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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,



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"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...

(This entire section contains 2185 words.)

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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. 210Macduff. My children too? (to Ross, ignoringMalcolm) Ross. 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. 215Macduff. 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.240Exeunt.


(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, 220).6

So who "has no children" in line 216? Malcolm, who is present, or Macbeth, who is not? The gloss in David Bevington's Bantam edition (1988) reads, "i.e., no father would do such a thing (?), or he (Malcolm) speaks comfort without knowing what such a loss feels like (?)" (4.3.217n). If "no father" is as presumably meant to be Macbeth, this note levels opposing solutions to the problem of ambiguity of reference—the "indeterminacy" or "indefinition" of a sort—and the differences of interpretation attending it. To my present way of thinking, the immediate context and the whole scene quite readily disambiguate by themselves, but the local reference in this case is also germane to Macbeth and Macbeth in relation to the meaning and significance of the whole play.7

When such critical questions arise—about the parental status of the Macbeths, for example—it is natural for students of all kinds to turn from the script itself to diverse authorities, such as current scholarly and reading editions; studies of the play in performance and performances themselves; perennials like A. C. Bradley's Shakespearean Tragedy (1904) and later discussions like Geoffrey Bullough's Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare (1975); and classic essays on or near the subject, notably L. C. Knights's celebrated (and for its title notorious) "How Many Children Had Lady Mac-, beth?" and Cleanth Brooks's equally celebrated "Naked Babe and the Cloak of Manliness." The respective collections of their own essays reprinting these came out in the same year, 1947, two years after the end of World War II, appropriately enough, nearly half a century ago but still—or again—worth reading, along with Bradley and many studies now out of print.

For its comprehensiveness and circumspection the first of all resorted to—and also the last, often enough and for good reason—might well be Marvin Rosenberg's masterful Masks of Macbeth (1978), which makes a case both persuasive and (in an appendix) genially speculative for the Macbeths' parenthood. He sums up the critical position at the time as represented by the Variorum edition of 1901-3, which, "canvassing a spectrum of criticism, cites about as many who refer the He to Macbeth as to Malcolm" (554). Perhaps that is still the case at this end of the century, but it is not easy to tell, because when the half-line is not glossed in place or somewhere else it is impossible to know the editor or critic's view further than to suppose that he must have thought interpretation obvious and a gloss redundant.8 And if obvious, then by implication Shakespeare's unambiguous intention. Editorial silence seems to mean that "He" is Macbeth. The lengthier the gloss, the more likely is identification of "He" as Malcolm, who is technically eligible as "yet / Unknown to woman" (126-27), if he is telling Macduff the truth at that point; but such a contrast suggests that his proponents may protest too much, Occam's razor-wise.

Perhaps the most self-assured recent case for Malcolm is given by Nicholas Brooke in his Oxford/World's Classics edition (1990, 4.3.216n):

1. Malcolm would not offer such a simplistic cure if he had children of his own; 2. Revenge on Macbeth's children is impossible because he has none; 3. If Macbeth had children, he would not have slaughtered others. The first sense seems to me an inevitable snub to Malcolm's glib haste. See proverb "he that has no children knows not what love is," Dent C341 (emphasis mine)

—which proverb applies as well—and better—to Macbeth.

The locus classicus of modern critical reasoning on the subject is Bradley's Note EE, beginning "Three interpretations have been offered of the words 'He has no children'" (399). Brooke (1990) naturally follows Bradley's exposition there with his own "spin," as does Kenneth Muir without spin in the New Arden edition (1962, 4.3.216n), whose neutral description reads,

There are three explanations of this passage, (i) He [Macduff] refers to Malcolm, who if he had children of his own would not suggest revenge as a cure for grief. Cf. John III.iv.91: "He talks to me that never had a son." This was supported by Malone and Bradley. (ii) He refers to Macbeth, on whom he cannot take an appropriate revenge. . . . (iii) He refers to Macbeth, who would never have slaughtered Macduff s children if he had had any of his own. Cf. 3 Hen. VI V. v. 63: "You have no children, butchers if you had, / The thought of them would have stirred up remorse." (Delius). I adhere to (ii). (emphasis mine)

Bradley had cited in more detail the parallels in King John and Henry VI, Part Three (5.5.63): in King John, "Pandulph says to Constance, 'You hold too heinous a respect of grief,' and Constance answers, 'He talks to me that never had a son'" (399), a parallel supporting Malcolm. In 3H6 "Margaret says to the murderers of Prince Edward, 'You have no children, butchers! if you had, / The thought of them would have stirred up remorse'" (400), a parallel supporting Macbeth; but Bradley "see[s] no argument except that the words of Macduff almost repeat those of Margaret; and this fact does not seem to have much weight. It shows only that Shakespeare might easily use the words in the sense of (c) if that sense were suitable to the occasion" (400).

