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The sleep walking scene in Macbeth

It is situated at the beginning of act 5, nearly at the end of the play and it deals with guilt and the impossibility of redemption when the guilt is too great. It is of course necessary to have the succession ef events in mind to understand it.


Macbeth, a Scottish nobleman, and parent to the good king Duncan, meets three witches in a wood as he is riding in company of  his friend Banquo. They predict he will be king, and that Banquo's children will reign after him. Then, they vanish. Unexpected events encourage Macbeth to believe in the prophecy.
But if Macbeth is to become King, Duncan and his two sons have to die.
As Duncan is visiting Macbeth, Lady Macbeth in whom Macbeth has confided, urges him to kill the King. He hesitates, she dares him to do it, calling him a coward, and he finally commits the crime. Duncan's two sons, learning about their father's death flea Scotland and Macbeth becomes King.
But he remembers the prophecy concerning Banquo's descendants. Macbeth wants his descendents to reign, so, encouraged by Lady Macbeth, he plots the murder of Banquo and of his son. He invites them, together with many other noblemen to a banquet and as they are on their way, sends his men to kill them. Banquo's son escapes the murder.
At the banquet Macbeth feigns to worry about Banquo's absence and as he is staring at the latter's empty chair, he is suddenly confronted to Banquo's ghost whom he alone can see. He then panicks
and the guests think he is raving.
In fact, after this new murder, Macbeth is constantly assailed by visions of horror and, to ease his guilty mind, he goes back to the wood where he had first met the witches so that they tell him once again about his future.
This time they tell him that first, he must fear Macduff, the Thane of Fife, then that he will have no one to fear that is born of a woman and finally that he will have nothing to fear until the forest of Birnam starts walking. Macbeth, thinking that these things are impossible, feels somehow reassured. Nevertheless he is still haunted by the same visions of horror.
He then learns that Macduff has joined the king's sons in England and formed an army to march against him. That makes him mad with the desire of revenge and he has Macduff's wife and children assassinated.
It is then that Lady Macbeth whose determination has never failed starts being subject to sleep-walking bouts. One particular night, her gentlewoman calls for a doctor to witness the scene. Indeed, Lady Macbeth comes along, rubbing her hands, trying to wash them from the imaginary blood she sees on them, ranting about the crimes she and her husband committed and about all the blood they spilled.
Shortly after, she takes her life.
Macbeth is left alone in his besieged castle but still fears no one, remembering the predictions of the witches.
And then, Birnam wood starts walking. In fact the assailants, to camouflage their number, have cut down some branches and are marching under their cover. The castle is invaded and Macbeth and Macduff finally face each other. They start fighting and Macbeth tells his opponent that he does not fear him as he has no one to fear that was born of a woman.
To which Macduff answers that he had better fear him as he was taken out of his dead mother's body and therefore was not born out of a woman.
They keep on fighting and Macduff kills Macbeth. Young Malcom (Duncan's son) becomes the legitimate King.

The scene itself
Lady Macbeth has always been her husband's evil adviser, but contrarily to Macbeth who is haunted by what he has done when he is fully awake she is only tormented by her guilt in her sleep. She has become a sleep-walker, and her gentlewoman, alarmed by her condition has called for a doctor. Together they will witness the scene.
We will first study the role of these two witnesses and then we will see how Lady Macbeth, expresses both the evil that is in her and what is left of the human in her character.

The presence of the two witnesses is quite important. They are not just there to introduce Lady Macbeth, but their commentaries tell us about her behaviour prior to this scene. They also help the public to understand a scene which otherwise might have been difficult to grasp. Besides, their reactions to what they see and hear express our feelings as we watch the scene and therefore help us participate in the story, and finally through the doctor's remarks, Shakespeare himself analyses his character.

At the beginning of the scene, the gentlewoman explains to the doctor how Lady Macbeth usually behaves:
"I have seen her rise from her bed, throw her nightgown upon her, unlock her closet, take forth paper, fold it, write upon't, read it, afterwards seal it, and again return to bed; yet all this while in a most fast asleep."
But she won't tell the doctor what she has heard. We immediately suppose that she has heard horrible things and then expect to hear them ourselves when she enters the stage. Shakespeare thus creates a sort of suspense. Will she or won't she confess her crimes in front of the doctor?

Without the witnesses' explanations, it might have been difficult to stage the scene.  Indeed there are very few stage directions in Shakespeare's plays in general and it is what the characters say which can help us to understand what is happening.  For example, Lady Macbeth arrives holding a taper,  and when the doctor says "Look how she rubs her hands" we understand that she has set the taper down. This means that there must be some piece of furniture somewhere. But, and this is much more important, it attracts our attention on what she is doing, and we focus our gaze on her hands. In a film, the camera would zoom on them at this very moment.
At the end of the scene, the doctor asks :"Will she go now to bed?" to which the gentlewoman answers: "Directly". Once gain, it is thanks to their presence that we understand what is happening.

