Who Has No Children in Macbeth? - Essay

William Shakespeare


(Shakespearean Criticism)

Who "Has No Children" in Macbeth?

Tom Clayton, University of Minnesota

He has no children.

Macbeth 4.3.216

He that has no children knows not what love is.

Tilley, Dent C341

The Masks of Shakespeare's plays demonstrate throughout that Shakespeare's ways make a settled view of his proceedings impossible to maintain unaltered so long as one continues to return to the scene of his playwrighting. The view I hold of Shakespeare's Macbeth at this writing is that he is a villain-hero—more than a mere protagonist—fatally ambitious but once full enough of the milk of human kindness to require letting by his wife in order to dare do more than may become a man, and so become none. He lives just long enough to know himself, too well, a regicide and worse, and to die in action by another's deed of the kind that made him a hero in the first place. He thus restores in a measure, however high his head upon a pole at play's end, something of the sometime man in place of the type and title of his reign, The Tyrant. He is throughout the observed of all observers, like Hamlet in this and in his vividness of imagination. His hope shattered in "success," he passes through security to desperation. The Weird Sisters gave him the first two, by his subjective piecing out of the first alone and taking the second too trustingly for granted—until he hears the word of promise of his ear broken to his hope in the word of Macduff s birth from his mother's womb untimely ripped. The better parts of even a desperate Macbeth are both there in the end, as traces of the man of milk as well as of defender's blood he was and fleetingly becomes again:

Of all men else I have avoided thee [Macduff].
But get thee back, my soul is too much charg'd
With blood of thine already.


His initial lack of fear is due to his "security," but even when that proves to have been a delusion he accepts Macduff s challenge with alacrity:

Though Birnam wood be come to Dunsinane,
And thou oppos'd, being of no woman born,
Yet I will try the last. Before my body
I throw my warlike shield. Lay on, Macduff,
And damn'd be him that first cries, "Hold, enough!"


Famous last words, matter for an epitaph.

In 1.3 with fortune-teller's trifles like "hail to thee, Thane of Cawdor" (a transfer of title already declared by Duncan in 1.2.64-65 but news to Macbeth) and "hail to thee, that shall be King hereafter," the Weird Sisters marshalled Macbeth the way that he was going. When he goes of his own volition to visit them in 4.1, the dramatic (and literary) design, as foreshadowing, converges with motivation, mimetic action, and significance as prophetic truth itself, the power of which Macbeth seems to have conferred upon the Weird Sisters by killing Duncan and sealing his own fate. Each of their three prophesying caveats comes true—in reverse of the order in which they were given, and Macbeth dies to his deep damnation when he tries "the last"—that is, the first—of the Weird Sisters' caveats:

Macbeth! Macbeth! Macbeth! Beware Macduff,
Beware the Thane of Fife,



(Shakespearean Criticism)

"He has no children." The half-line is declarative, metrical and limpid, and apparently without depth or guile on anyone's part—until one asks who "He" is. And thereby hangs a tale. More hangs on the answer than appears at first glance, and the question requires referring not to those two familiar, mild-mannered misleaders, preemptive paraphrase and tendentious description, but to the primary evidence of word and other action of the context, for an answer. There is an unwritten standing law that quotations should be few and brief; when this law is combined with the fact that readers seldom have a copy of the subject texts open at their side, a not uncommon result is some critical slippage between text and reader, occasionally including slippage between text and critic that is compounded in the reader. The pertinent local context follows, with my interpolations (of 1, 2, and 3) marked by {}. In 4.3, the first subscene consists in the long duologue between Macduff and Malcolm on the latter's fitness for rule that is terminated when the Doctor enters for the subscene concerned with the miracles of Edward the Confessor, which in turn gives way to the third subscene with Ross's entrance (at 160) and arrival from Scotland with news that he is understandably loath and slow to deliver.3 Asked by Macduff, "Stands Scotland where it did?" he replies,

Alas, poor country,
Almost afraid to know itself! It cannot 165
Be call'd our mother, but our grave; where nothing,

But who knows nothing, is once seen to smile;
Where sighs, and groans, and shrieks that rent the air
Are made, not mark'd; where violent sorrow seems
A modern ecstasy. The dead man's knell 170
Is there scarce ask'd for who, and good men's lives
Expire before the flowers in their caps,
Dying or ere they sicken.
Macduff. O relation!
Too nice, and yet too true.
Malcolm. What's the newest grief?
Ross. That of an hour's age doth hiss the speaker; 175
Each minute teems a new one.
Macduff. How does my wife?
Ross. Why, well.
Macduff. And all my children?
Ross. Well too.
Macduff. The tyrant has not batter'd at their peace?
Ross. No, they were well at peace when I did leave 'em. 179


. . . . .

Ross. Your castle is surpris'd; your wife, and babes, 205
Savagely slaughter'd. To relate the manner,
Were on the quarry of these murther'd deer
To add the death of you.

