Babies and Children
When King Duncan thanks Macbeth for his heroic service in battle, Macbeth replies that "Your highness' part / Is to receive our duties; and our duties / Are to your throne and state children and servants" (1.4.23-25). Macbeth's metaphor expresses a common idea of the time: A King cares for his people as a father cares for his children; and the people are supposed to act like obedient children.
When Macbeth is thinking about what's going to happen after he has killed King Duncan, he says that "pity, like a naked new-born babe, / Striding the blast, or heaven's cherubins, horsed / Upon the sightless couriers of the air, / Shall blow the horrid deed in every eye, / That tears shall drown the wind" (1.7.21-25). "Cherubins" are small angels, portrayed as chubby, naked children; we call them "cherubs." And "the sightless couriers of the air" are the winds, imagined as invisible ("sightless") horses. This elaborate metaphor suggests that pity for King Duncan will be like that kind of wind that blows so hard that it brings tears to your eyes. The "new-born babe" and the "cherubins" apparently represent the innocence of Duncan.
Later in the scene, Lady Macbeth shames her husband into sticking with the plan to kill Duncan. To shame Macbeth, she calls him a coward, questions his manhood, and tells him that he should be as tough as she is. She says:
I have given suck, and knowShe, too, seems to view a baby as a symbol of innocence, but innocence isn't something she values very much.
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 so sworn as you
Have done to this. (1.7.54-59)
When the Ghost of Banquo comes to Macbeth's banquet for the second time, Macbeth shows his courage. He says he would not tremble if the Ghost should take the shape of a terrible beast, "Or be alive again, / And dare me to the desert with thy sword; / If trembling I inhabit then, protest me / The baby of a girl" (3.4.102-105). A "desert" doesn't have to have sand in it; it's just any deserted place where they could be alone and fight man to man. "Protest" means "proclaim," and "if trembling I inhabit" means "if I live inside a trembling body." Macbeth is daring the Ghost to come alive and fight. If it does, and Macbeth shows fear, then it can tell the world that Macbeth is a little doll-baby.
The witches know that Macbeth will return to learn his fate. As they wait for him, they stir up a disgusting stew of evil. One of the last ingredients to go into the cauldron is "Finger of birth-strangled babe / Ditch-deliver'd by a drab" (4.1.30-31). Some of the ingredients of the witches' stew are almost humorous, but this one is truly horrifying because parents could be -- and can still be -- so evil that they will kill and mutilate their own children.
Later in the same scene, the witches call up apparitions that speak to Macbeth. The second apparition is a "bloody Child" (4.1.76, s.d.), which advises Macbeth to "Be bloody, bold, and resolute; laugh to scorn / The power of man, for none of woman born / Shall harm Macbeth" (4.1.81). This sounds like it means that no man can harm Macbeth, because every man is born of woman. Except Macduff. At the end of the play, in his last battle, Macbeth learns that "Macduff was from his mother's womb / Untimely ripp'd" (5.8.15-16). Cesarean section doesn't count. "Ripp'd" isn't "born."
The third apparition is a "Child crowned, with a tree in his hand" (4.1.86, s.d.). When he sees the apparition, Macbeth cries out, "What is this / That rises like the issue of a king, / And wears upon his baby-brow the round / And top of sovereignty?" (4.1.86-89). It's generally agreed that the apparition does indeed represent "the issue of a king," Malcolm, even though Malcolm is a young man, not a "baby."
At the end of this scene, Macbeth plans an act of senseless cruelty. Macduff is in England, out of his reach, but Macbeth declares that he will seize Macduff's castle and "give to the edge o' the sword / His wife, his babes, and all unfortunate souls / That trace him in his line" (4.1.151-153).
