When I was leading my seniors in a close reading and production of Macbeth, their reaction to a particular character was first disgust and, later, enchantment. This character was none other than Lady Macbeth. As we read the first half of the play, students repeatedly characterized her as the “devil on Macbeth’s shoulder” in their writing responses, giving her the hefty load of single-handedly carrying the plot.
It is somewhat true—Lady Macbeth, within several lines of meeting her for the first time, is praying to “spirits that tend on mortal thoughts…”, so that she can rid herself of feminine tenderness, replacing it “from the crown to the toe top-full of direst cruelty.” It is Lady Macbeth who convinces Macbeth to murder their king by questioning Macbeth’s very manhood. It is Lady Macbeth who calls Macbeth foolish for saying that his blood-covered hands are a sorry sight. And it is Lady Macbeth who seems to have no hesitations about their evil designs, as Macbeth himself continues to search for reassurances of his plan by summoning the witches, and reports that his mind is “full of scorpions.” Even as Macbeth appears to be going crazy as he sees Banquo’s ghost, Lady Macbeth moves forward with the banquet as if they have done no wrong.
But I have never seen my students so captivated by a Shakespearean scene than the moment that Lady Macbeth appears sleep-walking in sight of her servant and a doctor near the end of the play. The one character that they had quickly dismissed and blamed for the entire play suddenly captured their attention, and they watched as closely as the doctor who is attempting to diagnose Lady Macbeth’s disease.
Lady Macbeth’s sleep-walking scene echoes the night of Duncan’s death, when she was resolved to commit the murder of the king, praying that she be relieved from the “passage of remorse.” And it does seem that throughout the play she is free from guilt, unlike Macbeth himself. But Macbeth’s concern of his bloody hands (“Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood clean from my hand?”) transfers to Lady Macbeth in the last act as she sleep-walks, attempting to scrub her hands clean. Likewise, Macbeth’s fear that he has “murdered sleep” foretells Lady Macbeth’s inability to rest as she wanders the castle nightly, trying to clean her hands that will “ne’er be clean.” Her sleepless guilt is even more striking when taken in light of Macbeth’s description of sleep the night of Duncan’s murder:
the innocent sleep,
Sleep that knits up the raveled sleave of care,
The death of each day’s life, sore labor’s bath,
Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course,
Chief nourisher of life’s feast.
Flannery O’Connor once said that every good villain is one that we can relate to. I have no doubt that Shakespeare would have agreed. This “devil on the shoulder” of Macbeth becomes the very picture of remorse. In one of the shortest scenes of the play, Lady Macbeth suddenly captures our feelings of guilt: “Yet here’s a spot… Out, damned spot, out, I say!” And though the audience knows what crimes haunt her, she lives in that damned night of the past every time she sleep walks, as she goes to bed at the cue of a knock—the same end of that dark night of Duncan’s death.
I imagine that the scene captivates audiences for several reasons: the oddness of sleep-walking, a character that we thought less than human suddenly tormented by her former sins, but most importantly, her expression of the inner guilt that each of us have felt at one time or another.
The most recent remake of Macbeth cuts this scene short, and leaves out two of its major characters—the ever-watchful servant and doctor. Without the servant and doctor, the audience is left to themselves to make what they will out of Lady Macbeth’s sleep-walking monologue. But Shakespeare does something beautiful here with the presence of the doctor, who quickly realizes that Lady Macbeth’s guilt is “beyond his practice.” His diagnosis may be the wisest words in all the play: “More needs she the divine than the physician.”
M.H. Abrams, in his book Natural Supernaturalism, calls attention to our use of physiological terms to describe our moral well-being. He points out that the “reigning diagnosis of our own age of anxiety [is] the claim that man, who was once well, is now ill.” Since these terms are so common in our own age, perhaps it can be difficult to see Lady Macbeth as anything but a victim of madness—but Lady Macbeth and her prophetic doctor show us otherwise: her malaise is due to the guilt that engulfed her the night of Duncan’s murder.
Lady Macbeth’s character works on us in mysterious ways; first we see her as a devil that sits on the shoulder of her tragic husband, and then suddenly she appears to us as a mirror of our own guilt, of which only the Divine will heal. Perhaps we would all benefit from the doctor’s diagnosis of Lady Macbeth’s ills:
“More needs she the divine than the physician.
God, God forgive us all.”