Welcome to Witches of the West End, where we take obscure lines from iconic Shakespearean plays and throw as many scholarly references, historical contexts, and mad-cap speculations in until plot holes from over four hundred years ago get satisfactorily filled.
I know I am because today we’ve got child services on speed dial as we make sure the baby was not indeed thrown out with the bathwater when the Macbeth’s traded Thane-dom for Kingdom in the Scottish Tragedy.
There’s been a lot of speculation about Lady Macbeth over the years. I remember being in high school debating whether or not she was older than Macbeth, if this was her second marriage, and if the child she references was even his. Basically, any and every angle was explored to see why exactly she holds so much sway over her husband.
But I’ll admit that it never occurred to me to dig deep into the implications of three of her biggest moments to FINALLY put Lady Macbeth’s character to rest until recently. And it all comes down to one very important question:
When did she lose the baby?
Lady Macbeth first – and last – mentions the child in Act 1, Scene 7 to once again compel Macbeth to forsake all other thoughts but murderous ambition. She dramatically declares:
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 [kill the king]. (1.7, 62-67)
And that’s it. A disturbing claim that she’d willingly kill her own son if it meant that they’d get the crown, no mention of the kid anywhere else – and we know the Macbeth’s are currently childless, as we hear Macbeth bemoan that he has a “fruitless crown” and “barren scepter” later on (3.1, 66-67).
So the boy’s been dead since before the play began.
But that still gives a hell of a lot of leeway as far as to how long ago Lady Macbeth is referring when she says she nursed a child: a year? five years? fifteen years?
Well, after careful consideration, I believe it’s even less than a year since the death of MacJunior. And there’s plenty of evidence to back it up.
There’s an interesting “can’t unsee” phenomenon, looking at Lady Macbeth under the lens of mourning the death of their child. And yes, it is the death of their child. Cool as it is to ponder other options, I take you back to the “I have given suck” speech from earlier.
The simplest counterargument could be that the child she’s referring to isn’t one that she birthed, but rather someone else’s whom she nursed. However, remember that Lady Macbeth is a Lady. The two live in a castle waited on hand and foot. If anything, she would have had a wet nurse of her own to nurse a child which she bore. But, once again, this idea that noble people delegated child rearing is a serious generalization, it would be completely normal for a Lady to nurse her own child.
And seeing as Lady Macbeth had nursed her own child, this speech is a heavy-hitter for Macbeth. Remember also that while the two have been unable to conceive another child, it is not because either is infertile – Macbeth clearly references their baby-makin’ abilities just a few lines later, saying:
Bring forth men-children only,
For thy undaunted mettle should compose
Nothing but males. (1.7, 83-85)
So there’s nothing wrong in that department.
No, the only possible interpretation is that Lady Macbeth is speaking of their own child posthumously – the speech is a call to action as much as a bemoaning of the loss of a child, and these lines would have had little impact on Macbeth if she wasn’t talking about his own son.
Further, these words are likely a pointed comment on his role in their child’s passing – but more on that later.
For now, let’s go back to when we first meet Lady Macbeth and she’s invoking evil spirits to make her malicious. There’s a key line in that incantation which suggests not all of her malcontent comes from ambition:
Come to my woman’s breasts
And take my milk for gall, you murd’ring ministers… (1.5, 54-55)
Now, why would Lady Macbeth be talking about breast milk if she’s no longer nursing?
Turns out, nursing and milk production do not go hand in hand: a woman can produce milk long after she’s weaned the child; some women have reported continued production months later, some years later. So, in theory, Lady Macbeth could still be experiencing some form of lactation.
Sure, the statement could just be a heightened metaphor, referring to how the purpose of a woman’s breasts is to produce breast milk, a nutritious and sustaining essence, whereas gall (bile) would be something much more suitable to a woman bent on evil biddings.
However, couple this remark with the “I have given suck” and one starts to wonder if Lady Macbeth is stuck on the thought of nurturance. Bear in mind that she doesn’t have a complete mental break until after Macbeth has had Macduff’s family slaughtered, which included his children:
[Macduff]… All my pretty ones?