When Ross tells Lady Macduff that her husband has fled from Scotland, she is extremely upset, and when he suggests that perhaps it was Macduff's wisdom that made him flee, she exclaims, "Wisdom! to leave his wife, to leave his babes . . . ." (4.2.6). After Ross leaves, Lady Macduff tries to make light of the situation by pretending to believe that things are worse than they really are. She says to her son, "Sirrah, your father's dead; / And what will you do now? How will you live?" (4.2.30-31). The boy answers, "As birds do, mother" (4.2.32), and when she asks if that means he will eat worms and flies, he replies "With what I get, I mean; and so do they" (4.2.33). What the birds get is provided by God, as Jesus said: "Behold the fowls of the air; for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them" (Matt. 6:26). Lady Macduff comments, "Poor bird! thou'ldst never fear the net nor lime" (4.2.34). "The net" and "lime" (birdlime, a sticky substance) were the two most common ways of catching birds, but this boy -- his mother says -- is so innocent or stupid that he wouldn't fear either one. The boy is unfazed. He take the word "poor" to mean "little," and says that poor birds are too little to be trapped. Some of Lady Macduff's jokes have a bitter flavor, but we can clearly see the affection mother and son have for one another. Then Macbeth's assassins enter and kill the boy as he is urging his mother to run away and save herself.
Pleading with Malcolm to join him in battle against Macbeth, Macduff says that in Scotland, "Each new morn / New widows howl, new orphans cry, new sorrows / Strike heaven on the face" (4.3.5-6). Later in the scene, Ross tells Macduff, "Your castle is surprised; your wife and babes / Savagely slaughter'd" (4.3.204-205). Macduff is plunged into grief, and when Malcolm urges him to cure that grief with revenge against Macbeth, Macduff replies, "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?" (4.3.217-220). In saying, "He has no children," Macduff is making the point that he can't get eye-for-eye revenge upon Macbeth, and he may also mean that the childless Macbeth can't understand how terrible it is to lose a child.
As the Scottish forces march to join the English in Birnam wood, Lennox comments that among the English "there is Siward's son, / And many unrough youths that even now / Protest their first of manhood" (5.2.9-11). "Unrough youths" are those who are so young that they have yet to grow beards. In this context, "protest" means almost the opposite of what it does now; rather than complaining about their manhood, these youths are ready to prove that they are men. If Young Siward is also an unrough youth, he is only fifteen or sixteen, which would make his death at the hands of Macbeth very poignant.
When he learns that none of his thanes will support him, Macbeth tries to make himself believe that he is still safe, and says, "What's the boy Malcolm? / Was he not born of woman?" (5.3.4). Moments later, a servant, pale with fear, comes to report the approach of the English army of ten thousand. Macbeth makes fun of the servant and tells him to "Go prick thy face, and over-red thy fear, / Thou lily-liver'd boy" (5.3.14-15). We don't know the age of either Malcolm or the servant, but we do see that for Macbeth, "boy" is a term of abuse.
During the final battle, just after Macbeth kills Young Siward, Macduff rushes in, looking for Macbeth. Apparently Macduff realizes that he has just missed Macbeth, and he shouts out a challenge to his unseen enemy: "Tyrant, show thy face! / If thou be'st slain and with no stroke of mine, / My wife and children's ghosts will haunt me still" (5.7.14-16).
In the last scene of the play, face-to-face with Macduff, Macbeth learns that "Macduff was from his mother's womb / Untimely ripp'd" (5.8.15-16). Thus Macbeth learns what the apparition of the bloody child really meant when he advised Macbeth to "Be bloody, bold, and resolute; laugh to scorn / The power of man, for none of woman born / Shall harm Macbeth" (4.1.81).
Upon hearing that Macduff was not of woman born, Macbeth says that he will not fight, but Macduff doesn't give him a choice. He says that if Macbeth won't fight, he'll take him prisoner and exhibit him to jeering crowds as the ex-tyrant. Macbeth replies, "I will not yield, / To kiss the ground before young Malcolm's feet, / And to be baited with the rabble's curse" (5.8.27-29), and then he declares that he will fight on. Apparently Malcolm's youth would increase Macbeth's sense of shame.
Later in the same scene, Ross gives Siward the news of his son's death, in a speech which emphasizes Young Siward's youth:
Your son, my lord, has paid a soldier's debt:At the beginning of the play we hear of Macbeth's qualities as a warrior, but the only person we see him kill in a fair fight is Young Siward, who is at least as much a child as he is a man.
He only lived but till he was a man;
The which no sooner had his prowess confirm'd
In the unshrinking station where he fought,
But like a man he died. (5.8.39-43)