Bradley's reasoning in favor of Malcolm is sound, as far as it goes, and I do not slight it here in quoting only his conclusions and primary reasons. Unlike Muir later, Bradley could not "think interpretation (6 [= ii]) the most natural," partly because

Macduff is not the man to conceive at any time the idea of killing children in retaliation; and that he contemplates it here, even as a suggestion, I find it hard to believe. . . . Macduff listens only to Ross. . . . When Malcolm interrupts, therefore, he puts aside his suggestion with four words spoken to himself, or (less probably) to Ross (his relative, who knew his wife and children), and continues his agonised questions and exclamations. (400)9

There are two main arguments against Macduff s referring to Malcolm. The first and most obvious is the immediate dramatic context itself. The difference between Bradley's neutral and Brooke's indignant characterizing of Malcolm's attempted interventions demonstrates the latitude and subjectivity of perception here, but the primary emphasis should be not on Malcolm's "glib haste" (or whatever it is) but on what Macduff's dialogue shows of himself: he is in shock, preoccupied with his loss and its causes, his guilty absence as he sees it and the murderer acting in his absence. He gives no hint that he even hears Malcolm until his third try; and, while an actor's delivery could easily effect a glancing reference to Malcolm, such reference is gratuitous, the more so in reproach of Malcolm. In the lines in question, 216-19, his concentration alternates between his murdered children and their murderer—"He" (Macbeth), all his children, "hell-kite" Macbeth, his children and their mother:

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?

This intense concentration does not change direction until Malcolm's "Dispute it like a man." From there to the end of the scene Malcolm and the just retribution in prospect carry his attention and his animus, which includes his self-rebuke to "sinful Macduff and his invoking "gentle heavens" to

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!


The scene ends on a stirring martial note that heralds the coming end of oppression and the Tyrant, advancing the "Western" aspect of Macbeth toward the showdown and the morality play that combines poetic justice with the tragic finale.

I should add that I think—not everyone does—that Malcolm's character in the entire play and in this scene as King-in-waiting is that of a worthy successor to Duncan very like his father, one whose attempted interventions with Macduff seem intended to be seen as sympathetic, and tentative and inexperienced in such cases rather than as gauche, callow, and deserving of rebuke.10 Within the earlier part of the scene there is little enough to go on, however, which partly justifies Bradley and others' confining their attention to the immediate context alone: earlier Macduff was first shocked by Malcolm's confession of his vices of lust and avarice, and then stunned by his abrupt change when convinced of Macduff's integrity. Not surprisingly, to Malcolm's "Why are you silent?" then, he replies laconically, "Such welcome and unwelcome things at once / 'Tis hard to reconcile" (137-39).


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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 children (4.3.217), he is a 'Monster' (5.7.54). Macbeth's isolation is fully brought out in the last Act" (emphasis mine).

The ambiguous question of parental status is forced tantalizingly upon any interpreter's attention, critical or theatrical, at several points. Presumably we are meant to believe that Lady Macbeth has "given suck" (1.7.54), as she says she has;11 and though Macbeth tells her to "Bring forth men-children only!" (1.7.72), there is no evidence in the received text of when she might have had this experience of breast-feeding (a Scottish practice not shared by upper-class English women), and no explicit reference made to a child or children dead or alive begotten by Macbeth or born to Lady Macbeth. In the sources Lady Macbeth had at least one son (Lulach) by an earlier marriage (to Gillecomgain, Bullough 433), and those may well explain the origin of "I have given suck"—but cannot explain its significance and effect in the play as we have it, where the details in context are

I have given suck, and know How tender 'tis to love the babe that milks me; I would, while it was smiling in my face, Have pluck'd my nipple from his boneless gums, And dash'd the brains out, had I so sworn as you Have done to this.


In a play in which others' children figure so prominently by themselves and in relation to their parents—Banquo's, Duncan's, Macduff s and Lady Macduff s, Old Siward's, and one might add the second and third Apparitions as well as Banquo's royal descendants—this is a curious oversight. Certain it is that Macbeth is haunted by his fear of Banquo, for "'Tis much he dares" (3.1.50), despite the fact that he might well find reason for security in Banquo's further strength, that "He hath a wisdom that doth guide his valor / To act in safety" (52-53), except that "under him / My genius is rebuked, as it is said / Mark Antony's was by Caesar" (54-56). He immediately recalls of the Weird Sisters that speaking to Banquo,

prophet-like, They hail'd him father to a line of kings. Upon my head they plac'd a fruitless crown, And put a barren sceptre in my gripe, Thence to be wrench'd with an un lineal hand, No son of mine succeeding. If t be so, For Banquo's issue have I fil'd my mind, For them the gracious Duncan have I murther'd, Put rancors in the vessel of my peace Only for them, and mine eternal jewel Given to the common enemy of man, To make them kings—the seeds of Banquo kings! Rather than so, come fate into the list, And champion me to th' utterance!

