Last month I wrote the following post for Oxford University Press’s blog, as part of the launch of the New Oxford Companion to Shakespeare. I’m very pleased to re-share it here as part of DigitalShakespeares.
How many children had Lady Macbeth? The great Shakespearean critic L. C. Knights asked this question in 1933, as part of an essay intended to put paid to scholarship that treated Shakespeare’s characters as real, living people, and not as fictional beings bounded by the creative works of which they were a part. “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,” he wrote. Head-counting in Dunsinane was merely a distraction from the language of the play, which Knights might well have called “the thing itself.”
And yet, the question has often proven irresistible in performances of Macbeth, despite Knights’s now (in)famous denunciation. Indeed, in the opening scene of Justin Kurzel’s sumptuous new film version of Shakespeare’s bloody tragedy, we learn that its answer to Knights’s question is at least one. No words are spoken, but beneath a slate blue, striated sky, a toddler’s funeral is taking place. The grieving Macbeths, played by the majestically charismatic Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard, each approach the body, taking turns to gently balance a posy on the child’s still hands, and then cover his tiny eyes with coloured stones. Their kinsmen silently watch on, each swaddled in blankets against the brutal Highland winds, before eventually lighting the funeral pyre.
Were he here today, Knights might well have seen such a choice as a painfully literal take on the marital strife that later pushes the Macbeths’ relationship to breaking point, but the truth is that the spectre of child loss has long haunted interpretations of the play. Lady Macbeth’s fierce avowal in the first act that she has “given suck, and know[s] / How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks” her has repeatedly led readers, directors, actors, and audiences to wonder what has happened to this child – a question made all the more relevant by Macbeth’s anxious lines about dynasty and inheritance in Act 3. He might have seized the throne, but he still holds “a barren sceptre” and wears “a fruitless crown”.
In Shakespeare’s own lifetime, child mortality was harrowingly common. At the worst of times, as many as one in three babies died in early modern England before their first year, and many more fell victim to illness during their childhood years. By the time he wrote Macbeth, Shakespeare himself had felt the terrible grief of child loss; his young son Hamnet had taken ill in 1596 at the age of eleven, and by August of that year he had died.
Shakespeare didn’t leave any writings that reflected directly on the death of his son – in fact, he didn’t leave any writings that reflected directly on any aspects of his life – but he did represent the world-shattering pain of losing a child in his history play, King John, which he wrote that same year. Here, the bereft Constance refuses to stifle her sorrow for her son Arthur, who has been taken from her and will eventually be killed. Her furious grief becomes the one comfort and companion she can count on in her life: it “fills the room up of [her] absent child,” “puts on his pretty looks,” and “stuffs out his vacant garments with his form.” Even when he is gone, it keeps his memory alive.
In Kurzel’s film, grief likewise proves a potent, world-altering force, conjuring visions in its protagonists’ minds and cloaking the bleak, moody landscape with a heavy loneliness. This landscape itself becomes a powerful character in Kurzel’s reading of Shakespeare’s play, and the winds and fogs circling around it literally atmospheric. Like the great auteur Akira Kurosawa, who carefully selected the “fog-bound,” “stunted” slopes of Mount Fuji as the filming location for Throne of Blood, his Japanese-language adaptation of Macbeth, Kurzel turns the physical world – in this case, the steely Scottish Hebrides – into a central piece of his storytelling.
Aided by cinematographer Adam Arkapaw, best known for his work on True Detective and its malevolent, Louisiana skies, the “blasted heath” of this Macbeth is something brutal and beautiful, awful and awesome. Though the film is set in a feudal, medieval Scotland, visually and emotionally it owes most to the Western. Loss, pain, and emptiness are its hallmarks, death its constant refrain. We know at the start that it presents us with a world hostile to young life, and by the end we witness how it eradicates older generations too.