Did you say “all”? O hell-kite! All? (4.3, 255-256)
In the very next scene, we have the iconic “out damned spot” moment. Such a scene cement’s Lady Macbeth’s mental illness, to have it set side by side with the death of children is no coincidence.
And yes, astute reader, I said “cements her mental illness.” Because I DO NOT believe Lady Macbeth suddenly went crazy in Act Five. I believe she’s been suffering from mental illness this entire time.
Postpartum Depression with Psychotic Features and OCD*
Postpartum is a form of depression which affects mothers after childbirth. It can typically occur any time within the first year and can be caused by a multitude of factors, including hormones and stress. Postpartum has been found to occur in every 1 in 7 women. Fortunately, postpartum coupled with psychosis is much rarer (approx. 1 in 1,000), but has been known to develop.
Further, studies have shown that obsessive and compulsive thoughts have been known to occur in women during pregnancy and postpartum. Bookmark that fact for later.
The hallmark of postpartum depression is a feeling of not being bonded with the newborn, a feeling of detachment from what is meant to bring you bliss – postpartum psychosis is a variation which includes having excessive rage, agitation, or harmful thoughts.
*subtly recalling the speech where she was totally cool with bashing her nursing son’s head in*
In addition to a laissez-faire attitude towards infanticide, Lady Macbeth also has a bloated sense of self-importance – another symptom of postpartum psychosis. And finally, a woman with postpartum depression (coupled with psychotic features or not) could experience disruptive sleep patterns. If her disorder is also manifesting with obsessive-compulsive tendencies, I think we might see something like a woman sleepwalking and washing her hands:
[Lady Macbeth]: Yet here’s a spot.
… Out, damned spot! out, I say!–One: two: why,
then, ’tis time to do’t.–Hell is murky!–Fie, my
lord, fie! a soldier, and afeard? What need we
fear who knows it, when none can call our power to
account?–Yet who would have thought the old man
to have had so much blood in him.
… The thane of Fife had a wife: where is she now?–
What, will these hands ne’er be clean? (5.1, 33-45)
As said earlier, this scene follows closely on the heels of Macduff – the Thane of Fife – finding out his family was slaughtered… interesting how Lady Macbeth, a woman who had no knowledge or control over the massacre includes it in her “sin-laundering.”
Of course, part of Lady Macbeth’s concerns right now could be how her husband was capable of such a violent act, and is considering whether she may experience a similar fate in time.
However, throughout this dream state, she’s continuing to not only control Macbeth, but emasculate him as well with lines like “a soldier, and afeard?”Nowhere in this scene is there a statement which sounds like her pleading with her husband or imploring him, just more of the same controlling dynamic we’ve seen from the beginning.
Ultimately, the “thane of Fife” line is incredibly out of place as it’s neither a reflection of a crime she was involved in nor a sign of fear towards her husband. Only when we consider Lady Macbeth as a grieving mother does the phrase start to make sense.
Macduff’s wife died with her children. Perhaps what Lady Macbeth is observing now, between ‘episodes,’ is that while Lady Macduff is dead, she is in the same place as her offspring. This thought ties Lady Macbeth’s suicide into the plot: not only does she connect with Lady Macduff as a woman who’s lost her children, she realizes that she may reunite with her own son through death.
The decline of Lady Macbeth’s sanity is steady from Act 1 to 5. However, to think she didn’t start to lose it until the end is narrow-minded; and contextually unfounded, because there is one final piece which confirms she’s been struggling since Macbeth went to war.
War Hero Symmetry
Right at the beginning of Act 5, before we have the classic, “out, damned spot” speech, Lady Macbeth’s gentlewoman drops some serious truth to the doctor:
[Doctor]: When was it she last walked?
[Gentlewoman]: Since his majesty went into the field, I have seen
her rise from her bed, throw her night-gown upon
her, unlock her closet, take forth paper, fold it,
write upon’t, read it, afterwards seal it, and again
return to bed; yet all this while in a most fast sleep. (5.1, 2-9)
The thing about this line is two-fold:
- If you think this is referring to the war Macbeth is currently undergoing, it ain’t; because Macbeth hasn’t gone “into the field.” Recall that the witches told him to fear nothing until Burnham Wood came to Dunsinane, meaning he doesn’t take the rebellion too seriously until much later – in the next scene he has yet to even put his armor on.