(58-71, emphasis mine)12

"No son of mine" stillborn or otherwise dead, or living now, or to be born hereafter. But one thing is very clear about the play as we have it, that we see no Macbeth child, son or daughter, and we hear no unequivocal reference to one. It would be reasonable (if idle) therefore to infer that Macbeth offspring were little if at all on Shakespeare's mind, as they well might not be, since he had none in the sources. "Following" sources in silence leaves ambiguous traces (propter hoc or only post hoc?), but the play as it is concentrated on Macbeth, the relationship between wife and husband, and to a lesser extent Lady Macbeth herself.13

It is surprising that in his classic essay on the play Cleanth Brooks says nothing at all about these matters, but as his title implies his interest was especially in the contrasting symbolism of pity, as with "the naked babe" of 1.7, and with the mere "cloak of manliness" of one who dressed but could not act the part ("Now does he feel his title / Hang loose about him, liked giant's robe / Upon a dwarfish thief," 5.2.20-22ff.)

It is not surprising that L. C. Knights in his ironically witty title did not address his own question, because his purpose in discussing "a re-orientation of Shakespeare criticism" (Explorations 15, "How Many" part 1) was to discourage the study of Shakespeare's characters as persons in their own right beyond the limits of the plays in which they are articulated.

[T]he bulk of Shakespeare criticism is concerned with his characters, his heroines, his love of Nature or his "philosophy"—with everything, in short, except with the words on the page, which it is the main business of the critic to examine. I wish to consider . . . how this paradoxical state of affairs arose. To examine the historical development of the kind of criticism that is mainly concerned with "character" is to strengthen the case against it. (20)

Concluding, with the polemical exclusiveness usual to theoretical claim-staking, that "the only profitable approach to Shakespeare is a consideration of his plays as dramatic poems, of his use of language to obtain a total complex emotional response" (20), in part 2 he asks "How should we read Shakespeare?" and gives as example a detailed analysis of Macbeth (ii), beginning "Macbeth is a statement of evil" (32)—"but it is a statement not of a philosophy but of ordered emotion" (45). In keeping with his method, he says nothing of the "I have given suck" speech in relation to character or action, but finds it an instance of "the violence of the imagery" that complements "explicit references to the unnatural" (37).14

Both essays seem to me salutary for and beyond their day, and I see little enough to fault in either their orientation or their particular treatment, insofar as both were very much interested in the play as written, and attending to important aspects of the play previously neglected or ignored altogether. Because they are critical and text/ script-centered, such addresses translate readily enough into the terms of theatrical performance and criticism.


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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)


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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 least on the evening of 21 August 1996 at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre.15

I admire unabashedly a view that humanizes a protagonist increasingly desperate and cornered by entertaining as his motive his natural concern for his son's patrimony, and on that account I warmly applaud "Lady Macbeth's Indispensable Child" (Rosenberg, Masks 671-76), the more so when the author's witty caveat is over the entrance to qualify his generosity:

Every Shakespearean is entitled to an imaginative speculation now and then, as long as he labels it speculation. This appendix speculates on an extratextual possibility in the staging of Macbeth. Anti-speculationists are warned. (671, author's emphasis)

No anti-speculationist I, just a pro-inferentialist, to whom 4.3 and the play say and show that Macbeth is the man of the hour in his play until he is out of time, a giant even as a "dwarfish thief," the Tyrant whose assassins have indeed battered at the peace of Macduff s wife and children (and also brought them the peace that passeth all understanding), and the King of fruitless crown and barren scepter accordingly on Macduff s distracted—hypothetical—mind as "He" who "has no children" and has been driven to desperation and libericide to try to prevent a future that comes upon him pari passu with his striving. That seems to be what makes Macbeth a tragedy, what made Macbeth Macbeth.


