In Macbeth, ambition combines with evil forces to commit evil deeds which result in fear, apprehension, guilt and an escalating cycle of violent murders. Above all, Macbeth is a study of the psychology of two central characters (Macbeth and his wife) react as individuals and as a couple to the psychological trauma of their evil deeds. In the course of the action, Macbeth frequently misconstrues the guilt that he feels as simply being a question of fear. As a warrior, this self-delusion works because he thinks that he knows no fear and it leads directly to his response to his guilt and his descent into more violence. His usual way of expiating his guilt is to commit more murders, either personally or by order. This, unfortunately, only provokes further guilt and mental torment.
In contrast to her husband, Lady Macbeth is wholly aware of the distinction between guilt and fear, and she tries to stop feelings of guilt firstly by denying her guilty conscience and then by concentrating her attention on alleviating her husband’s deep sense of guilt – which threatens to reveal the truth about what they have done. Immediately after Duncan’s murder, Lady Macbeth implores Macbeth to get some water in order to “and wash this filthy witness from your hand” (2, i, 43-44). He ignores her order, and cries out, “What hands are here. Ha! They pluck out mine eyes! / will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood / Clean from my hand?” (2, i, 56-58). But she retorts that the guilty signs of his crime (Duncan’s blood on his hands) can simply be removed, that “a little water clears us of this deed” (2, i, .64). But in the course of the play, Lady Macbeth completely loses both her power over and intimacy with Macbeth, and also the ability to ignore her own feelings of guilt. Therefore, her assertion that “a little water clears us of this deed” (2, i, .64) becomes retrospectively deeply ironic. Once Macbeth has left to do battle with Macduff’s forces and Lady Macbeth is left alone, she starts to suffer exactly the same symptoms of guilt that have plagued her husband since the night of Duncan’s murder: she finds it impossible to sleep and suffers vivid hallucinations. Lady Macbeth’s influence has waned during the course of the play: Macbeth could not have murdered Duncan without her prompting and goading, yet, because Macbeth’s guilt and his fear of discovery, he no longer trusts his wife, so she is not even informed of the murder of Banquo or the attack on Macduff’s castle and the ensuing massacre of this family.
The motivation for all the murders it is ambition for political power, and it does not require much for Macbeth readily accepts the witches’ prediction that he will become King of Scotland. Macbeth is very ambitious, but it is his wife who convinces him and gives him the courage to kill Duncan. Lady Macbeth is single-minded in the pursuit of her ambition and demonstrates an ability to deceive that she shares with several of Shakespeare’s female protagonists. Therefore, when Duncan arrives at her castle in Act 1, she “humbly” tells him that she has impatiently waited for his arrival and that her preparations for it are “in every point twice done, and then double done” (1, vi, 14-18). The dramatic irony here is that the audience knows that she intends that Duncan should be murdered that very night and also that she is able to conceal her murderous intentions, yet has the confidence to make reference to the idea of double-dealing and betrayal in the words “double done.”
Macbeth is further complicated because the evil in the play has a supernatural element; indeed, the play begins with three witches predicting their meeting with Macbeth and Banquo. Even before he meets the three witches, Macbeth comments on the unnaturalness of a day which both “foul and fair” (1, iii, 39). Nothing is not what it seems. After his first conversation with the witches, Macbeth is cannot decide if the predictions of the witches are “ill” or “good.” He then begins to doubt the actuality of the real world itself as he observes that “nothing is / But what it is not” (1, iii, 141-142). This idea of things not being what they appear to be links directly with Lady Macbeth’s deception of Duncan.
In Macbeth’s experience an unnatural world replaces reality; in his wife’s experience, this movement towards unnaturalness is a deliberate choice. In a very famous speech, Lady Macbeth actively invokes the forces of the supernatural in order to transform herself into a something un-human with no conscience or ability to feel pathos or compassion.
Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me, from the crown to the toe topful
Of direst cruelty! Make thick my blood,
Stop up th’ access and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
Th’ effect and it! (1, v, 40-47)
Lady Macbeth transforms herself into an inhuman monster, “de-sexing” herself into the epitome of evil. As many critics have observed, unlike Duncan, Banquo, and Macduff, Macbeths have no children and Lady Macbeth has never experienced the maternal feelings that accompany childbirth. In political terms Macbeth has no son to succeed him and this creates additional mental torment – not only does he suffer intense guilt, but he suffers it knowing that the witches have predicted that Banquo’s descendants will become the kings of Scotland – hence Macbeth’s orders for the murder of Banquo and Fleance.
