Macbeth: given suck

Macbeth gives us at least two children: Banquo’s son Fleance and Macduff’s unnamed son (four, if we’re historically accurate, as Malcolm and Donaldbain were 9 and 7 years old, respectively). One survives, the other doesn’t. But let’s talk about the baby elephant in the room: Lady Macbeth’s baby.

Say what? You (who are not careful readers) say.

When in the midst of trying to cowardice-shame her husband into killing Duncan, Lady Macbeth lets loose with this chilling statement:

 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 plucked my nipple from his boneless gums
And dashed the brains out, had I so sworn as you
Have done to this.
  • I.vii.54-59

It is doubtful that she would have been a wet-nurse for anyone else’s child, so she must have been talking of her own.

Remember, historically, this was Lady Macbeth (nee Gruoch) second marriage, her first being Gille Coemgáin, who governed over a section of Scotland called Moray, and who died in a dining hall fire by arson. She had a son named Lulach by this marriage. Could this nursing line be Shakespeare’s shout-out to history (even though in the play, Macbeth is not succeeded by Lulach [pesky history! very sad!] but by Malcolm)?

Maybe. But I doubt it.

Many of the film versions we’ve been watching have used this as a pre-credit plot device, but I’m not deriving my feeling from them.

I’m thinking this is a child shared by the Macbeths. In the speech before Lady Macbeth’s “given suck” speech, and following a speech that she questions Macbeth’s masculinity (“live a coward” [I.vii.43]), Macbeth responds by calling himself a man. Now, in this speech, she flips male-ness on its head, giving us the image of a female-only act. It’s a nice rhetorical flourish, but Lady Macbeth isn’t looking to score points in a speech contest here, she wants to change her husband’s mind. If she had led (somehow) with the brain-dashing and finished with the breast-feeding, then I think we could postulate that this was a previous marriage’s son. But that’s not the case.

And of course neither Lulach nor Coemgáin is mentioned in the play.

Thus, we’re really down to the Macbeths. They have no children; Macduff even says so ( [IV.iii.98]). So, when did this child die? Recently? Further back? And how old is Lady Macbeth? Young enough to have children (as Macbeth says that any future child will be male, given the mother’s strength), but no further clues given.

I find this aspect of the Macbeth backstory infinitely interesting. I love the way this image is foreshadowed by her invocations to the spirits to “unsex” her: she calls to exchange her breast “milk to gall” (I.v.47). Why do we get in Macbeth four uses of the word “milk” (double that of the next-most milky plays)?

I’ve got some ideas here, percolating below…maybe they’ll come to the surface this month…

3 thoughts on “Macbeth: given suck”

  1. “Given suck” is such a striking phrase. Do you know if it was a typical way to refer to breastfeeding, or is it Lady Macbeth’s/Shakespeare’s coinage?

    1. What a great question!

      I would have thought that it was a Shakespearean invention… but no.

      According to the OED, the first use of the phrase “to give suck” goes back as early 14th century in Arthour and Merlin (c1330), and “given suck” in the late 14th century, in an early version of The Wycliffite Bible (1382).

      Sometimes, I/we give ol’ Willy too much credit.

  2. Thanks for the research. Maybe we can at least give our Willy credit for “the babe that milks me,” which I find to be another supremely striking phrase.

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