Academic journal article Shakespeare Studies

Macbeth and the Contingency of Future Persons

Academic journal article Shakespeare Studies

Macbeth and the Contingency of Future Persons

Article excerpt

AN HEIR IS A PECULIAR SORT OF PERSON. Persons who can be termed apparent or presumptive heirs may exist at any time; but an heir comes into existence only when the person whose heir he or she is is dead; an heir and the person whose heir he or she is can never be alive at the same time. As the common law maxim runs, nemo est heres viventis: no one is heir to a living person. (1) Or, to put it a little differently, You can't have an heir: not until you're dead, and then there's no "you" to "have" anything. There are heirs everywhere, just not for you. From the point of view of the person whose heirs they may turn out to be, heirs remain future, contingent persons, persons who may (or may not) exist biologically, and who may be described as heirs apparent or heirs presumptive, but who do not exist, legally, as heirs. (2) One's heirs are thus, in a special sense, future persons, persons whose existence as heirs will always be for you contingent upon your own death. Technically, in sentences whose subject is "my heir," the verb can only be in a future tense.

In Shakespeare, the future is typically conceptualized in and through the figure of the child, or more exactly the child as heir contingent (presumptive, apparent, likely, unlikely, whatever). A great deal of the fretting over the future in Shakespeare involves the paradox of the passage from heir contingent to heir in fact. In early seventeenth century England one's children would not necessarily be one's heirs, nor one's heirs one's children. Even so, the deep connection between children and heirs helped entrench the more broadly held notion that, as the song says, "I believe the children are the future ..." (3) We coexist with our children for a time, but they do not exist as our heirs (or our replacements) until we are gone, so that, under what Lee Edelman calls "reproductive futurism," our obligations are always, ultimately, obligations to a future embodied in persons who do not, in the relevant sense, yet exist. Under a regime of reproductive futurism all existing persons are obliged to the child and all the more so to the child who does not yet exist. How exactly relations of obligation may exist between oneself and a person who does not exist, or does not exist in the relevant sense, and may never exist, is a bit of a puzzle, even as it is an extremely common assumption today, as it was when Shakespeare lived--so much so that it only comes to our attention where it is radically challenged, as in Lee Edelman's calls for a refusal of "the social order and the Child in whose name we're collectively terrorized," or in the paradoxically child-oriented anti-natalism of David Benatar, who in a carefully reasoned and dispassionate argument calls for the cessation of human reproduction altogether, on the grounds that "coming into existence is always a serious harm." (4) Shakespeare's plays are, in general, deeply invested in reproductive futurism; but I will argue here that accompanying this investment are signs, in Macbeth at least, of an early modern anti-natalism that resists it.

The category of the heir is fraught, not only because one can never "have" one but also because contingent (presumptive or apparent) heirs do exist, but (from one perspective) primarily as contingent shadows of what they will or rather may be. One never knows whether one's heirs contingent will be heirs in fact, and consequently whether they are your heirs-to-be or just persons of no particular significance. In this sense, questions of whether an heir will exist and in what sense a contingent heir does (or does not) exist are, in Macbeth, affectively and conceptually entangled. Thus the traditional question in the play of whether Macbeth has (contingent) heirs becomes itself a form of the more pervasive puzzles posed by the contingent status of future persons in general.

Few other plays by Shakespeare, one would think, turn more directly on the issue of heirs, or a lack of heirs. …

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