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Effigies of Childhood in Kurzel’s Macbeth

Australian director Justin Kurzel’s film adaptation of Macbeth (2015) opens with a shot you will not find in Shakespeare—a bird’s eye view of the Macbeths’ dead baby son (played by twins Frank and Jack Madigan) laid out for burial, his skin mottled with what appear to be smallpox scars (see Figure 1). As Lady Macbeth (Marion Cotillard) steps forward to press flowers into the child’s hands, in the background composer Jed Kurzel’s minimalist and haunting string music is layered with the sound of lashing wind. Next, Macbeth (Michael Fassbender) places seashells over the baby’s eyes, and standing in the assembled crowd is Banquo (Paddy Considine), his hands resting on the shoulders of his own boy, Fleance (Lochlann Harris). Our attention is drawn to the pair since Banquo and Fleance are unhooded among the mourners draped in long headscarves. An overhead shot of the corpse is shown again, this time with Macbeth’s hand flattened upon the baby’s chest. A torch is lit, and the brilliant flames of the funeral pyre momentarily suffuse the drab Scottish landscape. Only then do we see the witches—a weird family of four females ranging from girlhood to middle-age with another babe in arms—watching upon the heath.

Effigies of Childhood in Kurzel’s Macbeth, Hanh Bui, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 1: The film’s opening shot of the Macbeth baby laid out for burial.

With this opening scene, Kurzel makes a significant departure from Shakespeare’s text by providing an answer to the infamous question: “How many children had Lady Macbeth?”1 By imagining the Macbeths as already grieving parents, Kurzel follows the example of fellow Australian filmmaker Geoffrey Wright’s Macbeth (2006), set in contemporary Melbourne’s criminal underworld, and British director Penny Woolcock’s socially grim production for the BBC, Macbeth on the Estate (1997). Both Wright and Woolcock portray the witches as delinquent youth.2 But in Kurzel’s version we are also given Macbeth’s repeated hauntings by an unnamed boy soldier (a fourteen-year-old Scot Greenan), Banquo’s deep attachment to his son, Macduff’s tight-knit brood, parish children at play, and the representation of Macbeth’s madness as a regression to a childlike state. There are certainly dead and phantasmic children in Shakespeare’s play: the “naked new-born babe” that will trumpet Duncan’s murder (1.7.21); Lady Macbeth’s dark allusion to the infant she has “given suck” (1.7.54); the child apparitions conjured by the witches; the killings of Banquo’s, Macduff’s, and Seyward’s children; and the prophecy “none of woman born / Shall harm Macbeth” (4.1.96-97).3 Shakespeare also uses numerous words related to natural and unnatural nativity: “birth,” “labour,” “swelling act,” “carved out,” “issue,” “firstlings,” “bring forth,” “breed,” and so on. Perhaps, then, the question to ask is not why children are so pervasive in Kurzel’s treatment, but why they are relatively absent from others. Commenting on the youth who populate Macbeth on the Estate, Carol Rutter has situated Woolcock’s film in Britain’s “ongoing cultural crisis in ‘childness’” that emerged in the 1990s, when adults’ “deep anxieties about relatedness and separation, about authority and autonomy” found expression in child figures on stage and screen (172). Gemma Miller, who has examined the ambiguous role of children in various adaptations of Macbeth, similarly finds Kurzel’s version “symptomatic of a major cultural shift in attitudes towards childhood” in the last few decades (52). In Kurzel’s film the depiction of boy soldiers too young to have beards invokes the current use of real children in armed conflicts around the globe, raising deeply uncomfortable questions about the status of young people as innocent victims of war. Kurzel himself is a father, and his twin daughters with actor Essie Davis were about nine years old when Macbeth was released in 2015. Kurzel has also stated that his own father’s death influenced the making of the film: “I’ve had a difficult time decoding my grief, working out what to do with it. That’s what I saw in Macbeth. [The Macbeths] use ambition to replace grief.”4 Without assuming a reflexive correspondence between imagined and historical people, Kurzel’s film leaves little doubt that the loss of a parent or child creates a wound that time does not heal, but instead allows to fester.

