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Characters in the Shakespearean tragedy Macbeth scarcely feel guilt - with two exceptions: Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. In this essay let's consider their guilt-problem.
In his book, On the Design of Shakespearean Tragedy, H. S. Wilson comments regarding the guilt of the protagonist:
It is a subtler thing which constitutes the chief fascination that the play exercises upon us - this fear Macbeth feels, a fear not fully defined, for him or for us, a terrible anxiety that is a sense of guilt without becoming (recognizably, at least) a sense of sin. It is not a sense of sin because he refuses to recognize such a category; and, in his stubbornness, his savage defiance, it drives him on to more and more terrible acts. (74)
Blanche Coles states in Shakespeare's Four Giants that, regarding guilt in the play:
Briefly stated, and with elaborations to follow, Macbeth is the story of a kindly, upright man who was incited and goaded, by the woman he deeply loved, into committing a murder and then, because of his sensitive nature, was unable to bear the heavy burden of guilt that descended upon him as a result of that murder. (37)
In "Memoranda: Remarks on the Character of Lady Macbeth," Sarah Siddons mentions the guilt and ambition of Lady Macbeth and their effect:
[Re "I have given suck" (1.7.54ff.)] Even here, horrific as she is, she shews herself made by ambition, but not by nature, a perfectly savage creature. The very use of such a tender allusion in the midst of her dreadful language, persuades one unequivocally that she has really felt the maternal yearnings of a mother towards her babe, and that she considered this action the most enormous that ever required the strength of human nerves for its perpetration. Her language to Macbeth is the most potently eloquent that guilt could use. (56)
Clark and Wright in their Introduction to The Complete Works of William Shakespeare explain how guilt impacts Lady Macbeth:
Lady Macbeth is of a finer and more delicate nature. Having fixed her eye upon the end - the attainment for her husband of Duncan's crown - she accepts the inevitable means; she nerves herself for the terrible night's work by artificial stimulants; yet she cannot strike the sleeping king who resembles her father. Having sustained her weaker husband, her own strength gives way; and in sleep, when her will cannot control her thoughts, she is piteously afflicted by the memory of one stain of blood upon her little hand.
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The Tragedy of Macbeth opens in a desert place with thunder and lightning and three witches who are anticipating their meeting with Macbeth, "There to meet with Macbeth." They all say together the mysterious and contradictory "Fair is foul, and foul is fair." King Duncan learns that "brave Macbeth" and Banquo are bravely resisting the "Norweyan banners" and the rebellious Thane of Cawdor. When these forces are vanquished, Duncan bids Ross to greet Macbeth with his new title of Thane of Cawdor. Before this happens, however, Macbeth is greeted by the witches with "hail to thee, thane of Glamis," "thane of Cawdor," and "thou shalt be king hereafter!" When Ross and Angus arrive with news of Duncan's reward ("He bade me, from him, call thee thane of Cawdor"), it is logical for Macbeth to assume that all of the weird sisters' prophecies will come true. Futilely, Banquo cautions, "And oftentimes, to win us to our harm, / The instruments of darkness tell us truths," but Macbeth is "rapt" on the "suggestion / Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair / And make my seated heart knock at my ribs," and concludes that "chance may crown me," remaining steadfastly confident in the witches' prophecies. At this point in the play there is no guilt felt.
After the king's announcement that "We will establish our estate upon / Our eldest, Malcolm," Macbeth says, "The Prince of Cumberland! that is a step / On which I must fall down, or else o'erleap," for his scheming is seriously underway. At Inverness in Macbeth's castle, his lady, after appreciating his letter detailing the witches' prophecies, reacts with, "Glamis thou art, and Cawdor; and shalt be / What thou art promised," yet she fears that her husband's nature is "too full o' the milk of human kindness / To catch the nearest way" - words whose meaning becomes clear in her subsequent statement: "The raven himself is hoarse / That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan / Under my battlements." Beginning at this moment in the play, Lady Macbeth and Macbeth have reason to feel guilty - for their evil desires.
