Reading Shakespeare: Understanding Lady Macbeth and Her Guilt

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: How to Read and Understand Shakespeare

By: Marc C. Conner, Ph.D.,Washington & Lee University

Shakespeare’s famous play, Macbeth, introduces its readers to one of the strongest female characters in all written history, Lady Macbeth. What is very interesting about her character is how it develops as the play progresses, and readers can notice the underpinnings of change very clearly in the character after she and her husband murder the king. 

Images shows Jack Carter and Edna Thomas as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth in the Federal Theatre Project production of 'Macbeth'.
Lady Macbeth, after she and her husband murder the king, goes through immense guilt, which eventually drives her to delusion and her demise.
(Image: Federal Theatre Project/Public domain)

Lady Macbeth’s Prediction

After Macbeth murders the king, his guilt and shame quite nearly sink him. His wife mocks him, calling him “infirm of purpose!”, and urges him to complete the plot. After she returns the daggers to the bedchamber and has bloodied her own hands, she remarks, “My hands are of your colour / but I shame / To wear a heart so white”. 

This is followed by her famous, erroneous prediction: “A Little water clears us of this deed: / How easy is it then”. 

As her own trajectory goes on to show, the deed was hardly so easy. 

The arc of Lady Macbeth’s character very discernibly goes on to cross with that of her husband’s: right until the murder, she is the more courageous one, while he is the hesitant and uncertain accomplice. Yet, as the play continues, it is she who plunges deep into madness, fuelled by her guilt, while he becomes increasingly unrepentant and determined. Shakespeare very intelligently uses the tragic woman to get to the heart of the play. 

This is a transcript from the video series How to Read and Understand Shakespeare. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Lady Macbeth: Guilty and Sleepwalking

After this point, the only place where Lady Macbeth features again in the play before the opening of the fifth act is when Macbeth sees the ghost of his friend Banquo, whom he has killed, and his wife tries to assuage his fears. 

The opening of the fifth scene, then, presents the famous sleepwalking scene, a crucial but brief scene in the development of Lady Macbeth’s character. 

Picture shows a painting made by Johann Heinrich Fuseli on Lady Macbeth's sleepwalking.
The iconic sleepwalking scene employs embedded directions to inform the readers about Lady Macbeth’s mental distress after the murders.
(Image: Fuseli/Public domain)

The scene opens with two new characters being introduced, a gentlewoman and a doctor. This is rather bold move by Shakespeare, to introduce two utterly new characters so close to the play’s conclusion. But Shakespeare does this all the time—he bends the rules of drama to suit his own imaginative needs, not the other way around. These two characters are watching late at night to see a sight that the woman has told the doctor about: the sleepwalking of the queen. She also says she has heard the queen speak awful things, but she refuses to repeat them—the doctor must hear it for himself.

As Lady Macbeth appears, the speech of the two minor characters serves as the indication for the actions of Lady Macbeth. The doctor exclaims: “How came she by that light?”—telling the readers that Lady Macbeth had been carrying a candle. The woman responds, “she has light by her continually; ‘tis her command.” This understated, yet brilliant line serves as a reminder of how haunted the lady now is, literally afraid of the dark since the murders, commanding light to be by her side constantly.

This moment serves to be very useful in the study of Shakespearean literature. It exemplifies what actors and directors refer to as embedded stage directions, moments in the play when character’s speech reveals what characters should be doing with their physicalities and their props. 

Given that Shakespeare practically wrote no stage directions into the printed versions of his plays, embedded stage directions were hugely useful to actors in understanding a scene, and of course, in making sure readers were not lost in understanding the actions of the play.

This brief observation, in this particular example, provides a world of understanding about the nightmarish situation the powerful Lady Macbeth is in. “You see, her eyes are open”, says the doctor, to which the woman responds, “Ay, but their sense are shut”. Lady Macbeth had been walking with open eyes, yet not seeing the world around her, in a daze, trapped in the nightmare world of the awful deed she and her husband have committed.

Learn more about Shakespeare’s dramatic expression of characters.

Blood on the Hands

The conversation on Lady Macbeth’s nightmare is followed by the most telling stage direction of them all, one of the most iconic images of the play: “What is it she does now?” the doctor asks. “Look, how she rubs her hands”. Lady Macbeth proceeds to anxiously and obsessively wash her hands, trying to get the blood off of them but unable ever to do so.

In doing so, she expresses one of the most powerful gestures lent to her character by Shakespeare—an emblem of the diseased, haunted mind, a descent from the apparently confident and headstrong female figure seen before the murders.

With this scene, Shakespeare leads the readers into Lady Macbeth’s final words, a last glimpse of the immensely powerful, dynamic woman. 

“Yet here’s a spot”, are the first words that signal her guilt, as she rubs away madly at the remnants of blood only visible to her eyes. 

“Out, damned spot! Out, I say” she exclaims, and goes on to mutter about hell and her husband’s fears, ones which now seem to pale in comparison to the terror she is faced with. 

“Who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?” is her next question, followed by, “What will these hands ne’er be clean?”, “all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand,” and finally an exclamation of “Oh”. 

Bringing the Guilt to the Stage

Many critics believe this scene to require tremendous range and understanding on part of the actress to be performed well. 

The performance by Dame Judi Dench in the 1979 film, directed by Philip Casson and adapted by Trevor Nunn, the former director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, is believed by many to be one of the finest ones for Lady Macbeth. With the “Oh” at the end of the bloody hands scene, Dench breaks into a moan, that crescendoes into a cry, and goes on to become a true shriek of agony and despair that lasts for a whole 27 seconds—an eternity on stage.

This scene is regarded by many as an achievement in the history of theater. Lady Macbeth then walks offstage, still trying to clean her hands, and states, “there’s knocking at the gate”—a reminder of the knocking of the porter and the psychologically horrifying underpinnings of the play. 

The doctor’s final words in the scene are telling: “More needs she the divine”—that is, the priest—“than the physician,” he states, and then exclaims, “God, God forgive us all.” That’s an interesting line—it suggests that not just the murderers are in need of God’s grace. Somehow all of us who watch or read this play risk becoming infected by its horror; or perhaps, by looking into the depths of hell with the Macbeths, we come to a more acute sense of our own need for forgiveness and grace.

The play, like all of Shakespeare’s tragedies, is a profound explanation into the ideas of philosophy, an experimentation into the human psyche that has managed to firmly ground Shakespeare as the unparalleled artist that he is regarded as today.

Learn more about Lady Macbeth’s arc of development.

Common Questions about Lady Macbeth and Her Guilt

Q: What did Lady Macbeth predict?

Lady Macbeth, famously and erroneously, predicts in the play that once the deed of the murders is done, it will be behind her and her husband, and they will be able to carry on with their lives. It is, however, her guilt that does not allow this to happen, and she eventually descends into delirium.

Q: What does Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking signify?

Lady Macbeth‘s sleepwalking, at the opening of act five of the play, is a manifestation of her guilt for the murders committed by her and her husband. She seems to be stuck in a daze, unable to come to her senses. The scene also serves as an example of Shakespeare’s usage of embedded stage directions.

Q: Why does Lady Macbeth obsessively wash her hands?

Lady Macbeth obsessively washes her hands in the fifth act of the play in order to wash off the imaginary blood on them, a reminder of the guilt she has over the killings she and her husband carried out.

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