macbeth, we notice, goes in the opposite direction—from ‘If chance will have me King, why chance may crown me’ (1.3.44, my emphasis), from prophecy and ambition, to the King of Scotland running against a moving wood that he never thought would come (‘At least we’ll die with harness on our back’ [5.6.52]). Both characters begin and end the play on opposite sides of an epistemological divide—opposite both in terms of themselves but also in relation to each other. As Lady Macbeth moves from knowledge to uncertainty to complete senselessness so Macbeth becomes surer about what he must do and about the outcome. She is the yin to his yang, complementing him in this strange dance toward their respective destructions, but they are not the same. 
There is of course a midpoint between their two journeys, and we see this when they meet, literally and mentally, outside Duncan’s chamber after the murder in act 2 scene 2. He finally acts rather than just thinking about doing so, committing himself to the event and forcing himself to see it through—‘I have done the deed’ (2.2.15)—which, thanks to Lady M’s persuasiveness, constitutes a complete sea change from his opening speech about why he should abandon their plan in act 1 scene 7. She, on the other hand, starts to lose heart when she sees Duncan sleeping (‘Had he [Duncan] not resembled | My father as he slept, I had done’t. [2.2.13–14])—it’s as though between the two of them all bases are covered but they can never occupy the same space simultaneously.

Anyway, back to the birds. There is a sense that the martlet scene is just crude foreshadowing of the plot: it should be a pleasant home, full of the laughter and the joy of children, free from domestic cares, but ends up being a place of murder, treason, and paranoid tyranny. We realise that there is a disconnect between what Banquo and Duncan say (happy fathers both) and the reality of the Macbeths’ lifestyle—we expect bad things to happen. But in a play that is obsessed with prophecy and things fated, we should see this as another form of pre-destined knowledge; the Macbeths don’t have children in a place where they should, precisely because what we witness happening over the course of the story was always going to happen.

There is something odd about Lady Macbeth’s talking about a child she has reared. If it is a true fact—and I tentatively believe it is—it is only a fact for her. Brooke is quite right to say that ‘Macbeth does not retort “When did you ever give suck?”’, but it is clear he has never been a father. A. C. Bradley discusses this very issue in his lecture on Macbeth (Shakespearean Tragedy, p. 395) and suggests that: ‘It may even be, or have been, her [Lady M’s] child by a former husband; though if Shakespeare had followed history in making Macbeth marry a widow (as some writers gravely assume) he would probably have told us so.’ This is interesting, though I’m unsure about how far to take this point precisely because Shakespeare never did tell us so. Macbeth never mentions a child from the past, but only ever looks to the future, to his legacy. Indeed, Macduff tells us explicitly that ‘He has no children’ (4.3.216). But he wants to: ‘Bring forth men-children only’ (1.7.73). He expects to have children, at least in part of the play, sometime later. When Banquo is told he will have sons who will rule, Macbeth can’t let this happen because they are a threat to him (and his as yet unborn successors). Macbeth just can’t think ‘I’ll be King for now, and seeing as I have no offspring, when I die Banquo’s sons will take over, good for them’, but instead he collapses the future with the present: Fleance and his brothers are a problem for Macbeth now because he is alone, only himself, he has no children to secure his position as king.

Regardless, children are a problem for the play. How do you deal with fathers and sons in a world where to be a son is no guarantee of inheritance; where to be a prince does not automatically make you a king (1.4.38–40)? Is Fleance really a threat to Macbeth or is that threat merely imagined? (He does, after all, manage to escape—like Malcolm—and revenging sons always get their way in Shakespeare: Edgar King Lear, Hamlet and Laertes in Hamlet, Richard III). But where do you draw the line? Killing Macduffs family seems gratuitous, paranoid, not politically estute; at least Richard III killed children he knew would cause him a headache later on.

Lady Macbeth is often taken to be the more ruthless and, in some productions, thoroughly evil character than her husband. This is to grossly misunderstand who she is and what her motivations are, I believe. Her brutal self-determination comes from nothing more than love for her husband, a man for whom she has failed to deliver a child—made more disappointing if she did have one before her marriage with Macbeth. When she is told of the witches prophecy, she makes her decision to fulfil it at all costs: ‘Glamis thou art, and Cawdor, and shalt be | What thou art promised’ (1.5.14–15). She knows that ‘Thou [Macbeth] wouldst be great, | Art not without ambition, but without | The illness should attend it’ (17–18). In other words, her husband is too decent a human being to do what is necessary to get the crown; and we see this is true in his own speeches near the start of the play. So she takes on the sin; becomes sexless; ‘top-full | Of direst cruelty’ (41). Not because she is, but because he isn’t. She does it because she knows he cannot. It is the ultimate sacrifice; the ultimate act of selfless love. There is no mention of herself in this entire speech, no ‘I’, only ‘you’; only him, only Macbeth.

The price she pays is insanity, doomed to relive the horror of the murder every night, unable to wash away the blood, unable to clean the stain from her own once-wholesome conscience. Until it becomes too much and she ends her own life. And all Macbeth can do is wish for a Tomorrow that will never arrive to mourn for her. For now, for the present, he has other things on his mind, things he once thought could never happen—walking trees, unmothered sons—things that, unlike everything else, Lady Macbeth never thought about either.

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