{1} Malcolm. Merciful heaven!
What, man, ne'er pull your hat upon your brows;
Give sorrow words. The grief that does not speak
Whispers the o'er-fraught heart, and bids it break. 210
Macduff. My children too? (to Ross, ignoring Malcolm)
Wife, children, servants, all
That could be found.
Macduff. And I must be from thence!
My wife kill'd too? (to Ross)
Ross. I have said.
{2} Malcolm. Be comforted.
Let's make us med'cines of our great revenge
To cure this deadly grief. 215
Macduff. He has no children. All my pretty
ones? (to Ross, ignoring Malcolm)
Did you say all? O hell-kite! (i.e., Macbeth) All?
What, all my pretty chickens, and their dam
At one fell swoop?
{3} Malcolm. Dispute it like a man.
Macduff. I shall do so; (finally, to Malcolm) 220
But I must also feel it as a man;
I cannot but remember such things were,
That were most precious to me. Did heaven look on,
And would not take their part? Sinful Macduff,
They were all strook for thee! naught that I am, 225
Not for their own demerits, but for mine,
Fell slaughter on their souls. Heaven rest them now!
Malcolm. Be this the whetstone of your sword, let grief
Convert to anger; blunt not the heart, enrage it.
Macduff. O, I could play the woman with mine eyes, 230
And braggart with my tongue! But, gentle heavens,
Cut short all intermission. Front to front
Bring thou this fiend of Scotland and myself;
Within my sword's length set him; if he scape,
Heaven forgive him too!
Malcolm. This [tune] goes manly. 235
Come go we to the King, our power is ready,
Our lack is nothing but our leave. Macbeth
Is ripe for shaking, and the pow'rs above
Put on their instruments. Receive what cheer you may,
The night is long that never finds the day.240


(4.3-164-180, 205-40)

In this triologue, Malcolm is mostly silent but three times speaks briefly to Macduff as prompted by his verbal reactions to Ross's answers. Macduff does not respond to Malcolm, speaking only to Ross, formally and as much or more to himself, finally responding directly to Malcolm only the third time Malcolm speaks to him (4.3.219,...

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(Shakespearean Criticism)

The second argument and the more telling is the connection of him who "has no children" with the play as a whole. With Malcolm as "He," there is no connection of consequence, and the effect is local and the line an ephemeral throwaway. With Macbeth as "He," there is profound and reverberating resonance, and the line articulates a theme of the play and tacit motive of the protagonist hinted at elsewhere but made explicit—and succinctly so—here. As L. C. Knights describes one aspect of it (Explorations 40n), "The Macbeth-Banquo opposition is emphasized when we learn that Banquo's line will 'stretch out to the cracke of Doome' (4.1.117). Macbeth is cut off from the natural sequence, 'He has no...

(The entire section is 1073 words.)


(Shakespearean Criticism)

The local (in 4.3) and the global (the whole play, its world and its action) reciprocally affect each other according to the reader's interpretation or the actor's expression of their relationship and may also be said to effect each other, according to how either is interpreted and given priority, entailing a correlative significance in the other. If the Macbeths have children, or at least a child, then it would be nonsense for Macduff to say Macbeth "has no children." If there is no evidence that the Macbeths at the time of the play's action have children, for all practical purposes they have not. And it matters especially that Macbeth "has no children."

Closest to his wife in our perception when she reads his letter aloud before we see them together and again when they plan and execute their regicidal plot, Macbeth is by degrees cut off first from her, as he becomes progressively more depressed, fearful, and finally desperate; and then from virtually all but Seyton, by which time he has

. . . liv'd long enough: my way of life
Is fall'n into the sere, the yellow leaf,
And that which should accompany old age,
As honor, love, obedience, troops of friends,
I must not look to have; but in their stead,
Curses, not loud but deep, mouth-honor, breath,
Which the poor heart would fain deny, and dare not.


There is no mention of the unique solace of children, here, and the prospect of living progeny, greater than the earlier greatest, is behind. Macbeth is alone to face his future—his death and his damnation.

Finally, Macbeth's barrenness is significant as an unspecified but implicit motive for his killing others and their children, and it is significant in another—perhaps more—important way as symbolizing a moral desiccation and a spiritual sterility contrasting with the symbolic green thumbs (or fingers) of the "gardener"-kings, both Duncan the unfortunate and too trusting, who in 1.4.28-29 says he has "begun to plant thee [Macbeth], and will labor / To make thee full of growing"; and his son and heir, Malcolm, who, summing up his immediate obligations and responsibilities at the end of the play, says,

What's more to do
Which would be planted newly with the time,

. . . . .

.. . This, and what needful else
That calls upon us, by the grace of Grace,
We will perform in measure, time, and place.

(5.9.30-31, 37-39, emphasis added)


(Shakespearean Criticism)

Although the play, scene, and dialogue require identification of "He" for performance and for audience (and reader) understanding, a stage direction so refined might well seem impossible, Shavian, or absurd: easy enough as "glances at Malcolm" or "he means Macbeth" (SDs no editor understandably has seen fit to supply), but inevitably somewhat Shavian, and therefore not Shakespearean, if meant to indicate Macbeth and, more, suggest an array of nuances in action and verbal expression scarcely to be scored. It seems doubtful whether many stage or screen Macbeths can have referred "He has no children" to Malcolm, and I can say with certainty that Colum Convey did not in the most recent Macbeth I have seen, not at...

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(Shakespearean Criticism)

Booth, Stephen. 1983. "King Lear," "Macbeth," Indefinition, and Tragedy. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Bradley, A. C. 1904; reprints Shakespearean Tragedy. New York: Meridian, 1960.

Brooks, Cleanth. 1947. "The Naked Babe and the Cloak of Manliness. In The Well-Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry. New York: Reynal.

Bullough, Geoffrey. 1957-75. Major Tragedies: "Hamlet," "Othello," "King Lear," "Macbeth. " Vol. 7, Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare. New York: Columbia University Press. Macbeth 423-527.

Clayton, Tom. 1997. "Macbeth's 'Yet I will try the last' What?...

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