"Macbeth": A Child is Missing
With notes on Macy Gray's "I Try"
There is a child missing in Macbeth. Nothing is made of this loss in the plot. We know of it only because Lady Macbeth implies as much in service of boasting about her ruthlessness. She knows what it is like to breastfeed, she tells her husband, but she would kill her own infant, if that’s what it would be required to keep her word.
Keeping one’s word in this case is supposed to a matter of courage and resolve. She is telling Macbeth that sticking to their plan to kill his boss—her plan, really—is ultimately a matter of ethics: ruthlessness and virtue ironically coincide. One might accuse her of misunderstanding the concept of honor at work in her variety of virtue ethics, which ultimately consists of a master morality. She makes her husband’s private loyalties depend on public betrayals, and turns marital intimacy into a kind of criminal conspiracy.
Her claim is that remaining faithful to the marriage requires remaining faithful to this conspiracy. There is some lesson in the pathology here, I think, for marriage counselors: her idea is that the preservation of the couple requires a negation of the world, when this contains the very social environment that can nurture it and keep it alive. Marriage is conceived of as a kind of outlaw activity that puts one above—or perhaps beyond—law and custom. The thesis is this: couples that sublimate together may have a better chance of staying together, but couples that Bonnie-and-Clyde it are bound to part only in death.
Less criminal versions of this two-against-the-world approach to marriage are not extraordinary, and nor is the involvement of one partner in furthering the ambitions of the other. But in this case, faithfulness to the conspiracy doesn’t just mean staying focused on a particular goal or ambition—in this case, the high ambition of becoming king. It means sticking to a particular plan: a shortcut. Macbeth notes that a prophecy, once believed, is a strange stimulus to this sense of urgency: one need only wait, and the result will come to pass. In this case, the conspiracy takes on the significance of taking a shortcut through fate. And for the Macbeths, the short-circuiting of fate seems to be something that marriage requires.
The vector here is precisely opposed to the one taken by Oedipus on his own fateful journey. For him, the attempt to escape a feared destiny was integral to its fulfillment. That’s not an uncommon problem: Oedipus tried to go out and make it in the world, and get away from his parents, only to end up back with them. Lots of people do this literally—as in spending four years in college only to end up doing a jobless stint in their childhood room.
Lots of people also suffer Oedipus’ fate symbolically, to one degree or another, in relation to their love life and ambitions. They may choose a spouse who is too much like a parent. Or they may be driven, in their career goals, by a desire to please a parent. The thing that was supposed to get them out of the house—relationships and a job and extra-familial identifications—keeps them, psychologically, at home. More insidiously, ambitions can become grandiose, which is to say fueled by the fantasy of omnipotent merger with one’s parents, which is to say one’s creators and formative influences. You don’t have to literally sleep with your mother and kill your father to be symbolically grinding away at that project all your life.
For Macbeth, the problem is not that ambition requires the evasion of a fate to which it seems perilously attached, but that ambition cannot wait for fate. There seems to be a problem with impulse control. Or perhaps it’s just the wrong sort of ambition. Macbeth calls this “vaulting ambition, which o'erleaps itself and falls” on the other side of the thing at which it aims: that thing which in any case was fated to begin with, and didn’t need o’erleaping. If you’re willing to wait, perhaps you don’t really need to kill your boss to get a promotion. In fact, if you don’t wait, there’s a strong chance you’ll be defeated in the long run by retaliation, internal or external; by one’s own the conscience, or others’ desire for revenge. Ambition and conscience, incidentally, arguably have the same developmental root, in the substitution of parental attachments with identifications—familial, social, cultural, institutional. Resolving the Oedipus complex, according to Freud, was all about successfully developing these two components of the psyche and getting them to live at peace with each other. When ambition comes at the expense of conscience, we actually have a regression to something infantile. A child is being born.
The conspiracy is the child, and the child is supposed to save the marriage. It’s a shared project for the Lady and her man. It’s something they can raise together, in place of the child they have lost. But the child must also be a criminal shortcut through fate, rather than a reproductive working and waiting—a gestation—because it must undo a loss that has already happened. It’s not enough to give birth. In violent defiance of fate, one must resurrect. For this couple, co-sublimation is not enough, unless smearing patsies with blood can be treated as a form of finger painting, and “the sleeping and the dead/ are but as pictures.” Where waiting has not worked out, and led only to loss, it is important that the replacement come not from effort but from thin air—which is to say, from the grave. It must signify the loss as never-having-happened. Unfortunately, this transforms the loss—un-mourned—into a repetition, a reenactment. Reproduction cannot be avoided.
