Frustrated Obstetrics Santa Monica College Juli
These are the guidelines:
“Th’ attempt and not the deed/ Confounds us.”
Lady Macbeth (2.2.10–11)1
The question of the Macbeths’ children—or lack thereof—has given a number of recent critics cause to contemplate Lady Macbeth’s potentially vexed relationship with menstruation and childbirth, her role as a madwoman or hysteric moved to murderousness by the vagaries of her womb as well as those of her mind.2 Alice Fox, in particular, has noted that “a major function of the imagery of obstetrics and gynecology in Macbeth” is to make us “aware of the protagonists as human beings who want to have children . . . as human beings whose desire for living children has been frustrated” (“Obstetrics” 138). Indeed, the play returns relentlessly to images of bodily frustration and inadequacy, especially with regard to reproduction, evidencing what Gail Paster has characterized as a typically early modern preoccupation with “bodily refinement and exquisite self-mastery” (14)— both of which the Macbeths apparently lack. Such frustration with the body, evoking fears of the inability to master one’s sexual and/or reproductive functions, speaks to a profound anxiety about physiology characteristic of the Renaissance imaginary: Shakespeare’s was an age, Paster reminds us, “newly preoccupied with corporeal self-discipline” (10) and deeply influenced by the notion of the humoral body, the idea that the body operated fundamentally as a storehouse of unwieldy fluids that determined one’s temperament.3
This body was thought to have very much a mind of its own: “Humoral physiology ascribes to the workings of the internal organs an aspect of agency, purposiveness, and plenitude to which the subject’s own will is often decidedly irrelevant” (Paster 10). For early moderns, that is, the body was viewed increasingly as a site of shameful unruliness, in which corporeal imbalance would likely determine one’s state of mind and course of action (or inaction). Through the metaphor of the body politic, the workings of the body could also be used to understand the state of the state. As Gil Harris has argued, [t]o an extent that has not been fully acknowledged, early modern English versions of organic political analogy are similarly fixated with illness: extensively informed by the emergent discourses of Renaissance physiology, nosology, and pathology, elaborate accounts of the body politic’s sundry diseases and their remedies make their first appearance in the literature of the period. Political writers, playwrights, and pamphleteers attempted to explain . . . the nature of the corpus politicum’s ills (Harris 3).
Macbeth can be viewed productively as one such text, as a play in which the frailties and imbalances of the body are made to speak to state ills, and vice versa. And while it has become a commonplace to view theater as “one of the Renaissance’s most powerful and most ubiquitous mechanisms for explain- ing and enforcing political structure” (Raber 299), I would redirect our attention to the ways Shakespeare’s play also does the reverse: to the playwright’s tendency to characterize political structures as both inheriting and reflecting the body’s infirmities—weaknesses over which the subject may have disturbingly little control. If, as Frank Whigham has suggested, “during the early seventeenth century Renaissance drama increasingly presented the body politic in privacy [and] Elizabethan political and social sins once portrayed with armies and rebels and maps were often recast in terms of sexual deviation and bodily excess” (Whigham 333), then Macbeth illustrates the extent to which its playwright is also concerned with the body’s role in public politics; with the primacy of the private(s), as it were. And while the play opens with references to scenes of bloody battle, it reads for the most part as a tragedy of a highly personal, bodily, and domestic nature, in which the intrapersonal stakes are raised to the status of state business and state business is understood primarily in terms of the body—and the marital bed.
Although a good deal of critical attention has been paid to the potentially physiologically inflected language of Lady Macbeth’s speeches, the play’s numerous allusions to her husband’s physiology have remained largely under-explored. In this chapter, I would like to (re)turn our gaze to Macbeth’s problematic body by looking at the play’s elaborate network of puns about and allusions to Macbeth’s sexual dysfunction. These work to connect the fruitlessness of Macbeth’s political aspirations with those of his body, ironic- ally making both images more potent. Macbeth’s political sterility—his pointless destructiveness, his lack of political heirs—reenacts and confirms the sterility of his bed chamber; his power-lust is depicted in terms of poorly managed bodily lust and a related imbalance of bodily fluids. In short (and I use this term pointedly), Macbeth is impuissance embodied, and I shall devote the rest of this chapter to underscoring the many ways in which the play suggests a link among his physical, political, and moral disequilibria. Such connections resonate with those made by James I and other writers of the period, who saw kingship as bound up fundamentally with fatherhood, and fatherhood with bodily mastery: for James, “a king is truly Parenspatriae, the politic father of his people,” and is “rightly compared to a father of children, and to a head of a body composed of divers members” (“A Speech to the Lords and Commons of the Parliament at Whitehall  and “The True Law of Free Monarchies , cited in Carroll 216–17).5 As Alexandra Shepard has noted, “although domestic advice dwelt extensively on men’s mastery of others, it also emphasized that this was predicated on their mastery of themselves” (77–78). Masculine self-governance, in turn, was intimately linked with the management of bodily fluids: as Mark Breitenberg has suggested, early moderns possessed a model of normative humoral masculinity in which the body’s fluids are carefully (and anxiously) regulated according to what is allowed to enter and what must be expelled and in which all members of the body act properly in accordance with their assigned places and designated functions—an idealized vision of the masculine body as well as utopian political state.
