Lady Macbeth and Her Imaginary Child


Shakespeare Scholarship generally falls into three types:

  1. Internal (meaning of the play, such as Bradley, Bloom, Coleridge).

  2. External (which extrapolates the themes, such as Ward, Brooks, Wilson Knight).

  3. Active (a richer performance, such as Siddons, Bartholomeusz, Heiges).

Most postmodern analysis generally stresses an active approach. Postmodern and iconoclastic productions are usually done to either:

  • Make the text accessible to a new audience (Baz Lurman’s Romeo & Juliet, Orson Welles’ voodoo Macbeth, 1936, RSC’s  Macbeth, Michael Boyd and many Indian Filmmakers and Theatre Productions, Vishal Bharadwaj’s Maqbool, Haider and Aparna Sen’s Romeo & Juliet).

  • To Highlight an aspect of the text (Heiner Muller’s Hamlet Machine, Kosky’s 2002 King Lear, Keneth Kock’s Hamlet).

Bengali interpretations and translations of Macbeth: Macbeth has intrigued Bengali actors from the times of Sri Girish Ghosh, till date when we see Kaushik Sen indulging into an interesting production of  Macbeth. We are also fortunate to have some other significant work done by Sri Utpal Datt, Ashok Mukhopadhyay, Prof. Dattatreya Datt etc. on Macbeth.

In the play, there are 26 significant moments where babies and children are referred to. The major reference points are:

  • Duncan as the metaphorical father of the people of Scotland.

  • Children referred to during the evil acts like battles, murder and killing.

  • Images of children during the witches prophecy (the apparitions).

  • Macbeth and Macduff meeting in the last scene submitting to various images of the boy: born, unborn and killed.

Lady Macbeth’s Imaginary Child

Ever since Freud traced the external behaviour of man to the deep-seated unconscious mind, the psychoanalysis of characters, both real and fictional, has been a fascinating endeavour for critics. Freud himself argued that in Shakespeare’s play Macbeth, Lady Macbeth’s “reaction to her childlessness” is the cause of her “illness” (222). Freud’s suggestive analysis of Lady Macbeth and children sets the stage for a new inquiry into the life of the Macbeths. Questions like whether the Macbeths have a child or not became pivotal. While most critics like Sigmund Freud, Tom Clayton, and Thomas Cambell dismiss the possibility that the Macbeths have a child; Marvin Rosenberg suggests that they do have a child. Modern day psychologists would most likely suggest that Lady Macbeth be diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder.

In fact, Macbeth does not seem to have any children and indeed, near the end of the play Macduff says, “He has no children” (Act IV, Scene III). Nevertheless, Lady Macbeth, at least once, claims to have a child when she says, “I have given suck” (Act I, Scene VII). Rosenberg argues that the line “unequivocally” suggests that Lady Macbeth has a child and that throughout the play, she is guided by her dominant motherly feelings.  The historical Lady Macbeth did have a child, but not with Macbeth. Lulach the Fool was her child with Gillacomgain and he was of subnormal intelligence. In reality he lived on, but in the play, it is clear by his absence that he is not alive (Muir, 1977). The historical progeny of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth do not exist within the play. However, what follows after this line is shocking and apparently contradictory to any human motherly feeling – “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 bought so sworn / As you have done to this ….” A sensitive mother who has a child, would never think of citing an example, which involves her child’s death. Therefore, as Freud had pointed out in his essay, these lines seem to reveal that Lady Macbeth has a deep-rooted psychological problem stemming from not having a child. The statement “I have given suck” is nearly solitary proof that the Macbeths had a child, yet there is no second supporting line or act to endorse this claim. Consequently, the validity of the claim is doubted and a question emerges. If she never had a child, then why does she say this? To find out the answer, it is important to read the speech as a whole and not in fragments. It is also necessary to analyse Lady Macbeth’s simultaneous references in physiological and pathological ways. In this essay, I will argue in favor of that, while agreeing with major critics that Lady Macbeth does not have a child; rather she suffers from a disturbed mind. She also imagines having a child of her own whom she wants to kill. This imaginary child evokes strong feelings of remorse and filial piety and at times vicious cruelty and heartlessness within her. Her treatment of the imaginary child proves that she wished to get rid of him and if necessary, she could kill him too. This imaginary motherhood accounts for her psychological complexity.