- We have never seen Lady Macbeth do the action the gentlewoman is describing now – yeah, we’ve never seen her wash her hands, but we understand why she’s sleep-washing them, because of an act of murder we’ve seen the Macbeth’s perform.
This act of writing a letter precedes the events of the play.
Now, I know what you may be thinking: if Lady Macbeth’s been doing this as long as we’re suggesting, why hasn’t her gentlewoman contacted a doctor sooner?
Well, that’s because Lady Macbeth hasn’t been talking about murdering a dude until now!
Her gentlewoman is a loyal and faithful servant, who would be invested in protecting her mistress’s reputation; it would be likely that she’d do her best to protect her lady as long as the actions were harmless. And, as disturbing as sleepwalking would be, writing a letter would be essentially harmless, although it would suggest underlying distress – most likely stemming from the event which caused the need to pen a letter.
So what could be something so important that it would require a letter during wartime, and so heinous that it would weigh heavily enough on her mind to cause sleepwalking?
Consider the events:
- A war-torn Scotland takes her husband and father of their child away during the delicate stage of infancy
- The child succumbs to disease, either due simply to the hygiene of the period or to a higher risk of such brought about by the war.
- Grieving, Lady Macbeth takes on a more masculine persona to compensate for the father being absent, and therefore was unable to protect his child
- As such, she resents her husband for his inability to provide care, and therefore emasculates him
- Blaming not only Macbeth, but Duncan, the king whose war took her husband away, for their son’s death; making it not only easy but desirable to consider murdering him.
But really, what puts this theory that the child died during the initial war over the edge is Macbeth’s own rise in status.
Macbeth and Macduff have similar names for a reason: their arcs are meant to parallel each other. However, without the death of Macbeth’s son, they’d have little in common.
Going back to the first war, Macbeth seemed to single-handedly destroy Macdonwald (another “Mac,” mind you). Now, what could motivate a man, who required so much pushing from his wife to kill Duncan, to rise up like that?
Perhaps the letter Lady Macbeth wrote was to her husband, informing him of his son’s death.
THIS puts Macbeth on track with Macduff: both are men involved in a war which seems to be in the enemy’s favor until the last minute, both are men who have a renewed sense of vengeance upon news of their families’ death, and both are men who personally take on the head of the opposition and end the war.
Having Macbeth’s arc mirror Macduff’s and vice versa, the tragedy stems from not only his interaction with the three witches, but with his decision to have Macduff’s family slaughtered. This act is what truly marks the end of his fortune, because had he never killed Macduff’s wife and children, Macduff – the only man prophesied to be able to kill him – would have never been motivated to challenge him one on one.
In short, while we cannot be exactly sure how old the son was or how he died, we can be positive that although he’s not mentioned more than once in the course of the play, his is the catalyst for all ensuing events.
Baby Macbeth’s death drove his mother crazy, made his father paranoid, and plunged Scotland into a second war.
But hey, now that Malcolm’s king, his comrades became the first Earls of Scotland… so that’s pretty cool. Four for you, King Malcolm, you go King Malcolm.
What do YOU think? Share if you agree! Is MacJunior the reason Macbeth became a war hero and spelled his demise? Subscribe for more theories! Join the coven, we have magic and slightly obsessive-compulsive hygiene urges.
Some references for readers, including details on postpartum depression, psychosis, and the real-life Macbeth – who was actually a pretty decent king:
*Postpartum depression, postpartum psychosis, and obsessive-compulsive disorder are all very real, very serious conditions and vary in intensity from person to person. In the case of Lady Macbeth, these conditions are merely a form of conjecture on a fictional individual and should in no way imply that anyone who may have one or more of these conditions is prone to murdering kings and committing suicide. We can all agree that Lady Macbeth is a VERY exaggerated and extreme case, had she been diagnosed. If you or someone you know has one or more of these conditions, know that it is safe to seek help (of any sort) and you are loved, respected, and supported.