The Sleep and Sleeplessness Motif in Macbeth
We have consciences that function to tell us the difference between right and wrong. If we have clear consciences, we usually possess the ability to sleep. But when our consciences are full of guilt, we experience a state of sleeplessness. In Macbeth, Shakespeare uses the sleep
and sleeplessness motif to represent Macbeth
's and Lady Macbeth's consciences and the effect Macbeth's conscience has on the country of Scotland.
Lady Macbeth begins with an unrecognizable conscience. She explains to Macbeth that if she said she would kill her own child, she would rather do the deed than break her word to do so. As the play continues, however, Lady Macbeth begins to develop a conscience. After placing
the daggers for Duncan's murder, she makes an excuse for not killing Duncan herself: "Had he not resembled / My father as he slept, I had done't" (2.2.12-13). These words introduce her conscience. Towards the end of the play, Lady Macbeth falls into a sleepless state, and this sleeplessness represents her guilt for her role in Duncan's death, as well as all the murders Macbeth has committed. Her conscience is trying to rid itself of the guilt by her "washing her hands" (5.1.25) of the imagined blood. Lady Macbeth's new-found conscience becomes unbearable. Thus she resolves her problems by committing suicide, or "sleeping" permanently.
Macbeth, on the other hand, seems to do the exact reverse of Lady Macbeth. He begins as a valiant soldier with a good, clear conscience. His ability to sleep symbolizes his clear conscience. Further into the play, his conscience becomes disturbed and he experiences insomnia. Macbeth's sleeplessness is a result of his fear and guilt. After killing Duncan, Macbeth hears a voice cry, "'Glamis hath murdered sleep,' and therefore Cawdor / Shall sleep no more: Macbeth shall sleep no more" (2.2.45-46). Macbeth feels that the only way to make his guilt and fear disappear is to kill anyone who threatens his kingship, so his conscience will begin to believe that killing people is right. Near the end, Macbeth realizes that he has "almost forgot the taste of fear" (5.5.9). By murdering so many innocent people, Macbeth murders his true conscience.
Finally, Macbeth has a negative impact on Scotland. A king usually represents the peace and goodness of his country. When Duncan achieves internal peace, the country then begins to experience peace. As soon as Macbeth becomes king, however, the kingdom is flipped upside down. Since Macbeth feels internal turmoil, the people of Scotland also experience turmoil. Macbeth causes all the peace and sleep to change to distress and sleeplessness. Malcolm's goal is to see "that chambers will be safe" (5.4.2). When Malcolm's army defeats Macbeth's army, peace and sleep are restored to Scotland.
As with most of us, our conscience usually works out the problems causing us distress. As a result, we possess clear consciences once again. In the end of Macbeth, sleep overcomes sleeplessness by Malcolm's forces of good defeating Macbeth's forces of evil. Sleep represents our clear consciences and is therefore necessary to maintain our own internal peace as well as peace in the larger community.