In this essay I examine how Kurzel puts children at the center of Shakespeare’s tragedy, foregrounding not just the problem of monarchical succession but also childhood issues related to trauma, vulnerability, agency, education, and political resistance. I also explore how the film calls into question an idea that appears throughout the scholarly discourse—that young people in Shakespeare are only the innocent victims of an adult’s murderous ambition. Ann Blake has stated that “perfect innocence is only possible in children” (301). In Richard III the Duchess of York refers to Clarence’s children as “incapable and shallow innocents” (2.2.18). Richard himself charges Queen Margaret with “the faultless blood of pretty Rutland” (1.3.175), and refers to the young Prince Edward’s “untainted virtue” (3.1.7). Furthermore, in The Tempest Ariel describes Prospero’s enemies as having endangered “his innocent child” all those years ago (3.3.72). Even when critics seek to take our knowledge of Shakespeare’s children in a new direction, the idea of their innocence nonetheless persists. Katie Knowles, in a nuanced reading of Macbeth, writes: “So although there is no miracle to save Young Macduff, he is, in his own way, yet another embodiment of the triumph of tenderness and innocence against brutal force” (58). Likewise, Morriss Henry Partee has observed that the “guilt of Macbeth transpires against the general backdrop of the innocence of children” (97). I do not argue, of course, that children in Macbeth are not the wrongful victims of adult privilege and brutality. Indeed, as Kate Chedgzoy has pointed out, Shakespeare’s older characters often exploit the fundamental and unequal power relations between children and adults (20). Richard of Gloucester, for example, refers to himself as “a child” (2.2.123) and “too childish-foolish for this world” (1.3.142) precisely because he is the opposite. My interest instead lies in how Kurzel troubles audiences’ assumptions about children’s purity and guilt, helplessness and agency, and that his film unsettles the concept of childhood as a privileged category of human experience, even as it perpetuates other conventions. In Kurzel’s Macbeth the only truly innocent child is the dead child, and childhood itself becomes instantiated across a diverse spectrum of bodies—young/not young, living/dead, real/supernatural. Time and again children are depicted as active learners, observers, and interlocutors, and the final scene of the film dismantles the idea that young people can be only victims and passive bystanders of history.

Before proceeding with Macbeth, I wish to briefly position my analysis within current theories about childhood. In Figurations: Child, Bodies, Worlds, Claudia Castañeda has argued that the naturalized view of the child as merely “an adult in the making” can no longer be justified (1). Castañeda examines how the figure of the child functions as a remarkably adaptive screen upon which adults project their own fears and fantasies, a versatility rooted in childhood’s “economy of mutability” (5):

While all categories, including that of the adult, can be deconstructed to expose the instability of their contours or borders, what is specific to the category of the child is the identification between the child and mutability itself. It is not simply that “the child” is a sign, category, or representation that can be read in multiple ways. What is distinctive about the child is that it has the capacity for transformation. In fact, such a transformation is a requirement . . . This implies that the child is also never complete in itself. It is precisely this incompleteness and its accompanying instability that makes the child so apparently available: it is not yet fully formed, and so open to re-formation. (2-3)

Castañeda offers valuable insight into how the very malleability of the child figure is what allows it to amass meaning and power in various cultural and scientifice discourses. Additionally, Robin Bernstein in Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights analyzes how “the child” has been pressed into serving opposed ideological interests, such as arguments both for and against interracial marriage, where the needs of imagined, future children have been invoked to abrogate the constitutional rights of already living children and adults. Bernstein’s project also interrogates the ways that nineteenth-century sentimentalized ideals of childhood innocence have infused national racial discourses (2011). Like many theorists Bernstein stresses children’s agency, understood not as a power one either has or lacks but agency that “emerges through constant engagement with the stuff of our lives” (12). This approach contrasts with other scholars in the field of childhood studies who emphasize the oppressiveness of adult disciplinary regimes, and children as “pawns in a system of surveillance and correction that they cannot fully understand, resist, or escape” (Duane 86). Kurzel’s film shows that while children are obviously disempowered relative to adults, young people also manifest agency in worlds they did not create yet nonetheless help to transform. This essay thus attempts to explore the boundaries of innocence and knowledge, dependence and autonomy, by examining the complex engagements between young people and their elders—beginning with the idea of their socialization.

“Bloody instructions”


In Shakespeare’s play, the opening battle in which Macbeth “unseamed” the rebel MacDonald “from the nave to th’ chops” (1.2.22) actually happens off-stage and is reported to King Duncan (David Thewlis) by a captain. Kurzel shrewdly stages the fight, and the scene is astonishing for its vivid and intimate depiction of soldiers hacking each other to death, made even more gruesome by the intermittent use of slow motion to unnaturally protract the spectacle of slaughter. Kurzel offers another invented scene before the battle. Macbeth, Banquo, and their legion of warriors advance through the fog, steel lightly clanking at their hips. The men are burly and grimy, and as they pause on a rise we get a close-up of Macbeth’s face—streaked with old war paint—surveying what we think is the enemy. Instead, it is revealed that he is eyeing a line of new recruits come to replenish their ranks: a couple dozen pale, clean, and beardless lads, shivering with cold or trepidation (see Figure 2). Fassbender’s eyes betray a flicker of disappointment; or, perhaps it is anguish over the imminent prospect of young people dying. In recent years scholars have published accounts of child soldiers in past and ongoing conflicts, some claiming that young people’s responses to war are far more complicated than adults may think. In Armies of the Young: Child Soldiers in War and Terrorism, David Rosen has researched the range of cultural and historical circumstances that draw children into combat, and the different conditions in which they live and fight. Rosen underscores that children “possess individual survival strategies, apply their own intelligence, strategize about situations, enter into relationships, have conversations”—in other words, things that any adult soldier would do (134).

Effigies of Childhood in Kurzel’s Macbeth, Hanh Bui, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 2: Macbeth’s laddish recruits appear too young to grow facial hair.