Duncan's visit to Inverness, a one-night celebration of the victory, occasions quick plotting by the Macbeths ("If it were done when 'tis done, then 'twere well / It were done quickly"), who are fully aware of the moral evil involved: "But here, upon this bank and shoal of time, / We'ld jump the life to come," and "this even-handed justice / Commends the ingredients of our poison'd chalice / To our own lips." Furthermore, Macbeth recognizes that King Duncan's "virtues / Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued, against / The deep damnation of his taking-off," while the captain has only "vaulting ambition" on his own side; thus he says to his wife, "We will proceed no further in this business." Does he feel guilty? She responds with an accusation of cowardice, "Art thou afeard / To be the same in thine own act and valour / As thou art in desire?" Her cold cruelty stands out as she re-converts Macbeth to the murder:
I have given suck, and know
How tender 'tis to love the babe that milks me:
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have pluck'd my nipple from his boneless gums,
And dash'd the brains out, had I so sworn as you
Have done to this. (1.7)
Lady Macbeth will make the two chamberlains drunk on wine. Macbeth is forced to recognize her total lack of maternal sensitivities: "Bring forth men-children only; / For thy undaunted mettle should compose / Nothing but males." On that fateful night, Banquo has a strange sense of foreboding:
A heavy summons lies like lead upon me,
And yet I would not sleep: merciful powers,
Restrain in me the cursed thoughts that nature
Gives way to in repose! (2.1)
Macbeth feels the pressure of the impending "bloody business" and thereby has a vision of the murder instrument:
Is this a dagger which I see before me,
The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee.
I have thee not, and yet I see thee still.
Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible
To feeling as to sight? or art thou but
A dagger of the mind, a false creation,
Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain? (2.1)
In Act 2, Scene 2, Lady Macbeth confesses to her husband that could not perform the murder because "Had he not resembled / My father as he slept, I had done't." So Macbeth follows through with the killing. Immediately he is striken with guilt as he exclaims, looking on his hands, to his wife, "This is a sorry sight," and "I had most need of blessing." At this point Lady Macbeth reveals the direction of the play with her response: "These deeds must not be thought / After these ways; so, it will make us mad." The crime continues to haunt Macbeth: "Methought I heard a voice cry 'Sleep no more! / Macbeth does murder sleep'" and "'Glamis hath murder'd sleep, and therefore Cawdor / Shall sleep no more; Macbeth shall sleep no more.'" He acts as a type of his wife's subsequent guilt when, alarmed by a knock at the door, he exclaims: "Will all great Neptune's ocean wash this blood / Clean from my hand?"
Confidently, after placing the incriminating daggers next to the sleeping chamberlains, Lady Macbeth utters the supreme ironic statement: "A little water clears us of this deed: / How easy is it, then!" The next morning Macduff and Lennox arrive to awaken the king. Lennox relates the strange happenings of the evening:
The night has been unruly: where we lay,
Our chimneys were blown down; and, as they say,
Lamentings heard i' the air; strange screams of death,
And prophesying with accents terrible
Of dire combustion and confused events
New hatch'd to the woeful time: the obscure bird
Clamour'd the livelong night: some say, the earth
Was feverous and did shake. (2.3)
Macduff exits the king's chamber with screams of disbelief and horror at the stabbing death of King Duncan; he informs Malcolm. Macbeth kills the chamberlains, next to whom the bloody daggers are found. Lady Macbeth feigns illness: "Help me hence, ho,"; she is in control of herself at this point because the guilt has not yet overwhelmed her. Malcolm and Donalbain, the sons, decide to flee to England and Ireland respectively: "Let 's away; / Our tears are not yet brew'd."
As Macbeth goes to Scone to be "invested" in his kingly office, Ross comments that Duncan's horses have reverted to the wild state and are biting one another - an occurrence most unnatural -- like the murder of a virtuous king. In soliloquy Macbeth gives the rationale behind his murder of Banquo:
For Banquo's issue have I filed my mind;
For them the gracious Duncan have I murder'd;
Put rancours in the vessel of my peace
Only for them; and mine eternal jewel
Given to the common enemy of man,
To make them kings, the seed of Banquo kings! (3.1)
Meanwhile, guilt is building; the queen is lamenting the state of "doubtful joy" in which the royal couple is living. Both she and he are nightly afflicted by "terrible dreams," and his mind is "full of scorpions," so that the king thinks it "better be with the dead."