But these two characters are not only there for practicle reasons. They are also present to express our feelings and Shakespeare's vision of his character.
They are both horrified by what they can hear. "I would not have such a heart in my bosom for the dignity of the whole body" the gentlewoman says, and the doctor at the end of the scene uses very strong adjectives to express his aversion for what Lady Macbeth has done :
"Foul whisp'rings are abroad. Unnatural deeds
Do breed unnatural troubles. Infected minds
To their deaf pillows will discharge their secrets."
And when he adds: "God forgive us all", he expresses our horror and our shame at belonging to a species able to commit such abominable crimes.

But he also plays his part as a doctor. He is presented with a patient and offers a diagnosis. And  he understands rapidly that it is Lady Mabeth's "infected" mind that needs to be cured, not her body: "This disease is beyond my practice", "More needs she the divine than the physician". However, even though he thinks he is not the one who can cure her soul, he knows the symptoms of her disease very well and understands that it is a trouble so great that suicide is its logical conclusion. This is why he advises the gentlewoman to "remove from her the means of all annoyance, And still keep eyes upon her."
And through the doctor's mouth it is Shakespeare himself who examines his character. By thus describing  precisely her mental illness, he prepares us to her forthcoming suicide.

Because indeed, this will be the only solution left to Lady Macbeth.

As Lady Macbeth is speaking in her sleep and as she is dreaming, there is no apparent logic in what she says. Eveything is mingled, mixed up, but there are in fact two distinct elements in her monologue: the remembrance of her crimes and the expression of her horror of blood.

The remembrance of her crimes does not come in chronological order. She first remembers Duncan,
the old man and how she had to dare her husband to do it : "Why then, 'tis time to do't....Fie, my lord, fie, a soldier and afeared?" Then she remembers Macduff's wife : "The Thane of Fife had a wife, where is she now?" And here again how she convinced her husband to have her assassinated while he was hesitating: "no more of that, my lord; you mar all with this starting". Finally it is Banquo's ghost whom she tells Macbeth not to fear: "Banquo's buried; he cannot come out on's grave". And we understand that each time, she has been the evil adviser, reproaching her husband with being a coward, with having some sensitivity left, chiding him as an adult would chide a child, saying "Wash your hands, put on your nightgown, look not so pale"  "come, come, give me your hand", but trying to reassure him at the same time : "What need we fear who knows it, when none can call our power to account."

Not once does she express remorse, regret. She never says "We shouldn't have done it". Or, "What we did was evil." However there is one thing that troubles her, one thing that she can't erase from her mind: the horror of the blood she has spilled herself.

She is in fact disgusted by the sight of blood. "Yet, who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him". She is disgusted by the smell of blood: "Here's the smell of blood still. All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand." And this blood is on her hands.The gentlewoman says she has been seen washing, ribbing her hands thus for "a quarter of an hour." And there is this spot, this "damned spot" that won't come out, however hard she tries. It will not and can't come out, because it is the mark of her guilt, therefore of her conscience. It is  this little part of us that remains human and that never really dies out even when we choose to become monsters.
Like the eye in the sky Cain cannot escape, the spot on Lady Macbeth's hands condemns her. She is the Queen and nobody can punish her, but she will punish herself because her crimes are too great to be redeemed. The doctor, before he understands how guilty she is, hopes redemption is possible:"Yet, I have known those which have walked in their sleep who have died holily in their beds" he says. But only punishment is possible and it will be inflicted on herself by her own conscience. Lady Macbeth will not die holily in her bed. She will shortly after this scene, take her life

This scene is certainly one of the most revealing of what human nature is. It shows Shakespeare's incredible understanding of the human soul. Four hundred year before Freud he had understood (without using such words of course) how our subconscious works. It is interesting to notice that Freud based an important part of his study of the subconscious on the study of dreams and of sleep-walkers.
He had already understood that
Infected minds
To their deaf pillows will discharge their secrets."

Danielle Esposito
The illustrations on this page are the work of the French painter Thierry Le Baill. Most of his work, contrarily to these dark portraits, is full of life and colour. You are more than welcome to visit his site
Other links
Romeo and Juliet
a short and very simple essay about the universal character of the play
a study of Hamlet's love for Ophelia
For some information about the great Will and about Stratford where he lived before he became an actor in London:
and for a short but interesting biography of Skakespeare, plus a visit of
the Globe Theatre
http://www.where-can-i-find/william.shakespeare.html                                                                          Back to home page