If, as Shepard has said of the early modern period, “[t]he self-government expected of manhood was the basis of men’s claims to authority” and “[m]en could not govern others if they were unable to govern themselves” (70), then Macbeth’s inability to master his sexuality and/or impregnate his wife implies that he is also incapable of legitimately fathering a nation. (In the words of Sir Robert Filmer [c.1630], “there is no monarchy, but paternal” [cited in Stallybrass 131].) This would have been particularly pleasing to James I, who traced his lineage to Malcolm and Fleance:6 the more “unnatural” Macbeth’s sexuality appears, that is, the more “natural” the lines of descent from Malcolm and Fleance to James I come to seem.
Among a cast of principals who appear either as parents or children or both, it has often been noted, the Macbeths stand alone as childless and un(re)productive: Duncan is at once the father of a nation and of Malcolm and Donalbain; Banquo is aligned throughout the drama with his son Fleance; Macduff with his wife and precocious son; and the elder Siward with Young Siward. While the drama revolves around what Shakespeare calls in his tenth sonnet the making of “another self,” or procreation, only the Macbeths, the Weird Sisters, and the Three Murderers lie outside the circle of generation, in the “unnatural” realm of explicit self-interest and unapologetic self- promotion, where a lack of offspring hints at a concomitant lack of concern for the well-being of society at large.
The marked contrast between the fruitfulness of the play’s major—and law-abiding—figures and the barrenness of the Macbeths encourages questions: Why are the Macbeths alone without heirs? “Or who is he so fond will be the tomb/ Of his self-love to stop posterity?” (Sonnet 3). Has the pair’s lack of children generated their present self-absorption, or vice versa? Have they in fact chosen not to reproduce, or has their fate been determined by their physiology? By the end of the first act it is clear that Lady Macbeth’s current state of childlessness is not likely due to any incapacity to bear children on her part. She has, after all, “given suck, and know[s]/ How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me” (1.7.54–55). We are made to understand from this speech that Lady Macbeth has mothered a child.8 Had she, then, a previous husband? Did her babe, or possibly babes, die during infancy? Such speculation, encouraged by both the structure and language of the play, leads to further questions still:9 What of Macbeth’s role in the marriage’s current state of childlessness? Is Macbeth incapable of reproducing, or has he become so estranged from his wife that they no longer expect intimacy? The couple’s closeness at the start of the play would indicate the contrary: before the Macbeths’ bloodlust changes them so much as to make their personalities almost unrecognizable, the two clearly function in concert, something made obvious both by the content of Macbeth’s letter to his wife in Act 1 and by the fact of his having written to her immediately after having heard the “perfectest report” of the Weird Sisters (1.5.2). She is his “dearest partner of greatness” (1.5.9–10), his “dearest chuck” (3.2.45), and theirs appears to be a far from loveless marriage.