In a park near the palance, Banquo is set upon and killed "With twenty trenched gashes on his head", but Fleance escapes, causing the king to complain: "But now I am cabin'd, cribb'd, confined, bound in / To saucy doubts and fears." At the banquet that evening, the ghost of Banquo enters and sits in the king's place. Macbeth alone sees him and addresses him guiltily: "Thou canst not say I did it: never shake / Thy gory locks at me." The queen attempts to explain away his apparent illness by saying he has been thus troubled since his youth. When the ghost disappears, Macbeth with jolly words toasts the health and happiness of everyone; but when the spirit reappears, the king is once again agitated:
Avaunt! and quit my sight! let the earth hide thee!
Thy bones are marrowless, thy blood is cold;
Thou hast no speculation in those eyes
Which thou dost glare with! (3.4)
The queen mistakenly attributes her husband's psychological problems ("Strange things I have in head") to the fact that "You lack the season of all natures, sleep" rather than to the real cause - guilt. Later, when the "midnight hags" utter their incantation,
Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn and cauldron bubble. (4.1)
Macbeth hears the first apparition warn to "beware Macduff;" the second apparition say "none of woman born / Shall harm Macbeth;" the third apparition say that "Macbeth shall never vanquish'd be until / Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill / Shall come against him;" and the "show of eight kings" along with Banquo's ghost. Macbeth resolves
But yet I'll make assurance double sure,
And take a bond of fate: thou shalt not live;
That I may tell pale-hearted fear it lies,
And sleep in spite of thunder. (4.1)
Meanwhile in England, Malcolm asks Macduff, "Why in that rawness left you wife and child, / Those precious motives, those strong knots of love, / Without leave-taking?" Macduff stands resolutely behind Malcolm with a final condemnation of Macbeth:
Not in the legions
Of horrid hell can come a devil more damn'd
In evils to top Macbeth. (4.3)
In contrast to the guilt and secretiveness of the Macbeths, Malcolm confesses his moral shortcomings openly and unreservedly to test Macduff's loyalty:
But I have none: the king-becoming graces,
As justice, verity, temperance, stableness,
Bounty, perseverance, mercy, lowliness,
Devotion, patience, courage, fortitude,
I have no relish of them, but abound
In the division of each several crime,
Acting it many ways. (4.3)
But Macduff defends the moral integrity of Malcolm's lineage:
Thy royal father
Was a most sainted king: the queen that bore thee,
Oftener upon her knees than on her feet,
Died every day she lived. Fare thee well! (4.3)
At Dunsinane, Lady Macbeth's doctor observes the queen sleepwalking, seemingly washing her hands, shouting in her sleep, "Out, damned spot!" and expressing her fear: "What need we fear who knows it, when none can call our power to account?" Macbeth requests of the doctor, "Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased." The doctor voices the moral nature of the queen's problem:
Foul whisperings are abroad: unnatural deeds
Do breed unnatural troubles: infected minds
To their deaf pillows will discharge their secrets:
More needs she the divine than the physician. (5.1)
When Seyton announces, "The queen, my lord, is dead," Macbeth turns his thoughts to the relentless pace of ongoing time rather than to eulogizing her because he feels the guilt of their common crimes:
She should have died hereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word.
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle! (5.5)
As Siward's 10,000 men surround the highly fortified Dunsinane, Angus expresses the fear within Macbeth with "now does he feel his title / Hang loose about him, like a giant's robe / Upon a dwarfish thief." But Macbeth repeats to himself, "'Fear not, Macbeth; no man that's born of woman / Shall e'er have power upon thee.'" Fear is the handmaid of guilt in this play. To Macbeth the messenger announces that Birnam Wood is moving toward Dunsinane, causing Macbeth to hold onto the one tiny morsel of hope, "What's he / That was not born of woman? Such a one / Am I to fear, or none."