In Kurzel’s film the recruits are in various stages of adolescence, which raises the difficult question: at what age does childhood end?5 Are the soldiers more rightly considered young men? What is more easily grasped is that for these lads their new status as warriors requires training. We watch as the veterans, some lacking beards themselves, help prepare the boys for combat. Macbeth attends to one youth in particular (Greenan’s unnamed soldier), wrapping a sword in his hand and smearing paint on his face. But before moving on Macbeth pauses to touch the boy’s cheek, a humanizing gesture we will see again. We watch as the youths receive their education in war, and the film demonstrates how methods of extreme violence and survival need to be learned and passed on. Macbeth’s boy soldier, unfortunately, does not survive the fight. After discovering his body on the battlefield, Macbeth covers the boy’s eyes with shells and places a dagger in his hand, as if he were burying a second son.6 Young soldiers in Kurzel’s film are thus represented as both partisans and victims, bringing to light the complicated link between children’s vulnerabilities and the public roles they sometimes perform (Appell 19). According to James Marten, since children’s lives are always already characterized by conflict—from disciplinary measures and familial strife to, for many, growing up in battle zones—children have a better understanding of war than is generally presumed (57). The morning that Duncan’s murder is discovered, we get a quick shot of children playing outside the king’s tent. Two girls snatch a crown of twigs off a little boy’s head, and we are reminded that usurping from others is not an activity reserved just for grown-ups. As J. Allan Mitchell has asked, “Is child’s play ever innocent?” (66).

The filmmakers underscore how young people are constantly being groomed in the ways of maximal aggression. In another scene not found in Shakespeare, Duncan and his son, Malcolm (Jack Reynor), execute the Thane of Cawdor with their own bows and arrows. Hence Kurzel’s representation of the “boy Malcolm” (5.3.3), bearded yet retaining some of the plumpness reminiscent of childhood, is shown training to kill at his father’s side.7 In another example, Macbeth delivers his soliloquy “If it were done when ’tis done” (1.7.1) outside the pavilion where a feast is being held for Duncan. Macbeth’s lines

          we but teach
Bloody instructions, which being taught, return
To plague th’inventor (1.7.8-10)

are voiced over an interior shot of the tent at precisely the moment when Duncan is showing some children his intricately carved sword, letting them touch it and admire its beauty. Malcom will pick up this very sword from Macbeth’s empty throne at the end of the movie to be used, it is suggested, in a future stand-off with Fleance. In other words, Duncan is readying the next generation of warriors to potentially do battle with his own heir. Hence we are led to understand that the “bloody instructions” imparted to children can have consequences not so easily contained. Children are no doubt shaped by the adults who want to discipline them, but Kurzel also demonstrates how children are “agents of their own learning” (Naomi Miller 137) and can threaten the very powers (“th’inventor”) that would teach them in the first place. As Bernstein has written, “Children do not passively receive culture. Rather, children expertly field the co-scripts of narratives and material culture and then collectively forge” their own responses (29). The film offers the possibility that the actions of youth cannot be entirely scripted by grown-ups, nor are they always predictable.

Kurzel most clearly develops the idea of children resisting or undermining adult regimes in the character of Fleance. From the moment he appears on screen, Fleance bears constant witness to life’s hardship, insecurity, and death: he attends the funeral of baby Macbeth, he copes with long periods of separation from his father-soldier, he rings the church bell announcing Duncan’s death, he views the king’s corpse, and he watches in horror as his own father is slain (see Figure 3). In fact, the one time we see Fleance smile is the day Banquo returns home from war, right before he leaps into his father’s bloodied embrace. In an interview Lochlann Harris, the boy who plays Fleance, offered this insight to his character: “He’s always wanting to be a warrior. He’s always wanted to be one.”8 Harris’s statement recapitulates an argument Rosen has made: that in some cultures “young people are deliberately socialized into highly aggressive behavior” (4). This point is further suggested in another scene the night of Duncan’s feast. Fleance and a boy are wrestling outside on the grass as other children look on. Kurzel cuts the dialogue at the beginning of act 2 between Banquo and Fleance; instead, Banquo simply appears on the scene and directs Fleance to “take my sword” (2.1.4). Without an obvious context for Banquo’s speech, it seems odd or possibly desperate that Banquo interrupts his son playing in order to unburden his soul: “A heavy summons lies like lead upon me” (2.1.6). At this moment, the child seems less dependent upon the adult than the other way around, and a close-up of Fleance’s face reveals scratches and bruises not unlike his father’s. The ominous mood of this scene contrasts with Rupert Goold’s Stalin-era adaptation of Macbeth (2010), where Fleance (Bertie Gilbert) is sneaking a late-night snack in Macbeth’s kitchen when Banquo (Martin Turner) discovers him. The boy is caught out of bed past his bedtime—“I take’t ’tis later, sir” (2.1.3)—but his father is in no rush to return him there. When Banquo says “Take thee that, too” (2.1.5), he gives his son a kiss on the head. But in Kurzel’s vision when Banquo says the same line, he places not a kiss but a sash on Fleance’s shoulders, which, in addition to already handing over his sword, gives the impression that Banquo is disarming himself in order to arm Fleance. Is this an act of offense or defense? Either way the film emphasizes how children are socialized to become warriors by their family and community.

Effigies of Childhood in Kurzel’s Macbeth, Hanh Bui, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 3: Fleance, played by Lochlann Harris, is eyewitness to his father’s savage murder. 