Given such intimacy, and in light of Lady Macbeth’s comments about having nursed an infant in the past, the play seems to suggest that the responsibility for any reproductive problems the couple might have lies squarely with Macbeth—and this despite the dominant early modern belief that “ barrenness was . . . the fault of the woman” (Pollock 41).10 Lady Macbeth’s explicit preoccupation with her body, and the suggestive language through which she expresses this concern, help to underscore the notion that she is (or at least believes herself to be) all too fertile, too womanly; so much so that she must call upon the gods to “unsex” her if she is to commit murder (1.5.39)— an act that, to the early moderns, was decidedly masculine.11 The play’s implicit references to menstruation reinforce the notion that Lady Macbeth is entirely too much dominated by her fertility, her female physiology, her “nature,” to commit the “unnatural” act of murder:12 in a drama blood- soaked from the start, Lady Macbeth is—to her frustration—steeped not only in the innocent blood of her victims, but in her own menstrual blood, the bodily issue that indicates both the possibility of giving birth and the (temporary) death of this opportunity, the very condition that defines the Macbeths and their “unlineal” rule. Lady Macbeth is still susceptible to the “compunctious visitings of nature” (1.5.43), to use the colloquial Renaissance term for menstruation, and would have the spirits “make thick my blood” and “Stop up th’access and passage to remorse” (1.5.41–42), which is to say that her blood has not been “stopped-up” and that the reproductive capacity she spurns is still very much extant within her.13 So, too, is the quality of mercy that was thought to have attended it, and that will—by way of remorse— eventually lead to her madness.14 Thus, while Macbeth refers to his wife’s (masculine-inflected) “undaunted mettle” (1.7.73), we also sense that he protests too much. The “masculine” vigor and violence with which Lady Macbeth attempts to renounce her body indicate that it possesses an equally strong “femininity,” a femininity that is, ironically, the worthy opponent of her malevolence—in large part because of its reproductive capacity and fluids. Macbeth’s fearful, half-critical, half awe-filled urging that his wife “[b]ring forth men-children only” (1.7.72) further underscores Lady Macbeth’s reproductive potential, while simultaneously distancing Macbeth from the process of generating heirs himself. His comment almost suggests a fantasy of will- ful parthenogenesis on the part of his wife: it implies that Lady Macbeth alone might assume responsibility for creating (and possess the power to produce) her own issue—and to decide its sex, no less—while Macbeth’s language clearly places him on the periphery of the process, passive and inconsequential.
Such irrelevance will characterize Macbeth’s reign, as well. And through- out the play, the king’s ultimate political inconsequentiality—his inability to produce heirs who might legitimate and extend his reign—is made to resonate with the language of bodily insufficiency, with the suggestion that Macbeth is unable to extend himself physically, at least when it comes to pleasing his wife. He appears in the play surrounded, variously, by the language of sexual insufficiency and inadequacy (or “unmanned” manhood [3.4.73]) and masturbatory excess—both of which would have arguably connoted humoral imbalance to a Renaissance audience.15 If Lady Macbeth is too wet to commit murder, in other words, her husband is depicted as too dry to act the part of the proper man—in large part, we suspect, because he has already drained himself “dry as hay” (to paraphrase the curse of the First Witch in 1.3.17). In Act 3, for example, Macbeth claims that his “strange and self-abuse/ Is the initiate fear that wants hard use” (3.4.142–43). While these lines are usually taken to mean that Macbeth sees himself as an insufficiently hardened criminal, as one who has allowed his fears about immoral acts to lead him to hallucinate, the phrases “hard use” and “strange and self-abuse” may have possessed masturbatory overtones.16 Like the subject of Shakespeare’s first sonnet, Macbeth, too, apparently “feeds’t [his] light’s flame with self- substantial fuel,/ Making a famine where abundance lies.” Or, as Hecate says directly on the heels of Macbeth’s comment, Macbeth “loves for his own ends” (3.5.13)—a pronouncement that resonates with Macbeth’s own description of “a barren scepter in my gripe/ Thence to be wrenched with an unlineal hand,/ No son of mine succeeding” (3.1.63–65), and his assertion: “strange things I have in head, that will to hand” (3.4.139). Lady Macbeth’s “compunctious visitings” would have served as a monthly reminder of her husband’s shortcomings in this regard: because his “will” is in his hand, rather than her body, she will continue to bleed instead of becoming pregnant. “Yet here’s a spot . . . Out, damned spot! Out, I say! One, two. Why, then, ’tis time to do’t,” she famously says (5.1.27–31). Might not Lady Macbeth’s horror at these imagined bloodstains reenact the monthly reminder that she is not yet with child—a reminder still audible in her insistence that it is, once again, “time to do’t”? Finally, if some of Macbeth’s own lines may be supposed to have had masturbatory implications, then so too might Angus’s suspicion that Macbeth “does . . . feel/ his secret murders sticking on his hands” (5.2.16–17).
