Essay on The Importance of the Sleep Walking Scene in Macbeth
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Macbeth is one of Shakespeare's problem plays which have puzzled the critics all over the years. It is compact and full of significant scenes, and it has two important characters, Macbeth and his wife. It is a clear study of human nature, which I personally think Shakespeare had mastered. The final act opens with the sleepwalking scene and this scene is of great significance because it reveals the true nature of lady Macbeth. Lady Macbeth is one of the enigmatic characters. Once she is a woman made out of steel and suddenly she collapses; she returns to be a gentle wife. The sleepwalking scene also shows lady Macbeth as a complementary character to her husband.
The scene opens with the gentlewoman talking to the doctor about lady…show more content…
He is paralyzed by the association he makes between the blood on his hands and the guilt that rises from his crime. He says:
"What hands are here? Ha! They pluck out
Will all great Neptune's ocean wash this blood
Clean from my hand? No this my hand will rather
The multitudinous seas incarnadine,
Making the green one red." (II. ii. 59-62)
Meanwhile, after the murder lady Macbeth continues to live life as if nothing has happened and she tries to comfort Macbeth and makes him forget, but she deceives herself and cannot penetrate into her soul to see the forces working there.
In the sleepwalking scene, she cannot escape the spot, representative of the whole narrative of her life, which is recorded forever in her memory. Se says:
."... All the perfumes of Arabia
Will not sweeten this little hand."
Now, lady Macbeth perceives the spot right, after reading it as mere physical substance earlier in the play. Now she is able to see it as a stain on her conscience that will never be erased. This stain on her hand is similar to the Biblical mark of Cain, the mark that God placed on Cain after he has killed his brother in the story of the genesis. Like Cain's mark, the stain of blood follows Lady Macbeth and reveals her guilt to the watching doctor and the gentle women. However Cain's mark is a sign of God to protect him from the revenge of others, lady Macbeth's
In the “sleep walking scene” (Act V, scene i) of Macbeth, Shakespeare presents on the stage the terrible theme of how the entire personality of a human being is eaten up by the sense of guilt arising out of the murder of a saint-like innocent king. In Lady Macbeth the sense is so strong and deeply rooted in the unconscious that it ultimately brings about psychological disorder in her personality. But this does not simply focus on the guilty conscience of one character, rather it lays bare the entire tragic process in its extremity: how evil repays. Modern readers find the scene interesting because of the dramatist’s psychological treatment of the consequence of guilt, but the for the contemporary audience the importance of the scene must have had something to do with the divine ‘vengeance’ for the violation of the divine order, in which the king on earth, as E. M. W. Tillyard says, represented the king in heaven. The murder of the king must have been shocking to the Elizabethan ethos. This is emphasized on the religious level of thought; for the couple not only violated one of God’s commandments, “Thou shall not kill”, but also the act of murder can be traced back to the first murder committed by Cain, therefore to evil. At the beginning of the drama Lady Macbeth had been the most determined, the most cruel and the most inhuman figure, but now in scene I, Act V, she emerges as the most suffering, most disintegrated and most human figure.
The scene opens with a Doctor of Physic questioning a Waiting-Gentlewoman about Lady Macbeth’s special kind of ailment. From her account the Doctor and the audience know that since Macbeth’s departure into the battlefield, Lady Macbeth has become a somnambulist. Though in modern psychiatric theories, sleepwalking syndrome is etiologically diagnosed as arising purely out of familial reasons, Lady Macbeth’s case is amply clear that she is caught up in vicious guilt-shame cycle. The trauma of committing an act of such magnitude as being an active party in murdering an innocent king—a relative and benefactor—unhinges her psyche.
It is important to note that Lady Macbeth appears on the stage in her sleepwalking with a light in her hand, and that “she has a light by her continually.” This is a case of nyctophobia or phobia of darkness. Light represents knowledge and knowledge means clearance of phobia of the unknown; for Lady Macbeth it arises out of her fear of persecution, out of the phobia of the unknown divine retribution. All this had been residing in the unconscious, but now her superego is operating so strongly that it has caused turmoil in the entire psychic process. That is why her words have lost coherence; but still the audience/reader discern pattern in those words, which are reflections on past misdeeds and their consequences.
In this the scene is, however, an antithesis of her previous confident boastings and scene ii, Act II, particularly, and her previous demonic assertions turn out to be terrible dramatic ironies. At her first appearance on the stage in scene v, Act I, she invoked the aid of the spirits for changing her sex and inject cruelty in her body and “take out my milk for gall”. It is to be noted that all these were unnatural and contrary to what is considered human. Again in scene ii, Act II, she rebuked husband and took the clearing of the blood of the king, the evidence of murder too lightly:
“Go get some water
And wash this filthy witness from your hand.”
Unlike her husband she did not anticipate the grave consequences that would follow the deed. Even she chided her husband there for being “infirm of purpose”.
Lady Macbeth has been obsessed particularly with the spot of blood in her hands; it becomes a metaphor of crime and guilt. This kind of symbolism is nowhere used so effectively by a dramatist except in Cassandra’s prophetic vision in Agamemnon by Aeschylus. Again, there is another metaphorical statement—“yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?”-- meaning the consequences of the act. This logical, but the next moment she adds, “you mar all, with the starting”, referring to Macbeth’s abnormal behaviour seeing Banquo’s ghost. This is, however, a past assurance, which has no power of recovery now. For, she has understood the most tragic fact of her life that:
“Here is the smell of blood still: all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand…”
The doctor realizes the nature of her malady and it is beyond his practice. The only remedy he can suggest for her is death. Lady Macbeth, however, still tries to employ her defence mechanism:
“Wash your hand………
He cannot come out on’s grave.”
It is ironical that even from his grave Banquo influences their fate.
Finally the queen in her hallucination hears a knocking at the gate, strongly reminding the audience/reader knocking at the gate in the porter scene (Act II, scene iii), where the porter imagines himself keeping the gate of hell.Now the reference to the knocking seems to be clear: she is suffering from the fear of damnation in hell. As she understands that the past actions cannot be recovered, she meekly surrenders to her fate: “What’s done cannot be undone.” The only solution she ca loook for is facing her punishment helplessly. That goes to bed after her speeches, is perfectly in accord with the final symptom of somnambulism, but this can be seen as a metaphorical statement of facing death.
As a man of science, the Doctor provides the final commentary on the inevitability of the cause-effect relation:
Do breed unnatural troubles: infected minds
To their deaf pillows will discharge their secrets”.
Finally she emerges as a human being of flesh and blood as opposed to her witchlike personality in the earlier scenes, and this is nowhere clearer than in her remorseful remembrance: “The thane of Fife had a wife: where is she now”. Her tribulations anticipate the ensuing catastrophe and do justice to the Aristotelian theory of catharsis that the tragic spectacle evokes “pity and fear” in the audience.