The groundwork for Fleance’s prospective revenge—his figuration as an avenger in the making—is established well before the final scene. On the ride to Dunsinane for Macbeth’s coronation, Banquo’s soliloquy “Thou hast it now: King, Cawdor, Glamis” (3.1.1) is directed so that Banquo is speaking to Fleance. In fact, throughout the film several soliloquies and asides are staged so that children, alive or dead, become silent interlocutors. Fleance listens with knit brows as Banquo tells him how it has been predicted that “myself should be the root and father / Of many kings” (3.1.5-6). By being made privy to his father’s most guarded thoughts, Fleance possesses more knowledge here than he is given in Shakespeare. Such a staging also vexes the idea of childhood innocence as lacking the awareness or consciousness that somehow guarantees adulthood. To know something, of course, is not always to comprehend it. So is Fleance naive or knowing? And will he remember his father’s words? Harris has said about his character: “[Fleance is] like people you would see that just fights all the time. And they had friends, and then you see them without friends—if you know what I mean.”9 Indeed, in Kurzel’s film Fleance has repeated first-hand experience of life’s indiscriminate precariousness.

Fleance is not, however, the only child who presents a threat to adult normative authority. After Macbeth’s assassins take down Banquo, Fleance flees through the forest, an image that will be repeated later in the movie with Macduff’s children. As the killers close in, the young girl witch (Amber Rissmann) suddenly materializes out of thin air, and the next thing we know Fleance has vanished. It is therefore suggested that he evades his would-be killers through the intervention of the weird child.10 What intrigues me about this scene is how it brings into focus the cultural contradiction between children as innately innocent and good (Fleance) versus children as naturally corrupt (the girl witch). Moreover, by associating childhood agency with the supernatural, the film positions children as irrational subjects, which is an idea that flourished and took root during the Enlightenment. Yet an agency not contingent upon rational thought is what thwarts Macbeth’s murderous plan. In a sense, then, children are the only ones in the film who successfully resist the tyrant’s authority, manifesting political agency although they lack a political voice. Even Macduff, “from his mother’s womb / Untimely ripped” (5.7.45-46), is the unnatural child who effects the overthrow of Macbeth and his flawed powers of reasoning. Is the girl witch ultimately an agent of redemption or retribution? Can we consider her vulnerable in any conventional sense?

Questions about the girl’s status as innocent child or agent of evil are raised early in the film. When Macbeth first encounters the witches they are stealing blood off the battlefield, to be used later to conjure Macbeth’s apparitions. The girl witch steps forward to greet Macbeth (see Figure 4), her charms softly jangling, and she plucks a bauble off his vest to add to her collection—her own version of taking. The scar on the girl’s forehead announces her initiation into the weird sisterhood, but we do not know whether she is daughter, sister, or other to the older witches, nor are we given the origins of the weird baby.11 So while girls do not appear on stage in Shakespeare’s play, the film gives us up to three, counting the infant witch and the Macduff girl. Additionally, the girl witch’s facial expression throughout the film betrays a certain knowingness: perhaps of the future, perhaps of evil itself. We can read her precocity as Kurzel’s take on the intellectual sophistication exhibited by Macduff’s son in the banter with his mother in act 4 scene 2, which is cut from the film.12 Interestingly, Shakespeare might be suggesting that it is not so much that children are necessarily naive, but that knowledge and childhood are ultimately incompatible states. Richard Gloucester says of Prince Edward that “So wise so young . . . do never live long” (3.1.79), and describes the other doomed heir as “a parlous boy, / Bold, quick, ingenious, forward, capable” (3.1.153-54). Rutter, too, has described the children in Woolcock’s Macbeth as “knowing” and “unnaturally old” (183). Clearly, children in Shakespeare understand more about the world than adults may care to admit. But perhaps the question to ask is not whether children have powers of knowledge, but why—at least in Shakespeare’s drama—those that have it are destined to die.

Effigies of Childhood in Kurzel’s Macbeth, Hanh Bui, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 4: Macbeth’s first encounter with the girl witch. Amber Rissmann was about nine years old when she appeared in the film.

The evening Macbeth deliberates whether or not to kill Duncan, we see him rustling a wind chime in the chapel, and the sound, eerily similar to the witch girl’s charms, evokes flashbacks of the battle, the weird family, and the dead boy soldier. Once these visions pass, Macbeth turns and sees the dagger. In Roman Polanski’s Macbeth (1971), the dagger is represented as a glowing graphic that floats awkwardly in mid-air. Goold stages the scene so that Patrick Stewart’s Macbeth speaks directly into the camera, omitting the prop entirely. But in Kurzel’s adaptation the blade is proffered in the blood-soaked hand of Macbeth’s boy soldier come back from the dead. Is he a ghost, illusion, or material revenant? Moreover, the dagger appears to be the same one Macbeth had buried with the lad, reminding us yet again how “bloody instructions” return “to plague th’inventor.” When Macbeth says “Come, let me clutch thee” (2.1.34), the line takes on poignant meaning as Macbeth reaches for the boy’s face. In this scene Fassbender’s Macbeth is not as startled as he is in Polanski, nor as bemused as we find in Goold; rather, Macbeth appears stricken with pain, expectancy, and longing, and his mission to kill Duncan becomes entangled with other guilty remembrances. The dead boy marshals Macbeth “the way that I was going” (2.1.42), and this time we see a battle-scarred youth showing the clean-scrubbed elder the way to slaughter.

