‘How Many Children Had Lady Macbeth?’ This was the title of a celebrated essay by the university don L C Knights, founder, along with F R Leavis, of the austere critical periodical Scrutiny. The question isn’t, as I recall, actually put in the text. It is there in the title as a rebuke to the critic A C Bradley, whose book on Shakespeare’s tragedies to the high-minded Scrutineers made the vulgar error of treating fictional characters as if they were real people about whose unrecorded lives one may speculate. Actually, Bradley never asked this question himself either, but he did allow himself to wonder where Hamlet might have been at the time of his father’s murder.
Such speculation was frivolous in the opinion of Knights and Leavis. Characters in Shakespeare exist only in the words on the page and the correct way to read Hamlet, Macbeth and so on is as ‘dramatic poems’. Well, I found this argument quite impressive when I was young