In Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth,’ the characters must grapple with the guilt they have for their actions. They express this guilt through a number of quotations, which you’ll learn about in this lesson.
Regicide In Macbeth
Have you ever intentionally done something bad, knowing you could get away with it? Did you expect to feel guilty afterwards? Just because you can do something, should you?William Shakespeare’s Macbeth is partially a play about how guilt comes to the surface when someone has done something that they know is wrong. With the support of his wife, Lord Macbeth carries out a regicide, or murder of a royal figure, against King Duncan. In the many scenes that follow, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth continually think about the murder and try to process their guilt for having committed it.
Act 2, Scene 2: Paranoia
Immediately after killing King Duncan, Macbeth’s senses are heightened, and he is paranoid about being caught, which is why he jumps at every noise: How is’t with me, when every noise appals me? Looking at his bloody hands, Macbeth wishes that he could take away the eyes that witnessed his crime. Duncan’s blood is symbolic of Macbeth’s guilt; Macbeth uses a metaphor, or indirect comparison, to compare his guilt for killing Duncan to blood on his hands.
Macbeth believes that there is not enough water in the ocean to clean that blood from his hands:Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this bloodClean from my hand? No, this my hand will ratherThe multitudinous seas in incarnadine,Making the green one red.He feels that, like staining green waters red with blood, he will never get rid of the guilt from his murderous act.
Act 5, Scene 1: The Lady Sleepwalks
In this scene, Lady Macbeth is sleepwalking and seems to be washing her hands, saying, Out, damned spot! Out, I say! Her guilt is coming to the surface as she sleeps and dreams. In this state, she attempts to clean Duncan’s invisible blood off of her hands.Lady Macbeth knows that both she and her husband have the power and position to get away with the murder saying,What need weFear who knows it, when none can call our power toAccount?but neither expected the guilt and psychological results they are experiencing as a result of the murder.Again we see blood used as a symbol for guilt.
When Lady Macbeth says she is shocked that the old man, Duncan, had so much blood in him, she means that she is surprised that she would feel so guilty for having been supportive of murder.
Act 3, Scene 4: Banquo’s Ghost
The three witches predicted that the sons of Banquo would also be king. In order to prevent this, Macbeth kills his friend and former ally. This extra load of guilt causes Macbeth to see Banquo’s ghost at a feast. After being driven to panic, Macbeth reflects upon how the consequences of murder have changed. He believes that killing someone used to be easy:The time has beenThat, when the brains were out, the man would die,And there an end.
In other words, it used to be that one killed his enemy quickly and then moved on. But now Macbeth believes that even if you ensure that your victim is completely physically dead, he won’t be gone, but instead comes back to haunt you:But now they rise againWith twenty mortal murders on their crownsAnd push us from our stools.The ghosts are perhaps the manifestation of the psychological wounds of guilt that won’t go away. These wounds that the murderer experiences, Macbeth says, are More strange / Than such a murder is. Macbeth is realizing that the toll of guilt makes the act of murder less simple.
Act 5, Scene 3: The Doctor
In this scene, Macbeth is speaking with the doctor who has come to treat the psychosis of Lady Macbeth, who has succumbed to her heavy guilt and developed a mental illness. Lord Macbeth asks him if he can’t cure his wife’s madness from visions.
He protests to the doctor,Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased,Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow,Raze out the written troubles of the brain;He wants the doctor to remove the memory that causes her so much pain.He asks if the doctor can’t give his wife something to cure her,And with some sweet oblivious antidoteCleanse the stuffed bosom of that perilous stuffWhich weighs upon the heart?Macbeth attempts to describe the different ways that these symptoms manifest. As the use of psychology would not come into practice for hundreds of years, Macbeth struggles to express what region of the body his wife’s ailment is in: the mind, the memory, the brain, the chest, or the heart.However, her symptoms of guilt are internal; they’re not a physical illness that a doctor would typically treat.
The doctor responds, Therein the patient / Must minister to himself. Macbeth understands that he is guilty, but he, like his wife, seems fated to keep that heavy guilt in his body until he dies.
Guilt plays a major role in Shakespeare’s play Macbeth.
After Lord and Lady Macbeth commit regicide, or royal murder against King Duncan, they find that they can probably escape discovery, but they cannot escape guilt and its effects.Blood is used as a symbol of guilt throughout the play, as well as an indirect comparison or a metaphor. Guilt haunts Macbeth, both as a ghost that he sees, as well as the heaviness on his conscious. He also is haunted by his killing of Banquo, a once trusted ally and friend, and is haunted by his ghost.
Lady Macbeth’s guilt causes her to sleepwalk and be haunted by Duncan’s blood that she cannot ‘clean’ her hands of. Though the guilt is painful and debilitating, it is not a symptom that the doctor can fix or treat.