“To bed, to bed, to bed”


Flashback, hallucination, anxiety, guilt, memory, and repetition are hallmarks of what psychologists and literary theorists refer to as trauma, from the Greek word for “wound.”13 Cathy Caruth has provided what is often cited as the foundational account of this phenomenon in the field of trauma studies: “trauma describes an overwhelming experience of sudden or catastrophic events in which the response to the event occurs in the often delayed, uncontrolled repetitive appearance of hallucinations and other intrusive phenomena” (11). Caruth’s account, which is indebted to Freud, rests on the theory that some experiences are so mentally and physically painful that they shatter a person’s psyche, resulting in his or her inability to process the event as it happens. Because immediate, direct knowledge of the event is unavailable to the subject, trauma describes what happens when the person later returns—again and again—to the experience in some altered form, such as a flashback or nightmare (Silverstone  13). While Caruth’s theory of the “unknowability” of trauma has been challenged,14 what I find useful is the idea that these terrible experiences, when recalled, are typically visual and lack logical or narrative coherence. Kurzel’s use of slow motion, flashback, visions, and uncanny repetitions create a dreamscape that is emotionally and temporally disorienting, which fits well with an account of trauma. But the question is: what exactly is Kurzel’s Macbeth traumatized by?

At a press conference in Cannes, Fassbender said that Kurzel helped him to locate Macbeth’s treachery in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)15: “You have a soldier who’s engaged in battle month-after-month, day-after-day. Killing with his hands. Pushing a sword through muscle and bone. And if that doesn’t work picking up a rock and using that” (qtd. in Barnes). The decision to give Macbeth such a singular motive, thereby flattening the play’s epistemological uncertainties, might prove objectionable to some critics. Stanley Cavell, for example, has acknowledged that Macbeth represents “the possibility that there is no end to our irrationalities” (232). In another interview, when pressed to clarify why PTSD was Macbeth’s psychic wound and not parental grief, Fassbender downplayed childlessness by confining its significance to the Macbeths’ marriage: “I think that’s more to do with their relationship . . . They haven’t really had the opportunity to mourn this loss and . . . they’re starting to learn what it’s like to be with one another again, both physically and emotionally” (qtd. in Foster). To be sure, Macbeth’s evil is not adequately explained by either PTSD or parental grief alone. At the same time, if we apply the framework of trauma to an examination of Macbeth (as prompted by the filmmakers), we find that the majority of images and situations that actually get repeated are related to children, especially the Macbeths’ dead baby. As mentioned earlier, Macbeth places shells over the eyes of both his son and the boy soldier. Both corpses are burned in pyres. The next (though not last) time we see a fire, Lady Macduff (Elizabeth Debicki) and her three children (Eleanor, William, and Matthew Stagg) are burned alive at the stake. In Holinshed’s Chronicles (1577), Shakespeare’s primary historical source for the play, Macbeth participates in the massacre at Macduff’s castle, while Shakespeare has the king send his proxies. In Goold’s adaptation not only does Macbeth join the assassins, but we get a tight shot of a doll left outside in the rain as a stand-in for the murdered children. In Kurzel’s film, Macduff’s family is brought to Dunsinane (after another tracking shot of children fleeing through the forest), where each member is tied to a wooden stake on an elevated platform. The assembled crowd of adults and children is once again draped in funereal black, and Lady Macbeth’s eyes shine with horror and disbelief as she surveys the family, perhaps also recalling how tender it actually was to love the babe that milked her, or lamenting the other children she will never have. At various times Shakespeare critics have alluded to Macbeth’s impotency, an issue that the film does not entertain since the couple are shown having intercourse. During the speech when Macbeth tells his wife “For Banquo’s issue have I filed my mind” (3.1.66), which is a soliloquy in the play, Macbeth touches the tip of his dagger to her womb, suggesting that the fault lies with Lady Macbeth for not producing an heir.16 Janet Adelman has described Macduff’s brood as embodying “values of ordinary family and community,” things denied to the Macbeths (141). So it should come as little surprise that the only household which emerges unscathed in Kurzel’s film is the supernatural family of witches.