1 Quotations from Macbeth are from G. Blakemore Evans's Riverside Shakespeare, 2d ed. (1997).

Modern editions differ in the number of scenes in act 5. Hunter has six scenes. The Folio (followed by Brooke) has seven, occupying TLN 2395-2529 on a single opening at nn3v-4r (758-59 of Charlton Hinman's Facsimile). Editions with eight scenes (e.g., Bevington, Foakes, Harbage) begin scene 8 at TLN 2435 ("Why should I play the Roman fool, and die"). Editions with nine scenes (e.g., Dent, Evans, Muir) begin 9 at TLN 2477 ("I would the friends we miss were safe arriv'd"). Wells and Taylor (and after them Greenblatt) have eleven scenes, distinguishing two scenes at TLN 2415 ("That way the noise is. Tyrant, show thy face!") and 2427 ("This way, my lord, the castle's gently render'd").

There are typographical and formal reasons (e.g., "Exeunt" and "Exit") in F itself for nine or eleven scenes, but the practical effects on the stage or in the reading are slight indeed; and, since fewer than 100 lines are involved, passages are easily located in any text.

2 For "the last" as fulfilling the first of the Weird Sisters' caveats, see my note, "Macbeth's 'Yet I will try the last' What?" The last caveat given in 4.1 is the first to be realized in a moving Birnam wood in 5.5; the second ("none of woman born") remains second, leaving the first given as "the last" to be tried.

3 Stephen Booth (106-11) gives detailed and witty attention both to 4.3 and "to Malcolm's behavior" as "the most perverse element in a perverse scene" (107), concluding that "Malcolm and Macduff are and remain our allies, but in the morally insignificant terms of our likes and dislikes as audience to an entertainment they are—because this scene is—irritating to us" (111). "Shakespeare develops the socially and emotionally awkward exchange between Ross and Macduff in such a way that it resembles the work of a clumsy playwright. Not only does Macduff have to prod Ross, he does so in lines that lack verisimilitude and seem prompted by the despair of a writer who does not know his trade" (110). One doesn't have to share this view to find it thoughtfully and productively provocative.

4 Similar circumlocutory dialogue continues until Ross gives the awful news, beginning in line 204.

5 Lines 208-9 may go some way to explain the apparent design of Lear's last speech—a single half-line—and death in the 1608 Quarto version of the play, "Breake hart, I prethe breake" (L3), if the line in Q is Lear's by design and not by misplaced speech-heading: it is Kent's line in the Folio.

6 Evans and Muir make a single line of blank verse of the part-lines (220). Bevington, and Wells and Taylor (+ Greenblatt), treat both Malcolm's speech of three iambic feet and the two feet of the first line of Macduff's reply as short lines aligned with the left margin, like the ambiguous Folio (TLN 2069-70), in which part-lines of blank verse are all so aligned. Brooke leaves "I shall do so" as a short line, joining "Dispute it like a man" with "At one fell swoop?" (219). The distinction among the three would be lost in the theater and is of mainly editorial significance—there being some justification for all three—on the page.

7 Most undergraduates, in my experience, infer without hesitation that "He" is Macbeth, which I accordingly take to be the natural, spontaneous reading and often assume without comment in discussing the play in the classroom—where in spring 1996 Oliver Thoenen, a history major originally from the United Kingdom, who had done Macbeth on his A levels, rightly drew me up short with the note in Bevington s Bantam edition (just quoted). The present essay germinated from class discussion of the matter.

8 Among post-1950s editors silent on "He" are Dent, Evans, Harbage, Hunter, and Greenblatt. I sympathize with this exercise of editorial restraint.

9 Noting that Bradley "strongly supported the view that this refers to Malcolm," R. A. Foakes (1968) continues that "it is more often taken as a reference to Macbeth" and that he "think[s] Macduff has Macbeth in mind" (4.3.216, 127).

10 Garry Wills has recently expressed the view that

Malcolm becomes a physician to Macduff s grief for his wife and children. .. . It is true that Malcolm is manipulative here, as in the testing scenes. He is fashioning Macduff into an instrument of his purpose. . . . The shrewd manipulator is far closer to James's image of himself than is the wimp or milksop Malcolm so often seen on the stage. Malcolm only takes his proper station in the play if we see him as the great counter-witch pitted against Macbeth. He has "purged" and strengthened Macduff. Now he launches him at the target, "devilish Macbeth." (123-24)

11 There is in fact no way of knowing whether she remembers or fantasizes—as well as no reason to doubt her. Thus it is easy to see why some might argue that Shakespeare fulfilled his dramatic intentions in the contextual impact of this speech, without giving further thought to the child or children alluded to, presumably because not part of his envisioning and design. Stephen Booth writes that "Lady Macbeth's mysteriously missing children present an ominous, unknown, but undeniable time before the beginning" (94); and that's true, too.