Terms denoting sterility, and possibly connoting masturbation, abound in this play—and why not? The Macbeths’ is, after all, a masturbatory reign, insofar as its end is only to satisfy the couple’s (political) desires, without a concern for the future of the nation. Macbeth’s “will”—signifying both his political ambitions and his member—is, of course, mishandled; is insufficient to the task at hand. Macbeth speaks of having “no spur/ To prick the sides of my intent” (1.7.25–26), but the implication is that this “rat without a tail”— to paraphrase the First Witch again—actually has no “prick” to use with his wife. His member is his first disobedient subject. The Porter’s innuendo- riddled speech about drunken impotence, given just after Macbeth murders the king and just before he returns to the scene to face Duncan’s sons, thus serves as more than a brief comic interlude in the midst of profound horrors; it strikes directly at the heart of the matter of the play. Drink, the porter says, gives one the desire for sex while removing the means, making one unable to “stand to.” In Macbeth’s words, “Our will became the servant to defect,/ Which else should free have wrought” (2.1.18–19). Shakespeare indicates that Macbeth has been singularly unable to master his body, and by implication will fail to master the body politic. Again, political and bodily terms are conflated—so much so that Shakespeare even has his would-be king envision his ascent to the throne in terms of penile sufficiency: on the heels of the Weird Sisters’ prophesy, Macbeth muses over what he describes as “the swelling act/ Of the imperial theme” (1.3.127–28), suggesting a link between the act of becoming king and the ability to maintain an erection. This line also speaks to the Captain’s earlier description of Macbeth’s adventures in battle: “So from that spring whence comfort seemed to come/ Discomfort swells,” he says (1.2.27–28). We are, in other words, encouraged to associate Macbeth with a dysfunctional member—a defunct spring—from the start of the play, and to view his rise to kingship as an unnatural attempt to shore up the masculinity that he himself has weakened. Lady Macbeth will eventually reinforce this image by accusing her husband of “unbend[ing]” his “noble strength” (2.2.48), implying that both Macbeth’s political aspirations and his sex have been mishandled.19 Macbeth, in turn, associates his ultimate commitment to murderous deeds with a working penis: “I am settled,” he says in response to his wife’s demands, “and bend up/ Each corporal agent to this terrible feat” (1.7.79–80). The line implies that Macbeth sees murder as a means of “bend- ing up” his “corporal agent,” as a way to have in marriage what he has only recently had in battle: “cannons over-charged with double cracks,/ So they doubly redoubled strokes upon the foe” (1.2.37–38). Lady Macbeth has cer- tainly implied that her husband’s “cannon” has not been “overcharged” of late, nor “stroking” at all, let alone “doubly.” Bearing in mind that “courage” had indicated “lustiness” and “vital force” since at least the fifteenth century and “sexual vigour and inclination” since at least the mid-sixteenth (Oxford) English Dictionary 3), Lady Macbeth’s insistence that her husband “screw [his] courage to the sticking-place” (1.7.60) also serves as a less-than-subtle reminder of his usual failure in this regard.
Lady Macbeth’s oft-cited aspersions against her husband’s manliness thus have a distinct materiality. The would-be queen’s rhetoric suggests that Macbeth’s physical, emotional, and political weaknesses are unthinkable in isolation—and that each must be corrected if the couple’s desires are to be satisfied. Lady Macbeth’s promptings seem designed as a spur to a man who has none, as a means to seeing her husband finally endowed by virtue of being enthroned, and vice versa. All of this is necessary, she suggests, because her husband’s “nature . . . is too full o’th’milk of human kindness/ To catch the nearest way” (1.5.14–16), too full of womanly humor to carry out its requisite functions. Again, bodies and wills collide in Shakespeare’s language. “Nature” connotes menstrual blood, as well as the female genitalia;22 the “milk of human kindness” that supposedly fills Macbeth’s “nature” betokens a range of female bodily fluids (menstrual blood, mother’s milk), but at the same time also suggests semen (OED 2b). Macbeth is thus both too much a woman and too little a man. He is saturated with the bodily fluids associated with childbearing, but without the children that should, to a Renaissance mind, accompany them.
Lady Macbeth’s charges do not refer merely to Macbeth’s metaphorical “womanliness” or slack effeminacy, then, but to what she characterizes as a distinctly physical/sexual inadequacy, as well. “Are you a man?” she taunts. “What, quite unmanned in folly?” (3.4.58 and 73).24 Lady Macbeth makes clear that her opinion of her husband depends very much on Macbeth’s proving that he is not, ultimately, to be “unmanned”:
. . . From this time
Such I account thy love. Art thou afeard
To be the same in thine own act and valour,
As thou art in desire? . . .
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.