Not even the sight of Macduff’s youngest child at the stake, a pre-school-aged boy who stares down at Macbeth with expressive incrimination, can check the tyrant. We are not shown the moment when Macbeth lights the platform; instead, the camera slowly pans across the darkened beach until it settles on Macbeth, basking in the fire’s orange glow, the torch gripped in his hand like a flaming scepter, and the massacre of Macduff’s family becomes a macabre parody of the burials we have already seen. While burning someone in effigy typically means to set fire to a likeness of a person as an act of political protest, the bodies of Lady Macduff and her children can be understood as living effigies for Macduff, Macbeth’s real target, who has fled to England. When Macduff receives word of his family’s slaughter, his famous line “He has no children” (4.3.217) unambiguously refers to Macbeth, not Malcolm. Bernstein has observed that “[c]hildren often serve as effigies that substitute uncannily for other, presumably adult, bodies and thus produce a surplus of meaning” (23). Bernstein understands effigy in the sense that certain bodies perform and are surrogates for something that a society has lost. Because children are constantly growing, childhood as a category of human development is always threatened with disappearance. Thus cultural idealizations of the child are understood as “an endless attempt to find, fashion, and impel substitutes to fill a void caused by the loss of a half-forgotten original” (ibid.). Bernstein helps us see how children in Kurzel’s film—the boy soldier, the weird children, Fleance, the Macduffs—function as effigies of Macbeth’s own son; additionally, Macbeth makes victims of children the way his own child was victimized, and death becomes simultaneously a “dispossessive” and a “preservative,” something which “prevents the essential child-quality from ever dying through maturation” (Bernstein 24).

A young person’s body is not the only effigy that constructs childhood—older bodies can do so as well. David Willbern has discussed how Duncan’s murder is analogous to infanticide: both the king and the nursing babe invoked by Lady Macbeth are violently killed after they have been fed to satiety (524). Willbern also argues that Macbeth’s “unseam[ing]” of the traitor MacDonald is akin to “battlefield gynecological surgery,” which represents Macbeth as “an infant in utero forging his way into the world through the containing body of his source” (529). Moreover, while many scholars read Macbeth’s “too full o’th’ milk of human kindness” (1.5.15) as sign of his effeminacy,17 it can be read also as a figuration of his “childlike” vulnerability, which will become increasingly apparent in Kurzel’s film. Cleanth Brooks, who once argued that the baby is “perhaps the most powerful symbol in the tragedy,” has commented that Lady Macbeth taunts her husband for “acting like a baby” (39-43). Adelman has further suggested that Lady Macbeth “articulates a fantasy in which to be less than a man is to become interchangeably a woman or a baby, terribly subject to the wife/mother’s destructive rage” (138). When Lady Macbeth says, “When you durst do it, then you were a man” (1.7.49), she rebukes her husband for being a child who cannot perform a man’s job, as if Macbeth were in fact the “wayward son” (3.5.11) that Hecate describes in Shakespeare’s play.18 In the film Cotillard pauses before she delivers Lady Macbeth’s famous speech “I have given suck” (1.7.54), and her downcast eyes suggest that her character is reaching for or recalling her experience as a mother. The outcome of this fleeting reflection is the decision to trade a mother’s love and memories for the murderous task at hand, a bargain that will come back to haunt her.

Adelman has emphasized that in the play Macbeth sheds his infant vulnerability by killing the innocent and trusting Duncan (139). But Kurzel’s film shows us something different—that instead of becoming a man, Macbeth reverts to being a child in the figure of uncontrolled feelings, irrationality, and a vivid imagination. If, as Lady Macbeth tells her husband, “’tis the eye of childhood / That fears a painted devil” (2.2.52-53), then Macbeth is that child. According to Partee, after Duncan’s murder Macbeth “regresses into what Shakespeare deems the most disreputable characteristic of childhood: impatience and cruelty” (79). The movie emphasizes the madness of these traits as something distinctly juvenile. To put it another way, when the disciplined, rational adult breaks down what we get is the figure of the unruly child, like the witch girl or boy revenant. At his coronation Macbeth receives a crown that Guy Lodge in Variety described as “either a jagged chain of headstones or an oversized set of extracted baby teeth.” A crown of baby’s teeth would indeed be fitting for a king who, as Brooks claimed, “make[s] war on children” (45). When the dead Banquo appears to Macbeth at his coronation feast, the queen tells him “This is the very painting of your fear” (3.4.60), which again connects Macbeth’s hauntings to a child’s dreadful imaginings. In the scene immediately after the feast, we find Macbeth huddled on the floor of his bedchamber, a wild look on his face, his crown cast aside, and toying with a dagger. Voiced over the scene is his soliloquy “To be thus is nothing, / But to be safely thus” (3.1.49-50). Lady Macbeth enters the room and joins him on the floor, and her line “How now, my lord, why do you keep alone” (3.2.10) sounds like a mother lightly humoring her son. More scenes will take place in the king’s bedchamber as Macbeth withdraws from the public’s eye to find refuge in the private, domestic interior, not unlike a child who spends his days in the nursery. We later see Macbeth in a nightgown, rocking back and forth on his heels, which is what children might do when they are upset to soothe themselves. Caithness’s lines “Some say he’s mad; others that lesser hate him / Do call it valiant fury” (5.2.13-14) are given to Lennox (David Haymon), and they are voiced over images of a deranged Macbeth playing with a sword, running about his room, and again rocking back and forth. If the play is about Macbeth’s “war on children,” then the film suggests that one of those child victims is the man king himself.