The real world and the unnatural world of evil get mixed up in the paranoid visions and in the insomnia that Macbeth and Lady Macbeth both suffer. After he has murdered Duncan, Macbeth hears a voice ordering him to “sleep no more” (2, ii, 37). Lady Macbeth is quickly aware of her husband’s insomnia and the nightmares he suffers when he does manage to sleep. She attempts to rationalize his arguing that he sees Banquo’s ghost at the banquet only because he is suffering from a lack of sleep. But the audience is aware that she is wrong: it is Macbeth’s guilt that causes the apparition of Banquo to appear: every time Macbeth hypocritically remarks how much he misses Banquo, the ghost of Banquo appears. Later, however, Lady Macbeth herself is plagued with sleep disorders. insomnia is told, Lady Macbeth sleepwalks, compulsively washes her hands, cannot bear to be left in the dark and keeps up a constant monologue with references to Duncan, Banquo and Macduff’s family all jumbled up showing her mental breakdown and confusion. .
The individual deterioration of the Macbeths is paralleled by the total collapse of their marriage. In Act 1 and 2 they are very intimate with each other. The very first time that we see Lady Macbeth is seen on stage, she is reading aloud a letter from her husband which starts with the affectionate salutation, “Dearest Partner of Greatnesse.” There e a strong sense of mutual admiration between husband and wife, a mutual respect founded on their shared belief that the great warrior Macbeth is worthy to be king, while the imperious Lady Macbeth is his natural queen. When Lady Macbeth’s reaction when she realizes that Duncan is dead is, significantly, “My husband.”
But a radical change is presented in the relationship between the Macbeths as the play progresses. After the initial murder of Duncan, Lady Macbeth becomes less important to her husband. Macbeth begins to distance himself from Lady Macbeth. Moreover, he keeps his attack on Banquo and Fleance secret from his wife, and she has no prior knowledge of the killing of Macduff’s wife and children. Indeed, after her unsuccessful attempts to control Macbeth when he sees the ghost of Banquo, Lady Macbeth almost disappears from the play until the sleep walking scene which begins Act Five. Lady Macbeth no longer directs the plot and Macbeth’s actions; she is deliberately excluded by her husband.
Lady Macbeth is almost unrecognizable in the sleep walking scene. She has been transformed from an inhuman monster into a babbling, insane wreck of a woman. It might be argued that her suicide redeems her slightly, because it shows a sense of remorse and humanity. What might provoke an audience’s sympathy that she no longer has any meaningful role in her marriage with Macbeth. Macbeth. Rather poignantly Lady Macbeth’s final words are not expressions of guilt, but do recall the powerful intimacy which once bound her and her husband together: “give me your hand … to bed, to bed, to bed” (5, i, 66-68).
Macbeth is a profound study of evil and its corrupting and life-destroying influence on humanity. The witches, through their ambiguous predictions, introduce a supernatural evil into the play. Their equivocations and riddles —the deliberate stating of half-truths—cover up the sinister and evil nature of their predictions, and Macbeth never considers the possibility that they are attempting to trick him. Although the witches are inherently evil, their prophecies do not necessarily show the actual existence of evil, but instead suggest the potential for human beings to commit evil. Their power lies in tempting men like Macbeth to give in to ambition and to sin. When Macbeth gives in to the temptation to commit murder, he (not the witches) is the catalyst that releases evil into the world. The evil, which starts with Duncan’s murder, destroys Macbeth’s personal world, but also corrupts and contaminates the family, the state, and the physical universe. For example, during Duncan’s murder “the earth was feverous, and did shake” (2, iii, 60), showing that evil and unnaturalness provoke disquiet in the natural world – or rather that Shakespeare uses this to symbolize the wide-ranging effects of evil.
As a whole the play presents the psychological effects of evil as deeply disturbing and distressing. At the end of the play Malcolm calls Macbeth and his wife “this dead butcher and his fiend-like queen” (5, viii, 69), but this quotation does not do justice to the guilt that has ravaged the lives of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. He is more than a butcher; she is more than a fiend: they are all too human in the guilt they show for the terrible sins they have committed, and the effects of that guilt – insanity and insomnia – are vividly presented by Shakespeare.
Shakespeare, William. Macbeth. London: Penguin. 2007. Print.