Again, political ambitions are allied with sexual desire and ability. Bearing in mind the bawdy implications of the First Witch’s “I’ll do, I’ll do, and I’ll do” (1.3.9), Lady Macbeth’s “When you durst do it, then you were a man” reinforces her already strong case against Macbeth’s potency (i.e. he hasn’t yet “done it” with her) while simultaneously highlighting the couple’s working assumption that Macbeth’s identity is dependent on his sexual proficiency, on his ability to manage his member properly.25 Thus, while commentators some- times encourage us to think of Macbeth’s murderousness as “in part an act of love done to please his wife” (Wintle and Weis 143), his actions are perhaps better viewed as the desperate behavior of an “unmanned” man than they are those of a simply doting, even uxorious, husband. The marriage that first appears to us as supportive and collaborative turns out to be based on—or perhaps to have devolved into—an “unnatural” alliance in which the “masculine” female is forced to compensate for her husband’s physical insufficiency: “Infirm of purpose!” she accuses him, “Give me the daggers” (2.2.55–56). It is because Macbeth’s dagger is infirm, in other words, and because he has kept hold of it, that his wife must make such a demand. By this point in the play, it is clear that the Macbeths equate the king’s ability to rule with his ability to master his sex. Not surprising, then, that Macbeth should describe his murder of Duncan in terms of sexual conquest, equating his approach to the king with that of Tarquin to Lucrece (2.1.55), and proclaiming after the murder that he has finally “done the deed” (2.2.14).26 Perhaps more importantly, he has attempted to prove to himself that he can truly make good use of his dagger. The tragedy of Macbeth, of course, is that his daggers (his knife, his member) are misused, and thus lead only to destruction without increase, to a (not so) petit mort that fails to provide what should “naturally” follow: the planting and growth of Macbeth’s seed.
Given the logic of sex and death—or climax without result—that guides Macbeth, it is fitting that the drama should repeatedly invoke the specter of orgasm, as well. The term “come”—which the OED notes appeared in print with its present connotation of reaching orgasm in 1650 (17), and which, I suggest, would have held that meaning for Shakespeare at the start of the century—appears in Macbeth’s speeches and in speeches relating to him with a noticeable regularity: “Macbeth doth come” (1.3.29); “Come what come may” (1.3.145); “our thane is coming” (1.5.32); “Come, let me clutch thee,” he says to the vision of the dagger (2.1.34); and “To bed, to bed; . . . Come, come, come, come, give me your hand . . . to bed, to bed, to bed” (5.1.56–58) his wife says to him in her reverie. The witches sing “Come away, come away” (3.5) after discussing the fact that Macbeth, perhaps a man whom they have already decided to “drain . . . as dry as hay” (1.3.17) and who “loves for his own ends” (3.5.13), will “come to know his destiny” (3.5.17). A common enough word, but it appears almost too often in Macbeth. Perhaps this is because the doomed king has already “come” too much—but to no good end—or because he will never come into his own, as it were. Perhaps the witches are implying that Macbeth must “come” in order to fulfill his destiny, while Lady Macbeth urges him to do what she knows all too well he cannot. “The cry is still ‘They come!’ ” (5.5.2), Macbeth says of his enemies as the play ends, in a comment that at once announces the presence of Malcolm, Siward, and Macduff and reminds us of the fundamental difference between Macbeth and the rightful heirs to their titles. Malcolm has already hinted at this discrepancy, in the account of his own character that he gives Macduff:
Malcolm. I grant [Macbeth] bloody, Luxurious, avaricious, false, deceitful,
Sudden, malicious, smacking of every sin
That has a name. But there’s no bottom, none,
In my voluptuousness: your wives, your daughters, Your matrons, and your maids could not fill up The cistern of my lust, and my desire
All continent impediments would o’erbear,
That did oppose my will. Better Macbeth
Than such an one to reign.
The suggestion is that Macbeth represents the antithesis of Malcolm’s putative sexual prowess. If “Better that your wives, your daughters,/ Your matrons, and your maids” should be unsafe in Malcolm’s presence than that they should be ruled by one who poses no sexual threat whatever—whether he be “luxurious” (i.e. lustful) or no. Taken as a whole, the play illustrates precisely the dangers of having such a one as king.
Together, Shakespeare’s myriad allusions to Macbeth’s sexual dysfunction promote the idea that his marriage has been as sterile as will be his reign, and as terminal. The material and the marital thus speak to the martial and the monarchical. In her longest speech about Macbeth, Hecate says “There hangs a vap’rous drop profound;/ I’ll catch it ere it come to ground” (3.5.24– 25), indicating that Macbeth’s seed will never germinate, that, in contra- distinction to Banquo, Macbeth will not be “planted,” will not be “full of growing,” as Duncan says Banquo will be (1.4.28–29). For all of Macbeth’s coming, then, he never arrives, his self-love remaining always his goal and obstacle, and leading, finally, to his undoing. In the end, Macbeth loses the scepter he had never learned to hold on to properly (despite, or because of, his many attempts to do so), and, in a final emasculating blow that lends itself to these sorts of readings, loses his head as well, making explicit the condition that we have already been led to imagine throughout the body of the play.