In William Shakespeare's play Macbeth, was Macbeth a traitor to his family? If so, what ways?

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vangoghfan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The title character of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth is more obviously a traitor to his king and nation than to his family. The only member of Macbeth’s family emphasized in the play is his wife, Lady Macbeth. Nevertheless, references to children do exist in the play, and, as Carol Chillington Rutter notes in an essay cited below, the literary critic L. C. Knights was famously troubled by

the kind of criticism that observed the discrepancy between Lady Macbeth’s Act 1 assertion, ‘I have given suck and know / How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me’(1.7.54–5), Macbeth’s traumatized meditation on his childlessness in Act 3 (3.1.60–73), and Macduff’s desolate cry in Act 4, ‘He has no children’(4.3.217) and, worried by apparent inconsistencies, tried to account for the Macbeths’ missing babies.

Most critics pay little attention these days to the issue of Macbeth’s children – or lack thereof – except to suggest that the absence of obviously present children in this play emphasizes the title character’s isolation and his almost total focus (and dependence) on his wife. By giving into evil impulses, Macbeth does betray his Lady’s best interests (although she initially encourages him to do so), and he also betrays the best interests of any children they may or may not have.

The absence of obvious children fathered by Macbeth also presents a strong contrast between him and Banquo (who does have a son and whose heirs will become kings of Scotland) and between Macbeth and Macduff, who is presented as a loving, grieving father later in the play – the father of children killed by murderers acting at the behest of Macbeth:

  • First Murderer. Where is your husband?
  • Lady Macduff. I hope, in no place so unsanctified 
    Where such as thou mayst find him.
  • First Murderer. He's a traitor.
  • Son. Thou liest, thou shag-hair'd villain!
  • First Murderer. What, you egg! 
    [Stabbing him]
    Young fry of treachery!
  • Son. He has kill'd me, mother: 
    Run away, I pray you! 
    [Exit LADY MACDUFF, crying 'Murder!' Exeunt]
    Murderers, following her]

Macbeth, lacking any obvious family of his own, is the destroyer or attempted destroyer of families belonging to others. He does not so much betray his own family as the families of others, whom he is obliged to protect in his role as king.