There seems to be in Shakespeare’s Macbeth a thematic connection between sterility, fertility, and the womb-indeed, childbirth in general-and Macbeth’s “o’erleaping” ambition. The interplay between subtle and obvious revelations of progeny, lineage, familial inheritance, bloodlines, and infertility plays as key a role as does the witches’ prophecies in generating Macbeth’s rise and fall from power. Yet Macbeth and Lady Macbeth seem infected exclusively by ambition from their very introductions. Macbeth soliloquizes: “I am Thane of Cawdor. / If good, why do I yield to that suggestion / Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair . . . ?” (1.3. 134-6) while Lady Macbeth, in the throes of conspiracy, invokes spirits to “Make thick my blood; / Stop up th’ access and passage to remorse, / That no compunctious visitings of nature / Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between / Th’ effect and it!” (1.5. 43-7). Here, both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth refer to the murder of King Duncan, but their first murderous inclinations do not neatly match later slaughters if the couple’s only impetus was a more regal title or more political power.
The first clue that Macbeth is incited to fury by his own sterility can only be examined after Macbeth’s final revealed act of murder, which takes place in scene 4.2 and robs Macbeth’s destined slayer, Macduff, of what Macbeth himself cannot achieve-a son. Acting not out of certain knowledge but on the ambiguous meaning of Macduff’s spurning and subsequent absence from the country, Macbeth orders the slaughter of Macduff’s wife and son. Though on the surface the murder is a power play by Macbeth, the psychological suggestion that Macbeth’s wrath is a product of his own insecurity in his sterility exists in the choice not to pursue Macduff to England and have him assassinated there. Furthermore, Macbeth has in his power to leave the innocent wife and child alive and work some other mischief on Macduff’s property, or even jail his family in Macduff’s absence. At the point his family is murdered, Macduff is indeed committing sedition-but Macbeth has no way of knowing this for certain, and as he continually broods on his lack of an heir, “Upon my head they [the witches] placed a fruitless crown / And put a barren scepter in my grip, / Thence to be wrenched with an unlineal hand, / No son of mine succeeding” (3.1. 62-5), he takes his rage out on Macduff’s defenseless and blameless progeny in an act of futile defiance towards his own infertility. And there are further connections between Macduff and his fertility, for it is Macduff’s very birth that allows him to bring down the cruel tyrant.
The witches are, again, the ones who set Macbeth’s tragic trajectory in motion with explicit references to the birth of others. Macduff, because of the way he was born, is given preeminence as the only warrior who can (or, if the witches’ prophecies are truly deterministic, will) kill Macbeth. It is fitting then that the same warrior on whose family death was wrought, by virtue of their being, should be the selfsame warrior who, by virtue of
his being, can inflict the same punishment on his enemy. Thus, in both his family’s misfortune and his prophesied power, Macduff represents the ultimate symbol of birth and life in
Macbeth. And, as the two are natural foils, if Macduff is emblematic of birth and life, then Macbeth himself is the symbol for death and desolation, a sentiment not only provided by his own lack of progeny, but also echoed in the political state of his country: “O nation miserable, / With an untitled tyrant bloody-sceptered, / When shalt thou see thy wholesome days again . . .?” (4.3. 104-06). Macduff seems to derive his power from his fertile properties; Macbeth does not have the power to give and sustain life to a child or a country, and his rage at biological sterility, itself, sterilizes his rule.
But is Macbeth’s original regicide, the murder of Duncan, also a product of this rage? Duncan’s murder is an irreducible event, as textual evidence supports that Macbeth and Lady Macbeth have perhaps discussed the possibility before the witches’ prophecy spurred them to action. As David Bevington reveals: “Evidently, he and Lady Macbeth have previously considered murdering Duncan; the witches appear after the thought, not before. Lady Macbeth reminds her wavering husband that he was the first to ‘break his enterprise’ to her, on some previous occasion . . . .” (1256). The chronology of events, however, suggests that perhaps when Duncan confers upon Malcolm the title of “Prince” there is indeed a moment of pause as Macbeth muses on the ramifications of fulfilling his prophecy: “The Prince of Cumberland! That is a step / On which I must fall down or else o’erleap, / for in my way it lies” (1.4. 48-50). Macbeth’s demeanor in this aside does not suggest jealousy, but it also does not exclude its existence. Only when it is taken into account that Macbeth later is responsible for the careless and unnecessary slaughter of Macduff’s family does the possibility for patrilineal envy assert itself. Ambition here is a detrimental flaw in Macbeth that begins to heighten his perception of what he wants versus what he can realistically get; knowing the glory that is attainable, and eventually obtaining that glory, acts as a lens to magnify what he can not have. Knowing he is destined for the kingship, Macbeth sees the crowning of the Malcolm in two ways: an obstacle prolonging his wait for ascension, and a reinforcement of his own inability to produce a son.