It’s unclear it is where the flesh-and-bone child has gone: is it dead, lost, or adopted? Probably dead. But if the poet had wanted the twist badly enough, it might have turned out that unbeknownst to everyone, Macduff was raising Macbeth Jr. as his own. Good old Macduff, who fits so oddly into the play and yet provides it with its most poignant moment. It is hethat gets to mourn the loss of his children. The Macbeths instead enact a terrible fantasy, full not just of sound and fury but very definite symbolic resonance. They find out the hard way that life, far from signifying nothing, is a signification machine that can catch you up in its gears, if you’re not careful, and grind you into dust well before you find your way to death. In the meantime, the Macbeths force disavowed mourning into the open: Macbeth in particular imposes an unfelt feeling on Macduff, and feels it through him. If that’s right, this grotesque subplot is less gratuitous than it seems to many critics.
What’s required of Macbeth by his Lady is that he preserve the marriage, and live up to the marriage vow, by raising the replacement child that is regicide (itself a sibling, incidentally, of Oedipal patricide), a corruption of the sort of ambition that waits more patiently on fate. Like the Macbeths, we don’t get to feel for their loss of a real child. Nor do we get to feel for Lady Macbeth’s longing for her absent husband—an absence in service of career ambitions, one that can be resolved by way of a shortcut. Thus she longs to impregnate him with the vaulting ambition that produces the victory that destroys everything: the conspiracy, the career, the fantasized child that is kingship, themselves. What we get instead of the opportunity to sympathize are harshness, frantic desperation, and conscience gone mad; the nipple of poetry is continually plucked from our mouths, so that we can brained by some new horror.
After recording on Macbeth for my podcast Subtext, I wondered on Twitter whether I should try to explain why I hear Macy Gray’s I Try every time I think of the play. You won’t be surprised to learn that originally this association was purely a matter of accident—I happened to be listening to the song while reading the play. But it also occurred to me that the song captures something that, while missing from the surface of the play, is plausibly the driving force of its narrative. The lyrics of song remind us the connection between fate and love: “I believe that fate has brought us here/ And we should be together, babe.” Love is missing from the surface of Macbeth. Yet the cruelty of its plot can only be explained by disappointed love. There are two components here: First, Lady Macbeth misses her husband. Second, she misses a child, and misses her husband all the more because she misses the child.
What is fated in Macy Gray’s “I Try” is the togetherness of couple, in the face of the necessity of regular apartness, during which at least one lover chokes, stumbles, and sees their world fall apart. The lover tries to keep the beloved in memory and fantasy, yet there is an abject failure of object constancy. The fatedness of love comes into conflict with the fatedness of the ambitions that lie outside the dyad, ambitions that require the couple to break apart at least for a portion of the day. These ambitions constitute an important part of the environment in which the couple must situate itself. For the Macbeths, the solution is to become outlaws; to accomplish the goals of ambition outside of the typical rules of the game; and to incorporate the abandoned partner into the project, such that ambition implies no abandonment; and so to dominate and defeat ambition itself; not just to yield the fruits of ambition, but to get underneath ambition, so to speak, and pull it out by its roots.
But ambition can always be brought down by love, when it is imbued with the primal energy involved in attachment to parent or child. And the defeat of ambition by love—in one way or another—turns out to be just what it means to have a fate. Whether it’s by succumbing to the necessity of human attachments, making sure we don’t live without them even if we can’t bear to live with them; or by succumbing to a grandiose position, in which patriarch and infant converge, and our attachment is purely to power and prestige: we succumb to love, in one of these forms.
If Lady Macbeth were to avoid her fate—their fate—we would have seen her say goodbye to her husband rather than greet him with a plan; we would have seen her delight in his letter as a token of his presence, rather than her seeing in it the impetus for fostering a kind of family-owned criminal enterprise with him; we would have seen her, in the loss of her child and absence of her husband, stumble and fall, and felt the crumbling of her interior world, rather then been subjected to the horrors of watching her destroy everything in the exterior. But what we want of tragedy is precisely to see the devastation of ordinary longing and loss depicted concretely. Only the external horrors of extreme violence can do justice the internal psychology of love.
If you want to know the absent feeling that is the engine of all the harsh bloody careerism of Macbeth, and feel the thing whose unfeeling absence drives the play: listen to a song in which someone feels their devastation in relation to the absence of a beloved, no matter how hard they try to do otherwise.