I could never get it figured if the Macbeths are supposed to have a kid or not. It really seems like they don’t, but Lady Macbeth specifically mentions having nursed a baby (they’d be the worse parents ever, no matter).
See, the thing about Lady Macbeth is that most people reading or seeing the play don’t know her backstory. Shakespeare did, and judging by her lines, he expected his audience to know, too.
Lady Macbeth was a real person. Her name was Gruoch ingen Boite meic Cináeda. That means “Gruoch, the daughter of Boite, who was the son of Kenneth.” That’s Kenneth III, King of Scotland.
Now, if she had been the grandSON of the King of Scotland, Gruoch would have been in the running to become Kenneth’s heir. Scottish kings in the 11th century (that’s the 1000s) did not generally hand the throne down from father to son; more often, it passed from uncle to nephew (usually the sister’s son), or, occasionally, grandfather to grandson. But in the Christian West at the time, women ruling in their own right was unthinkable. The only way that Gruoch could rule would be if her husband took the throne. I think that her “unsex me now”—make me a woman no longer—makes more sense under those circumstances.
Second, Duncan—the king that she and Macbeth kill—was the grandson of the man who slew her grandfather in battle: Malcolm II, called “The Destroyer.” Malcolm and Kenneth were first cousins, incidentally; they had a common grandfather. Battles happened; I imagine Gruoch took Kenneth’s death more or less in stride.
But Malcolm II was not merciful to other men in her family. Gruoch’s brother Giric was murdered 27 years after that battle for…well, for being a healthy man in the prime of life who might challenge Malcolm and seize the throne. And then…not long after Giric’s murder, her first husband—Gille Coemgáin, the Mormaer of Moray, a small kingdom around Inverness—was burned to death in his hall, along with fifty of his strongest and most skillful warriors.
And that left her alone with a four-year-old boy. Lulach. Her only child.
A few weeks later, Macbeth, the grandson of Malcolm II, showed up at Glamis Castle with an army. The army was to besiege Glamis if she didn’t surrender; he was to marry her if she did.
Remember when Lady Macbeth talks about being willing to kill a baby that she was nursing? Yeah. Well, here’s the thing—Gruoch had no expectation that Macbeth, directed by Malcolm to marry her, would let her son live. Lulach was the heir to the King of Moray; Macbeth was trying to replace him. There would be every reason for her to feel that Malcom would see Lulach as a threat. She also had to face the possibility that Lulach would not be killed outright but would be maimed, either as a stand-in for his father or prevent him from inheriting his father’s position. She was basically being asked to choose: an extended battle that she knew she couldn’t win, since most of her husband’s men were dead…or probable safety for herself and probable death for her toddler son.
For whatever reason, Macbeth spared Lulach’s life and allowed him to remain free rather than imprisoning him. Malcolm never reacted to this; logically, he didn’t feel that Macbeth had to kill the child to prove his loyalty. And there are persistent stories about Macbeth being the one who burned Gille Coemgáin and his men alive.
Lulach lived to grow up, by the way. He was nicknamed “Fatuus” or “the Foolish” by Latin chroniclers; perhaps more tellingly, in “The Prophecy of St. Berchan,” he’s referred to as “Tairbridh,” which one historian translates as “misfortune.” It may be a mistranslation for “táirbrigh”; the “dh” and “gh” sounds in Gaelic are very similar. The translation of “táirbrigh” would be closer to “the essence (or maybe the quintessence) of disgrace.”
Contrary to the play, Lulach ruled Scotland after Macbeth died. However, his reign only lasted seven months. According to Dictionary of National Biography, Volume 34 by Sir Leslie Stephen and Sir Sidney Lee, Lulach was “slain by craft” by a grandson of Duncan “at Essy in Strathbolgy, on the border of the present Aberdeenshire, on 17 March 1058.” The Annals of Ulster, edited by B. McCarthy, say that Lulach was killed in battle (which doesn’t preclude the use of craft or sneakiness) by Mael-Coluim [Malcolm], son of Donnchadh [Donalbain, in the play—or rather Donal Bán, Donal the Fair-Haired].
Lulach had a son, variously called by chroniclers Máel Snechtai. Máel Snechta, Maelsnechta or Maelsnectan, who followed him as Mormaer of Moray, though Máel Snechtai called himself King of Moray.
Lulach also had a daughter whose name has not come down to us, but her son Óengus (Angus, in modern Gaelic) inherited Máel Snechtai’s position. Óengus was killed in a punitive invasion that occurred after the people of Moray killed Ladhmunn, the nephew of Alexander I, the King of Alba (Scotland). After Óengus’s death in 1130, Moray was given to William fitz Duncan, another nephew of Alexander I. The title also changed from “King of Moray” to “earl of Moray.” I thought you might want to know how it turned out.
[reblogging this to read later after I watch the play. I know Lady M actually existed, but nothing beyond that. Thanks!]