In the fury of combat, Macbeth reveals his name to young Siward, and the latter responds, "The devil himself could not pronounce a title / More hateful to mine ear." Young Siward dies; and the father, being informed of his son's death, responds in Christian fashion, in contrast to the guilty responses of the Macbeths:
Why then, God's soldier be he!
Had I as many sons as I have hairs,
I would not wish them to a fairer death:
And so, his knell is knoll'd. (5.8)
When Macduff overtakes Macbeth, the king guiltily confesses that "my soul is too much charged / With blood of thine already." Macduff discloses that "Macduff was from his mother's womb / Untimely ripp'd;" thus he is able to return with the head of Macbeth. Malcolm declares his intention of facing the future as king of Scotland with the help of God; he says that
by the grace of Grace,
We will perform in measure, time and place:
So, thanks to all at once and to each one,
Whom we invite to see us crown'd at Scone. (5.8)
In Fools of Time: Studies in Shakespearean Tragedy, Northrop Frye sees a relationship between Macbeth's guilt and his hallucinations:
The future moment is the moment of guilt, and it imposes on one, until it is reached, the intolerable strain of remaining innocent. [. . .] We notice that anyone who is forced to brood on the past and expect the future lives in a world where that which is not present is present, in other words in a world of hallucination. Macbeth's capacity for seeing things that may or may not be there is almost limitless, and the appearance of the mousetrap play to Claudius, though more easily explained, has the same dramatic point as the appearance of Banquo's ghost. (90)
Fanny Kemble in "Lady Macbeth" asserts that Lady Macbeth was unconscious of her guilt, which nevertheless killed her:
Lady Macbeth, even in her sleep, has no qualms of conscience; her remorse takes none of the tenderer forms akin to repentance, nor the weaker ones allied to fear, from the pursuit of which the tortured soul, seeking where to hide itself, not seldom escapes into the boundless wilderness of madness.
A very able article, published some years ago in the National Review, on the character of Lady Macbeth, insists much upon an opinion that she died of remorse, as some palliation of her crimes, and mitigation of our detestation of them. That she died of wickedness would be, I think, a juster verdict. Remorse is consciousness of guilt . . . and that I think Lady Macbeth never had; though the unrecognized pressure of her great guilt killed her. (116-17)
A.C. Bradley in Shakespearean Tragedy demonstrates the guilt of Macbeth from the very beginning:
That the influence of the first prophecies upon him came as much from himself as from them, is made abundantly clear by the obviously intentional contrast between him and Banquo. Banquo, ambitious but perfectly honest, is scarcely even startled by them, and he remains throughout the scene indifferent to them. But when Macbeth heard them he was not an innocent man. Precisely how far his mind was guilty may be a question; but no innocent man would have started, as he did, with a start of fear at the mere prophecy of a crown, or have conceived thereupon immediately the thought of murder. Either this thought was not new to him, or he had cherished at least some vaguer dishonourable dream, the instantaneous recurrence of which, at the moment of his hearing of prophecy, revealed to him an inward and terrifying guilt. (316)
Bradley, A.C. Shakespearean Tragedy. New York: Penguin Books, 1991.
Clark, W.G. and Aldis Wright, eds. Introduction. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. New York: Nelson Doubleday, Inc., n. d.
Coles, Blanche. Shakespeare's Four Giants. Rindge, NH: Richard R. Smith Publisher, Inc., 1957.
Frye, Northrop. Fools of Time: Studies in Shakespearean Tragedy. Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press, 1967.
Kemble, Fanny. "Lady Macbeth." Macmillan's Magazine, 17 (February 1868), p. 354-61. Rpt. in Women Reading Shakespeare 1660-1900. Ann Thompson and Sasha Roberts, eds. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1997.
Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Macbeth. http://chemicool.com/Shakespeare/macbeth/full.html, no lin.
Siddons, Sarah. "Memoranda: Remarks on the Character of Lady Macbeth." The Life of Mrs. Siddons. Thomas Campbell. London: Effingham Wilson, 1834. Rpt. in Women Reading Shakespeare 1660-1900. Ann Thompson and Sasha Roberts, eds. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1997.
Wilson, H. S. On the Design of Shakespearean Tragedy. Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press, 1957.