This inability is, of course, not a shortcoming exclusive to Macbeth. Lady Macbeth, too, represents sterility in the play, and, like her husband, her ambition seems to supplement and amplify her barrenness. Yet scholars agree that Lady Macbeth perhaps invites sterility rather than cursing it as Macbeth does: “As Lady Macbeth wills away her feminine sympathies, she wills away her ability to conceive. She is ‘blasted’ like the heath-both barren and accursed-and “withered” like the ‘secret, black, and midnight hags'” (La Belle 385). The juxtaposition between her sterilizing invocations and Duncan’s fertile character and dialog-“I have begun to plant thee, and will labor / To make thee full of growing” (1.4. 28-9)-is a fitting contrast, for it is indeed Lady Macbeth’s withered ambition and consequent inhospitable infertility that sways Macbeth’s vacillation and finally undoes the ripeness of Duncan.
In reference to Macbeth’s inability to have sons, La Belle contends that it is Lady Macbeth’s invocation of “unsexing” that sterilizes her and consequently Macbeth: “What he [Macbeth] may not realize is that his sterility is in part a consequence of Lady Macbeth’s fruitless and barren womb” (385). La Belle is partly right, but Lady Macbeth’s unsexing also has the power to create. In 1.7, she with this overwhelming, demonic persuasion finally halts Macbeth’s wavering and makes, gives birth to, a “man” in Macbeth.
LADY MACBETH: When in swinish sleep
Their drenched nature lies as in death,
What cannot you and I perform upon
Th’ unguarded Duncan . . . .?
MACBETH: Bring forth men-children only!
For thy undaunted mettle should compose
Nothing but males. (1.7. 68-75)
This dark suggestion is the barren Lady’s act of birth, for she has given Macbeth sufficient courage to follow through with the murder. Regarding La Belle’s contention further, she still only addresses half the issue of sterility; it takes two members of a couple to reproduce, but the reproduction under consideration is not only biological-it is political as well. Macbeth’s kingdom suffers from such an acuteness of sterility that it indeed goes beyond infertility and actually begins to regress; where Duncan, “the life o’ th’ building,” inspired growth, Macbeth breeds mistrust and factiousness, exemplified in Macduff’s refusal to join his thanes with Macbeth’s, and Banquo’s misgivings on the nature of Duncan’s death. Lady Macbeth is responsible for this sterility insofar that she instigated Macbeth to murder the king, which helped Macbeth obtain the kingdom, but the true “growth” of the withering of Scotland is evident exclusively through the kingship of Macbeth.
And nowhere does this monarchal sterility have its greatest juxtaposition than in the promised extension and longevity of Banquo’s descendants into the kingship of Scotland. Here again does the fact of Macbeth’s lack of progeny rear up and paradoxically spawn a murderous plot, a plot that, according to the witches’ prophecy, couldn’t have succeeded anyway. Bennet Simon corroborates Macbeth’s suspicion of the expectedly prolific Banquo: “Their [Banquo and Fleance] very existence as father and son rubs salt in Macbeth’s wounds. He cautiously tries Banquo: could he be enlisted in the plot? . . . . But Banquo, without explicitly discussing a conspiracy, declares his allegiance to Duncan. Macbeth is gradually apprehending the actuality of Banquo and his offspring in contrast to his own sterility” (148). Banquo represents yet another symbol of fertility that only reminds Macbeth of the “limited” scope of his prophecy. Unsatisfied with his title of Cawdor, he looks to the King; unsatisfied with the title of king, he looks to Banquo’s promise of plenty, and, though in killing Banquo and Fleance Macbeth does not have any hope of generating sons, he still proceeds in yet another cold-blooded murder. Ambition, the goading of the “unsexed” Lady Macbeth, and a dire envy of fertility amalgamate in Macbeth which spurs him to finally make his deciding character trait: “The very firstlings of my heart shall be / the firstlings of my hand” (4.1. 147-8). Macbeth damnably resolves to act on his violent, ruthless impulses.
Simon also recognizes the scene preceding Banquo’s murder as yet another bastard conception of the evil intercourse between Lady Macbeth and Macbeth. “But what do this husband and wife actually beget? I believe it is plausible to read the next sequence as a symbolic response to the encounter with Banquo and his son, a partial filling in of an “absence,” the absence of a son. What the two produce, in a complexly choreographed mutual encitement and seduction, is a conspiracy and a murder. The equation of deeds, especially bloody deeds, and offspring is seen in Macbeth’s grim resolve. . . .” (148). Thus, Shakespeare provides in numerous character interactions, symbolic actions and words, and choice plot developments a relationship between birth and death; specifically birth giving rise to death. Macduff can slay Macbeth because of his birth, and, on the flip side, Macduff’s child and wife are eradicated as their existence indicates fertility. Likewise, the conception and growth of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s ambition, once carried to term and breached, means certain death for Duncan and Banquo. In this way, when birth means death, Shakespeare takes evil to another level; a level where even fertility can only guarantee a greater scope of tragedy and destruction.
Bevington, David. “Macbeth.” In Shakespeare’s Tragedies. Ed. David Bevington. New York: Pearson, 2007: 1255-1259.
La Belle, Jenijoy. “‘A Strange Infirmity’: Lady Macbeth’s Amenorrhea.” Shakespeare Quarterly. 31.3 (1980): 381-86. JSTOR. April 18, 2008.
Shakespeare, William. Macbeth. In Shakespeare’s Tragedies. Ed. David Bevington. New York: Pearson, 2007: 1260-1292
Simon, Bennet. Tragic Drama and the Family: Psychoanalytic Studies from Aeschylus to Beckett. New York: Yale University Press, 1993.