In Act I, Scene V, Lady Macbeth receives two pieces of information in succession. In a letter from her husband, she gets to know about the witches’ prophecy of Macbeth’s kingship and a messenger informs her about King Duncan’s arrival. Following this is Lady Macbeth’s remarkable soliloquy – “Come, you Spirits/ That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here, / And fill me, from the crown to the toe, top-full/ Of direst cruelty! 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! Come to my woman’s breasts, /And take my milk for gall, you murth’ring ministers,/ Wherever in your sightless substances/ You wait on Nature’s mischief!/ Come, thick Night,/ And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of Hell,/ That my keen knife see not the wound it makes,/ Nor Heaven peep through the blanket of the dark,/ To cry, “Hold, hold!.” The speech clearly has a psychological dimension and reveals certain intricate aspects of Lady Macbeth’s mind. First, she agrees that her thoughts are vulnerable to the powers of the Spirits. Here, we can assume that her thoughts are impure and so, some of her claims are susceptible to doubts. Therefore, her claim to have a child is unconvincing, as she is the only one who mentions the child and no other character ever refers to it. As we gradually move to the other lines of the soliloquy, we find Lady Macbeth to be dissatisfied with her state of being and so she invokes the Spirits to alter her state. Her appeal to “unsex” her, reveals her deep-rooted frustration with being a woman unable to give birth to a child. The sense of futility, of being a woman without being a mother, is evident in her voice. The meticulous pathological details of thickening the blood and replacing milk for gall in her breasts, shows the intensity of her mental aggravation. As we know it to be true that breasts have milk only when a woman is about to deliver a child or has a newborn child, so, here, Lady Macbeth imagines that she has a suckling baby and her breasts are full with milk. She has thoughts of replacing the milk with poison, which can kill her baby also, but has no remorse in this, because she does not have a “real” child. Even the phrase “my woman’s breast” points out her deep-seated anxiety of being a woman, yet not a complete woman who is fertile. By using the word ‘woman’ in between ‘my’ and ‘breasts’ she emphasizes her failed womanhood and she categorically asks the Spirits to remove her basic female characteristics. Lady Macbeth’s mental defeminization and the blocking of pity and remorse is an attempt to escape the imaginary world that she exists in, where she is a mother and has a child.

Later, in Act I, Scene VII, when Macbeth falters to pursue the commitment he made to kill Duncan, Lady Macbeth, in annoyance, tries to pull him out of that state of depression by her own example. She utters the controversial speech – “I have given suck…” Here, Lady Macbeth is proven right in her assessment of her husband’s sensitive nature and she uses her imagination to confront it. Again, she states that her breasts, full with milk, are being suckled by her baby. Moreover, in a desperate attempt to come out of this imaginative state, she volunteers to kill the child as cruelly as possible. This speech served two purposes for Lady Macbeth; one was to prove how strong and manly she is in keeping promises, and the second was to expose her desire to kill the imaginary child. The use of words like “nipple,” “boneless gums,” and “brains,” in this speech made it all too biological or physical, and thus hints that it’s something imaginary, a design that exists in the brain and not in reality. Normally, a mother would not describe her own child by such words, which simply relate to the dry physical description of the body; she would invariably include her emotions in the description.

In the same Act and Scene when Macbeth seems convinced by Lady Macbeth’s arguments, he seems to reflect on the prophecy of the witches which offers the crown to Banquo’s children and he appeals to his Lady to give birth to men-children – “Should compose,/ Bring forth men-children only,/ For thy undaunted mettle,/ Nothing but males”. The line simultaneously addresses two major issues; first that the Macbeths do not have any child yet, and second that she is too masculine and therefore shall give birth only to a male child. Though Macbeth does not disagree or point out that they do not have a child when Lady Macbeth says that she has “given suck” to her baby, here he asks for children, specifically male children. It can be argued that he understands Lady Macbeth’s “illness” and does not want to further disturb her in her troubled thoughts, but he could not resist his desire to have an heir when he consents to murder Duncan. Braunmuller observes that the words “mettle” and “male” pun with ‘metal’ and ‘mail,’ (which means armour) and that makes the line more significant, since the male child protects the crown for the dynasty, while armour protects the warrior. However, Macbeth’s admiration of Lady Macbeth’s manly strength also shows that she is almost successful in altering her disposition and has sufficiently shed her feminine nature. Lady Macbeth laments her barrenness through her equivocal speech – “As we shall make our griefs and clamour roar/ Upon his death.” “Our grief”, though referring to the pain of Duncan’s death, indirectly expresses the grief of the Macbeths not having a child and her failing as a wife. She wishes to merge her real cry for not having a child with the pretentious clamour of pain for Duncan’s death.

