Sleep Walking Scene

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………

…….…Banquo’s buried:

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:

“Unnatural deeds

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.


Anonymous said…
awsum info..keep it up:D
Anonymous said…
awsum info..keep it up:D
SAPS said…
awesome man.... Helpd me a lot wid dis scene...
sweety said…
it is really very helpful for students like us.when most sites ask for money to read the full answer i was helped by this site.keep up this gud work,and keep helping students
divya said…
its a good answer....but i would like something more comprehensive and elaborate
Anonymous said…
Thanx 4 ur help sir...keep posting!! there aren't many teachers who r willing 2 help students(age-old sufferers)as u!!
Anonymous said…
thax a lot man
Anonymous said…
thanx alot..its very good..thans
subhashree said…
thanx for sch a well satisfying ans.....i ws hopeles until i found yr it going......
Anonymous said…
thnx dude
Why do you all write like spastics?
Steve Berke said…
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