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Guilt appears as a key theme in Macbeth, presented as a dire consequence of heinous acts by Shakespeare. Guilt is shown through its link with the motif sleep, the appearance of Banquo’s ghost and the recurring mention of the Macbeths’ inability to wash the blood of their crimes from their hands. They construct their own personal hell where they are tormented by guilt and insanity, leading to drastic changes of character, and through this Shakespeare warns us of committing immoral acts.

Shakespeare explores the importance of guilt through linking it with the motif of sleep. In scene 2 of act 2, Macbeth says ‘the innocent sleep, sleep that knits up the ravelll’d sleep of care, the death of each day’s life’, to create contrast when, in the same scene after killing Duncan, Macbeth hears a voice cry out to him ‘sleep no more: Macbeth does murder sleep’. This key quotation illustrates that after committing murder, he has ‘murdered’ his own sleep as he has stripped himself of any innocence, and shows he is, and will continue to be, plagued by a guilty conscience. This motif is continued when in act 3 scene 2, after the apparition of Banquo’s ghost, Macbeth says ‘better be with the dead – that on the torture of the mind to lie in restless ecstasy. Duncan is in his grave. After life’s fitful fever, he sleeps well.’ Macbeth confesses he is tortured by his harrowing guilt and sleep deprivation, and Shakespeare’s use of the oxymoron ‘restless ecstasy’ shows the inner confusion and turmoil of his mind, and how he is racked with guilt. Ecstasy can also refer to emotional frenzy, which ties in Macbeth’s state of mind here, as a result of his guilt.

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Similarly, in the opening scene of act 5, the audience sees Lady Macbeth agitatedly sleepwalking. She wanders aimlessly, holding a candle, repeatedly washing her hands and speaking to herself in prose. Shakespeare’s central characters rarely break from iambic pentameter, and so to see Lady Macbeth do this here could show her lack of control over her words, as she is so restless and sleep deprived, because of her inner anguish and regret. The gentlewoman informs the doctor this ‘is an accustomed action with her’, and Lady Macbeth appears unable to rest. This informs the audience that Lady Macbeth, much like her husband, is no longer able to sleep or exist peacefully due to her role in the murders Macbeth committed. In lines 30-31, she says to herself ‘Out, damned spot! Out, I say! One, two. Why then ’tis the time to do’t. Hell is murky.’ It could be said that the short sentences combined with the abrupt, frequent punctuation and caesuras here demonstrate Lady Macbeth’s distress and unease. Seeing Lady Macbeth so agitated and out of control while sleepwalking shows the audience the calamitous consequences that guilt can have on the human mind.

More analysis of her character in A5S1 to emphasise contrast :

Additionally, Shakespeare’s juxtaposition of her previous characterisation with that shown in act 5 shows that guilt is inevitable and can bring the most powerful of us down. In Act 1 scene 5, Lady Macbeth is presented as a woman so determined and inhuman that morality and guilt never cross her mind. Upon first hearing the prophecy, her mind does not waver, unlike Macbeth, immediately beginning to plan. She admits she will ‘pour [her] spirits in [Macbeth’s] ear and chastise with the valour of [her] tongue’, verbally poisoning her own husband to achieve a higher societal status. Her lack of hesitation to plot Duncan’s downfall shows her lack of morality, and her willingness to manipulate her husband for her own gain demonstrates her cold and unloving nature. Likewise, she asks to ‘stop up th’access and passage to remorse’. Remorse is a vital part of human nature, and so to see her wish this away as if it is nothing suggests she wishes to become less human to achieve power. The juxtaposition of the remorseless and determined Lady Macbeth in these scenes, compared with the powerless women we see before us, so tormented by the past, shows the extensive and powerful effects of guilt.

Shakespeare’s linking of sleep with guilt shows its harrowing consequences and indicates that guilt has a perpetual and lasting effect on the human mind.