The evening Banquo’s ghost appears to Macbeth, later that night the queen finds her husband lying awake on the dining hall floor, not unlike Fleance who is caught out of bed in Goold’s adaptation. Lady Macbeth bids the king, “Sleep,” and her tone is urgent and imploring. Macbeth’s figuration as a child who must be brought to bed is further suggested in one of the film’s most surprising scenes. A disturbed Lady Macbeth makes her way back to the now ruined village where Duncan was murdered, in what Jami Ake has noted as another type of traumatic recurrence for the character and audiences alike: “the nightmare of reliving the horror, of seeming to move forward only to return relentlessly to the same ‘spot.’” Lady Macbeth sits on the floor of the vacant chapel and delivers a soliloquy that combines multiple speeches from act 5 scene 1, beginning with “Out, damned spot; out, I say” (5.1.30). The queen looks off-screen and appears to be talking to the air. When she says, “Wash your hands / Put on your nightgown” (l. 52) and “Come, come, come, come, give me your hand” (l. 57), we imagine that in her mind’s eye she is talking to Macbeth. But as she finishes her speech—“To bed, to bed, to bed” (l. 58)—the camera cuts to an over-the-shoulder shot of the queen speaking to her dead child, riddled with smallpox scars and sitting up in his nightgown (see Figure 5). Once again we are left asking: is the son a mother’s delusion, or does he possess a supernatural presence? The film encourages us to conflate Macbeth with his infant child—both found in their nightgowns, both out of bed, and both the origin of trauma for Lady Macbeth. Furthermore, the film hints that grief for her lost baby is triggered or exacerbated by the killings of Macduff’s children. Since Lady Macbeth is now indirectly responsible for the deaths of actual and not just rhetorical children, perhaps guilt over her previous willingness to dash out her baby’s brains has come home to roost. By attempting to stir up viewers’ sympathy by showing Lady Macbeth racked with maternal guilt and loss, a mourning whose productivity only results in more death, the film exploits the affective, symbolic value of children. On her way back to Dunsinane Lady Macbeth encounters the weird family upon the heath, which is the last thing we see her do before she dies. Like the ambivalent figurations of the child, she is portrayed as both victim and accomplice of the powers of darkness.

Effigies of Childhood in Kurzel’s Macbeth, Hanh Bui, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 5: The Macbeths’ dead child reappears to his mother near the site of Duncan’s murder.

“Seeds of time”

The importance of sons to monarchical succession has long been noted as central to Macbeth’s tragedy. As Brooks observes, “Ironically, it is the more human part of Macbeth—his desire to have more than a limited personal satisfaction, his desire to found a line, his wish to pass something on to later generations—which prompts him to dispose of Banquo” (41). More recently, Joseph Campana has applied Ernst Kantorowicz’s figure of the king’s two bodies to children in Macbeth to explore “how the nature of sovereignty and the nature of the child were gradually and mutually transformed” (813). That the child is the symbol of political futurity has been theorized at length by Lee Edelman. In No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive, Edelman has argued that the child endures as “the fantasmatic beneficiary of every political intervention,” and he cites the ubiquitous invocations of the “innocent” child in need of adult protection, whose immature body is the “emblem of futurity’s unquestioned value” (3-4).19 We can understand Macbeth’s obsession with the future as figured in the body of an imagined child who does not yet exist, but who nevertheless trumps the freedom of already living children and adults; that in order for Macbeth to protect the fortunes of his non-existent progeny, the present existence of others must be terminated. After all, Shakespeare’s play presents English history as a teleological narrative in which the significance of the past is revealed through time and the figure of the child. In Goold’s film the line of kings that stretches “to th’ crack of doom” (4.1.133) consists of eight identical Fleances. So even as Kurzel perpetuates the convention of the child as potentiality, his film does not neatly conform to Edelman’s “unquestioned good” about that future (7). As Gemma Miller has noted, Kurzel foregrounds “the role of children as ambiguous bearers of futurity” (53). Hence the film prepares us for a new coming just as violent as what came before it, and suggests that Fleance will spill blood and hazard peace for the political survival of his family line.

Towards the end of the film, the motif of the fire appears one last time in its most inspired manifestation. We see a hooded figure setting fire to the countryside, but this time the person wielding the torch is not Macbeth. Birnam Wood literally comes to Macbeth as ashes and soot lightly fall all around him. The fog of the opening battle scene is transformed into a thick smoke that envelops Dunsinane, and the entire landscape is awash in orange and red. When Macbeth battles Macduff and finally learns how his prophecy will be fulfilled, we get a medium shot of the weird family watching the scene, heralding Macbeth’s end. The tyrant dies on his knees, and after Malcolm and his army process past him on their way to the castle, Macbeth is left alone on the battlefield with his sword stuck in the ground. Fleance then appears from the distant haze and approaches the fallen Macbeth. The boy pulls the sword from out of the ground and examines it. The film cuts to a close-up of another sword—the king of Scotland’s—and Malcolm seated before the newly vacated throne. He picks up that sword and gets a feel for it in his hands. The movie ends with alternating shots of Malcolm and Fleance walking faster and faster toward the horizon, Malcolm with the king’s sword and Fleance with Macbeth’s. The final shot fades to red as Fleance disappears into the background. Kurzel’s film thus opens and closes with an image of the child: the first, a baby whose life is mournfully past; the last, a boy moving into an ominous future. We can contrast this ending to the close of Polanski’s film, where Malcolm’s brother, Donalbain, (who is cut from Kurzel’s adaptation) makes a visit to the witches’ den, setting up the contest for the throne of Scotland between Duncan’s two sons. Kurzel is not, however, the first director to foreground Fleance’s impending revenge (or is it his own self-serving usurpation?). Woolcock offers a similar scenario in Macbeth on the Estate, where a “damaged” Fleance is the “final product of Macbeth” (Rutter 195-96).

