(Lane’s article appeared in the New Yorkers, 12/7; via Pam Green.)
A famous essay of 1933, by the critic L. C. Knights, bears a provoking title: “How Many Children Had Lady Macbeth?” Within the essay, Knights never bothers to answer the question, because his purpose is to mock it. In his eyes, it stands for all the dumb and fruitless inquiries that are set in train by Shakespearean scholars who see the plays as, in essence, studies of character—a hopelessly dry and reductive view, for Knights, who reads each play as one long dramatic poem, welling over with tides of symbolic language. He’s right, to a degree, but here’s the thing: the question is a good one. After all, “Macbeth” has much to say about patrilineage, and the handing down of power; there’s no point in grabbing a crown, however brutally, if it gets plucked away within a generation. We know that Lady Macbeth had at least one child (“I have given suck,” she says), so where is it now?
An answer is provided by a new film of “Macbeth,” directed by Justin Kurzel, which begins with a startling sight: a dead child, laid in heather, with stones placed over the eyes. Macbeth (Michael Fassbender) is the grieving father, and a funeral pyre is lit. Yet, still, goaded first by the witches’ prophecy, and then by his wife (Marion Cotillard), he pursues his deviant course: slaying Duncan (David Thewlis) and ordering the assassination of Banquo (Paddy Considine), whose son Fleance (Lochlann Harris) escapes the sword, thus keeping alive the witches’ galling prediction that it is Banquo, not Macbeth, who will spawn a royal line. Again, children lie at the heart of the matter, and any film or staging of the tale should listen out for those nursery rhythms and rhymes, redolent of the seesaw and the rocking horse, that hold such frightening sway: “Fair is foul, and foul is fair”; “Open locks, whoever knocks”; “The Thane of Fife had a wife.”