Furthermore, the supernatural appearance of Banquo’s ghost in Act 3 scene 4 explores both the significance and effect of guilt on one’s mind. After hiring murders to kill Banquo, Macbeth hosts a dinner at his castle, when the ghost of Banquo appears. The structure in this scene is important, as the supernatural apparition appears when Macbeth utters his name, suggesting it is a trick of his mind inspired by his immense sense of guilt. This demonstrates its importance through its perturbing effects. Shakespeare uses lots of exclamation and question marks when Macbeth speaks, such as ‘prithee, see there! Behold, look, lo! How say you?’. This heightens the pace creating a sense of panic and anxiety on Macbeth’s part, and could be said to show his lack of ability to articulate his words, beginning his descent into insanity, as a result of his actions and subsequent guilt. Moreover, he also cries out to the ghost ‘Thy bones are marrowless, thy blood is cold, thou hast no speculation in those eyes’, saying so to convince and reassure himself that Banquo is truly dead. The audience can infer from this that his guilt is so great he has lost his sense of reality and cannot tell what is real and what is fake, revealing a tormented mind. Overall, the appearance of Banquo’s ghost, triggered by Macbeth’s guilt, shows the role it plays in his growing insanity. It is used by Shakespeare to portray the tormenting consequences of guilt and could be said to serve as a warning against ‘sinful’ actions as they always come back to haunt us.

Blood is a motif seen multiple times throughout the play, often signalling guilt haunting characters as a punishment for immoral actions. The imagery provides us with a key insight into both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s minds and their troubles due to self-torturing guilt. In act 2 scene 2, after killing Duncan, Macbeth asks ‘Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood clean from my hand? No: this my hand will rather the multitudinous seas incarnadine.’ Shakespeare juxtaposes the idea of blood with water here, contrasting the themes of guilt and purity, which occurs throughout the play. The use of the rhetorical question and hyperbole, ‘Neptune’s great ocean’ and the ‘multitudinous seas’, highlight how immoral and wrong Macbeths actions were, and his regret over this. This emphasises that the blood of this murder cannot be washed from his hands, therefore showing that Macbeth will be perpetually followed by his regret and guilt over his heinous crime. Additionally, by stating that Duncan’s blood will turn oceans ‘incarnadine’, it could be suggested that Macbeth’s actions have corrupted nature, further emphasising his immorality and consequently, his guilt. Likewise, when we see Lady Macbeth sleepwalk in scene 1 of act 5, she makes multiple references to blood, such as when she says, ‘All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand.’ Similar to Macbeth’s references to blood, the hyperbole here signifies the magnitude of the blood on her hands, and the guilt she is doomed to suffer eternally as a result. This line also links back to act 2 scene 2 when she says, ‘A little water clears us of this deed’. The stark contrast between these two lines, combined with her previous determination and cold-heartedness towards murder, shows how the guilt has taken hold of Lady Macbeth, poisoning her mind and condemning her to insanity. We see the importance of guilt as Shakespeare uses the characters of the Macbeths, and their descent into insanity as a consequence of this guilt, to show that it is a destabilising force that strips people, no matter how strong or determined they are, of their control and power in their life.

In conclusion, Shakespeare presents guilt as a significant theme within Macbeth, through the motifs of blood and sleep, in addition to the apparition of Banquo that plagues Macbeth. He demonstrates that guilt is a dangerous and powerful thing, that has a continuing effect and can destroy one’s state of mind. Shakespeare provides a commentary on human nature, and it could be argued that his purpose is to warn of the evil and greed that exists within humanity, highlighting its consequences through the Macbeths’ tragic downfall as a result of their guilt. It leads the audience to question whether any unjust act truly goes unpunished, as the regret and guilt that manifest and warp the human mind will inevitably act as a debilitating punishment for those deserving of it.


To fully understand Macbeth and Shakespeare’s reasons for his dramatic downfall, it is important to look at the historical context of the time period it was written. In 1605, one year before Macbeth, the gunpowder plot occurred, where a group of assassins tried to kill king James. This made him feel incredibly insecure and at risk in his kingship. Furthermore, King James was previously the king of Scotland and not a direct heir of the previous queen Elizabeth. Consequently, there were many who questioned his claim to throne, threatening his power. Both of these events took place at the time of Macbeth and posed a great threat to the king’s rule. King James was a patron of Shakespeare’s theatre group, and the play was performed to him directly, so it was important for Shakespeare to appease him and make him feel secure through his play. Shakespeare illustrates the danger and consequences of guilt as it plagues the Macbeths’ minds, clearly showing he is condemning regicide to the audience and public. By doing this, he is both encouraging and showing support to the King and pandering to him so he feels more secure. This context plays a vital role in Macbeth’s downfall as it would have been outrageous and impossible to do anything but condemn Macbeth’s actions, as it would have gone against the King and almost certainly ended Shakespeare’s prospering career as a playwright.

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