Kurzel shows us the social and historical machinery that politicizes children, more so than their innocence and vulnerability in any straightforward way. While the film perpetuates the figure of the child as potentiality, how should we read Fleance’s agency at the end of the movie? On the one hand, the film perpetuates the idea that a child without a parental master becomes prone to disorder and a threat to society. Yet Kurzel also shows us children who are figured outside the domestic and private sphere, participating in a broader range of public activities, and a Fleance who seems to possess a greater degree of autonomy than we find in Shakespeare’s tragedy. Is Fleance merely doomed to repeat history? Is he less agentive because he is bound to the love and memory of his father? Can children ever fight back? We can trace Kurzel’s figuration of the child avenger back to Shakespeare:

And pity, like a naked new-born babe,
Striding the blast, or heaven’s cherubim, 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)

Brooks has commented upon the oddity of Shakespeare’s simile: “Is the babe natural or supernatural—an ordinary, helpless baby, who, as a newborn, could not, of course, even toddle, much less stride the blast? Or is it some infant Hercules, quite capable of striding the blast, but, since it is powerful and not helpless, hardly the typical pitiable object?” (29). Campana has argued that indeed the baby is both: “The child is at once the vulnerable seed of time that deserves pity and care and a figure of retributive outrage responding to the violation of its origin” (827). Campana’s analysis can be applied to Kurzel’s Fleance—that he is both victim and avenger, innocent and ingenious. Fleance’s political claims as presented in the movie should not be dismissed merely on account of his age; on the contrary, the film prompts us to reconsider childhood as a powerful site of agency. It is, after all, “unrough youths” who march on Dunsinane (5.2.10).

Kurzel’s Macbeth ultimately unsettles cultural assumptions about what children are “really” like and exposes the challenge of understanding children as children, separate from adult ideological conscriptions. Chedgzoy has asked how we might “reinsert the agency of the young person into the construction of childhood” (19), and Kurzel appears to have answered that call. In a study of early modern childhood, Paul Griffiths has noted that just because young people are bound by claims of family and institutional service does not mean that they are “stripped of historical agency” (3). Kurzel’s film demonstrates that childhood is not a category of the pre-political subject, but is itself politically fraught. So while young people are victimized and silent in Kurzel’s adaptation, they are not essentially passive and sheltered. They are emblems of the future, but the value and meaning of that future are not unequivocally good. Like their elders, children love and die. In Kurzel’s Macbeth, being small is not simply to be diminished.


1  The question was posed by L.C. Knights, but only to mock the type of scholar who mistakes dramatic characters for real people. Stanley Cavell flipped the question onto Macbeth: “Well, does he want babies or not?” In Holinshed’s Chronicles (1577), Lady Macbeth has one child by a former husband, whom Macbeth killed. For more on the queen’s backstory, see Sid Ray. Also, see Michael D. Friedman for an extended discussion of the Macbeths’ dead child in Kurzel’s film.

2  Wright’s film opens with the witches—three teenaged girls in heavy make-up, school uniforms, and backpacks—desecrating the cemetery where Lady Macbeth is mourning at her son’s grave, while in Woolcock’s version the witches are a younger, mixed cohort, cast as social misfits.

3  References to Shakespeare’s works are taken from The Norton Shakespeare, 2nd ed.

4  Quoted in Danny Leigh.

5  For international human rights groups, a child soldier is “any person under eighteen years of age who is recruited or used by an army or armed group.” See Rosen, p. 3.

6  See Friedman for a discussion of the parallels between the dead boy soldier and the Macbeth baby.

7  In the play Shakespeare draws attention to Malcolm’s youth by having him tell Macduff: “I am yet / Unknown to woman” (4.3.125-26).

8  “Macbeth Official Movie Interview - Lochlann Harris.”

9  Ibid.

10 See Friedman on the controversy over how Kurzel’s use of witches failed to satisfy the critical reception.

11 See Victoria Bladen for a discussion of Kurzel’s treatment of the weird family.

12 For more on the precocity of Macduff’s son, see Partee, pp. 90-91.

13 “trauma, n.”. OED Online. March 2017. Oxford UP.

14 See Joshua Pederson.

15 See Friedman for a similar analysis of the director’s choice to have Macbeth suffer from PTSD.

16 The scene is also highly suggestive of Macbeth’s symbolic rape of Lady Macbeth.

17 See, for example, Sara M. Deats, p. 90.

18 When Banquo’s ghost appears to Macbeth in the play, he tells Lady Macbeth “. . . protest me / The baby of a girl” (3.4.106-07).

19 For Edelman, the idea of “reproductive futurism” continues to privilege heterosexual life-narratives and renders impossible an existence defined by “queer negativity,” one which resists the normative scripts of marriage, biological reproduction, child-rearing, and inheritance.

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