Lady Macbeth throughout the play has a general allegation against Macbeth, which she avers-repeatedly, concerning his manhood. Act I, Scene VII, Lady Macbeth reprimands Macbeth who is wavering before the murder of Duncan “….When you durst do it, then you were a man./ And to be more than what you were, you would/ Be so much more the man.” Act III, Scene IV, when Macbeth sees Banquo’s ghost and is shaken she says, “Are you a man?” and again in the same scene “What, quite unmanned in folly?” Though these statements apparently seem to comment on Macbeth’s cowardly behavior and his fearful nature, they also reveal Lady Macbeth’s deep seated grievance against her husband who failed to give her a child. Lady Macbeth seems to question Macbeth’s sexual potency in an ambiguous tone.

Later almost at the end of the play Macduff in Act IV, Scene III, grieves over his dead children and wife – “He has no children. All my pretty ones?/ Did you say all? O hell-kite! All? / What, all my pretty chickens and their dam/ At one fell swoop?” This “He” almost certainly refers to Macbeth, who had sent the murderers to kill Macduff’s children and wife. Macduff unequivocally states that Macbeth does not have a child. Therefore, it is reconfirmed that the Macbeths do not have a child and the child that Lady Macbeth refers to is an imaginary one. The horrid image of killing Lady Macbeth’s imagined child, compared to the real killing of Lady Macduff’s children, brings about the difference in reality and imagination and perhaps that is the reason why Shakespeare had the murder scene of the child on the stage. Whereas, a more important ‘murder’, that is the murder of King Duncan, was not shown on the stage.

Before her death, in the sleepwalking scene, Lady Macbeth releases her anguish by talking in her sleep. Remorse finally breaks Lady Macbeth and Freud explains that she “had suffered the unsexing she had demanded of the spirits of murder” (222). Freud further argues, “I believe one could without more ado explain the illness of Lady Macbeth, the transformation of her callousness into penitence, as a reaction to her childlessness, by which she is convinced of her impotence against the decrees of nature, and at the same time admonished that she has only herself to blame if her crime has been barren of the better part of its desired results” (222).

At the end of the somnambulist scene, she says, “To bed, to bed; there’s knocking at the gate. Come, come, come, come, give me your hand; what’s done cannot be undone. To bed, to bed, to bed.” Lady Macbeth takes Macbeth to bed on two other previous occasions; first when Duncan is murdered and Macbeth is emotionally devastated and next when Macbeth sees Banqoue’s ghost and he is mentally disturbed. She seems to repeat the same here but with a difference in tone. In the earlier two cases she had a chastising tone, yet here she is more passionate, asks him to hold her hand, and appeals earnestly to accompany her to bed. She uses the word “come” four times and “bed” three times, showing her eagerness to sleep with him. ‘Sleep’ here appears to imply sexual intercourse. Maybe, in her dream, she is appealing to Macbeth to try and have a child of their own again. This yearning to be a mother haunted her in her waking state, as she imagined having a child of her own and so desperately wanted to get rid of this child and accept her own barrenness. Now she is pursued by a similar wishful thinking thought in her dreams. While dreaming, she behaves more like a woman, soft and gullible. Her childlessness is more feminine in nature.

Rosenberg in his essay, “Lady Macbeth’s Indispensable Child”, elaborately discussed Lady Macbeth’s compulsive maternal yearning which forces her to treat Macbeth as a child. This seems to be unconvincing because although Lady Macbeth scolds, warns, encourages, and reassures Macbeth from time to time in his difficult moments, it is not true that she treats him as a child; rather she always urges him to act like a man strong and potent. Her anger toward Macbeth was her reaction to the incompleteness that they suffered as a couple. There is another assumption that, “She attempts to obtain the highest womanly post she can hope to- that of the mother of a nation” (McAteer, 11). She appears to lose this “child” also as Macbeth wreaks havoc on Scotland and she figuratively seems to miscarry.

In conclusion, we can see a clear element of imagination in Lady Macbeth’s character. She always longs for a child whom she fails to deliver and that failure aggravates her spirit and pushes her into the uncanny world of imagination and violence. She has periods of times throughout the play where she is not in the least bit lucid; the unborn child becomes her mental prop.


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Janardan Ghosh



Itś interesting to postulate on such an interesting subject and imagine the scenarios which could be hidden behind what has been said and what hasn´t. For in theatre & performance it is not about recreating the literature , but to say what words and text could not. The conclusion at the end of the essay is therefore not a conclusion in the deterministic sense. It is a provocation to dig deeper and to imagine possible scenarios. The child in question may or may not have been real, or it might be that the child is a lover or maybe even the subjects. Maybe in mythical terms Lady Macbeth represents the forces of destruction, much like Kali and suckles further possibilities by bringing forth the darker side of human nature. It is possible  and obvious for sure that Macbeth has unleashed numerous dreams and themes and literature and in that way have been fountainhead for literary advances and development in theatre & performance. It just opens up a whole new world of possibilities….


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