Macbeth | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Macbeth | Act 5, Scene 1 | Summary

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Summary

A doctor speaks with one of Lady Macbeth's attendants. The attendant describes Lady Macbeth sleepwalking at night, sometimes writing and sealing letters before going back to bed. They see her enter the room holding a candle; she has requested that a candle be at her side at all times. She rubs her hands together as if to wash them. Although the doctor and attendant don't know the details, they understand that she has seen or done something terrible. In her haze, she is remembering Duncan's murder, talking about bloodstains on her hands that will not wash away, rambling about how "we" have nothing to fear, and wondering at how much blood was in the old man. Then, without the doctor or attendant understanding, she appears to be talking to Macbeth—scolding him for his guilt about Banquo and telling him to get to bed. The doctor says her illness is beyond his help and tells the attendant to keep her calm. He suspects the truth behind what she is saying, but he does not want to say it aloud.

Analysis

Hundreds of years before psychotherapy became a common practice, Macbeth demonstrated the dangers of repressed guilt. In earlier scenes, Lady Macbeth warns her husband against dwelling on his murder of Duncan, lest the guilt drive him to madness. In contrast, Lady Macbeth denies her guilt, justifies their actions, and expresses no hesitation or regret. At this point in the play, the memories of Duncan's murder haunt her dreams, driving her to sleepwalk and hallucinate; she reenacts the murder and attempts to wash imaginary blood from her hands.

Macbeth has now adopted the hardened ambition and rash quickness to action that were once his wife's domain. He orders the death of his friend without hesitation. In addition, he orders the deaths of Macduff's family and servants, all innocents, without a moment's hesitation. Furthermore, even though his wife is gravely ill, he appears to have abandoned her to the care of doctors and servants. This is the first appearance Lady Macbeth has made since the banquet and the first in which she appears without any interaction with her husband, which implies Macbeth's ambition and preoccupation with preserving his power have overshadowed his love for his wife.

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