12 It is significant that while Macduff invokes "gentle heaven" to related purposes, Macbeth invokes "fate" and brings it on himself, not unassisted but of his own will in a special application of the idea that "character is fate" (Novelis), which George Eliot (The Mill on the Floss, 1860) thought "one of his questionable aphorisms" (6.5) but Thomas Hardy approved (The Mayor of Casterbridge, 1886, chap. 17). The idea is expressed first in the West by Heraclitus: ήθ υθρώπ δαίμωυ

13 In round numbers supplied by Marvin Spevack's Character Concordance (in vol. 3, Tragedies) based on the first edition of Evans's Riverside Shakespeare, Macbeth has 32% of the dialogue to Lady Macbeth's 12%, ranking fifth in percentage of dialogue behind Hamlet (of course; 39%), Timon (36%), Henry V (33%), and Iago (33%—.02% less than Henry).

14 It follows that his treatment of 4.3 looks beyond character: "the conversation between Macduff and Malcolm has never been adequately explained" (42). It has three functions, "but the main purpose of the scene is obscured unless we realize its function as choreic commentary. In alternating speeches the evil that Macbeth has caused is explicitly stated, without extenuation. And it is stated impersonally" (43)—and he quotes in illustration. Since in much of the scene "the impersonal function of the speaker is predominant, . . . [t]here are only two alternatives: either Shakespeare was a bad dramatist, or his critics have been badly misled by mistaking the dramatis personae for real persons in this scene" (44).

15 Tim Albery, director; Roger Allam as Macbeth. Cf. Rosenberg:

In the theatre some Macduffs have alluded to Macbeth, some to Malcolm. The New Monthly Magazine, in 1828, complaining about one stage Macduffs implication that Macbeth was meant, argued for Malcolm, "who is so forward with his counsel to a heartbroken father." ... [Leigh] Hunt, too, saw Macduff turning away from Malcolm as "unable to understand a father's feelings," rather to Ross, for sympathy. When a Macduff of Kean's played it as Hunt suggested, the critic was impressed at the "deep and true effect . . . far beyond that which can be produced by any denunciation of impotent vengeance." (554)


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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? (Macbeth V. Viii. 32)." N&Q 247, no. 4 December.

Dent, R. W. 1981. Shakespeare's Proverbial Language: An Index. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Hinman, Charlton, prep. 1968. Norton Facsimile: The First Folio of Shakespeare. New York: Norton. Macbeth 739-59.

Knights, L. C. 1933; rev. ed., 1947; New York: New York University Press, 1964. "How Many Children Had Lady Macbeth?" In Explorations: Essays in Criticism Mainly of the Literature of the Seventeenth Century.

Rosenberg, Marvin. 1978. The Masks of "Macbeth." Berkeley: University of California Press.

Shakespeare, William. Macbeth. Edited by David Bevington, 1988. Bantam Shakespeare. New York: Bantam.

——. 1992. The Complete Works of Shakespeare. New York: Harper.

——. 1997. The Complete Works of Shakespeare: Updated Fourth Edition. New York: Longman.

——. Edited by Nicholas Brooke. 1990. Oxford Shakespeare/World's Classics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

——. Edited by R. W. Dent. 1969. Blackfriars Shakespeare. Dubuque: Wm. C. Brown.

——. Edited by G. Blakemore Evans. 1997. The Riverside Shakespeare. 2d ed. Boston: Houghton. Macbeth 1355-90.

——. Edited by R. A. Foakes. 1968. Bobbs-Merrill Shakespeare Series. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill.

——. Edited by Stephen Greenblatt. 1997. The Norton Shakespeare Based on the Oxford Edition. New York: Norton. Macbeth 2555-2618.

——. Edited by Alfred Harbage. 1956; rev. ed. 1971. Pelican Shakespeare. New York: Penguin.

——. Edited by G. K. Hunter. New Penguin Shakespeare. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

——. Edited by Kenneth Muir. 1962. New Arden Shakespeare. 9th ed. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

——. Edited by Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor. 1986. William Shakespeare: The Complete Works. Oxford: Clarendon.

Spevack, Marvin. 1968. A Complete and Systematic Concordance to the Works of Shakespeare. Vol. 3, Tragedies. Hildesheim: Olms. Macbeth 663-750.

Tilley, Morris Palmer. 1950. A Dictionary of the Proverbs in England in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Wills, Garry. 1995. Witches and Jesuits: Shakespeare's "Macbeth. " New York: Oxford University Press.

Source: "Who 'Has No Children' in Macbeth?," in Shakespearean Illuminations: Essays in Honor of Marvin Rosenberg, edited by Jay L. Halio and Hugh Richmond, University of Delaware Press, 1998, pp. 164-79.


Time for Such a Word - Verbal Echoing in Macbeth