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Inescapable Guilt This work is considered exceptional by our editorial staff.

In the play Macbeth, the Weird Sisters and Banquo introduce a symbolic and constant parallel between sleep and innocence and sleeplessness and guilt. The contrast becomes especially apparent when Macbeth and Lady Macbeth unsuccessfully try to suppress and escape from their guilty consciences by trying to achieve restful sleep. The pair’s inability to do so distinguishes them from the innocent characters present in the play and eventually leads them to insanity and death.

The three Weïrd sisters, the soothsayers and “hurly-burly” (1.1.3) brewers who know and somewhat dictate the future of the characters in Macbeth, introduce sleeplessness as a punishment when one of the witches hexes the sailor husband of a woman who refuses to give her chestnuts, saying: “Sleep shall neither night nor day / Hang upon his penthouse lid.../ Weary sev’nnights, nine times nine, / Shall he dwindle, peak and pine” (1.3.20-24). Though obviously an extreme punishment for a man married to a woman who committed a small faux pas, this exaggerated retribution clearly foreshadows the theme of sleeplessness as a sometimes fatal punishment for the guilty that will appear throughout the play.

The theme of guilty sleeplessness as a punishment is reintroduced in Banquo’s contemplation of action to bring about the future the witches predicted for his line, causing dreams of the Weïrd sisters (2.1.25) and a “heavy summons [that] lies like lead upon...[him] / Yet …[he] would not sleep” (2.1.8-9). Even consideration of potentially evil deeds provoked sleeplessness, and he prays to be released from his wrongful thoughts for the sake of sleep: “Merciful powers, / Restrain me in the cursèd thoughts that nature / Gives way to in repose” (2.1.9-11). Banquo looks for an escape from this guilt in sleep, but finds none, a representation of Shakespeare’s symbolic parallel between sleep and innocence.
Lady Macbeth experiences an evolution of increasing guilt that will eventually lead to an inability to sleep, beginning at the scene of Duncan’s murder. At first, she tries to calm a disconsolate Macbeth: “a little water clears us of this deed” (2.2.86). She pushes away any feelings of guilt and acknowledges nothing of the consequences of the murder, only of the observable proof of her wrongdoings. When Macduff discovers the murder and rings the alarum throughout the house, she says: “What’s the business, / That such a hideous trumpet calls to parley / The sleepers of this house?” (2.3.93-95), giving herself and Macbeth an alibi and the outward façade of innocence simply by referring to themselves as “sleepers.” Lady Macbeth’s confidence in her and her husband’s status as a “sleeper” wavers when Macbeth hallucinates the presence of Banquo’s ghost at the dinner table. She associates these hallucinations, similar to the ones Macbeth experienced during Duncan’s murder, with a lack of sleep, and urges Macbeth to bed as a cure for his ‘sudden’ infirmity: “You lack the season of all natures, sleep” (3.4.173). Presumably, her insight into her husband’s hallucinations stems from her own experiences of insomnia, but peaceful sleep proves to be unattainable.
As Lady Macbeth’s guilty conscience climbs to its height, she falls nightly into a wakeful sleep that uncovers the true inner feelings that she had avoided during the day. In direct contrast to her initial response to wrongdoing during Duncan’s murder, she spends her waking nightmares scrubbing her hands over and over, unable to rid herself of the blood with “a little water.” In trying to absolve her conscience of all guilt by cleansing her hands of all blood, she becomes frustrated that her hands will “ne’er be clean” (5.1.45), a symbolic parallel to her conscience that will also never be clean. After days of wakeful sleep, Lady Macbeth crosses into the state of eternal sleep, death, when completely stripped of her ability to escape the nightmare in sleeping or in wakefulness at the peak of her guilt.
Macbeth also follows a progression from guilt to sleeplessness, a process that begins at the scene of Duncan’s murder, when an actual sleeper is murdered by the wakeful. As soon as he begins his bloody work, Macbeth hears Duncan’s innocent sons who will later be suspected of the deed wake up and cry “Murder!” as if they knew of his guilt, yet they are able to pray and fall back asleep (2.2.30-35), further proving their innocence. Macbeth’s realization of his guilty conscience and therefore future inability to sleep arrives in another auditory hallucination, that of another voice, that cries: “Sleep no more! / Macbeth does murder sleep” (2.2.47-48). Macbeth continues to comprehend his loss of innocence and ability to sleep peacefully as he describes it with regret: “Sleep that knits up the raveled sleave of care, / …Chief nourisher in life’s feast” (2.2.49-52). Even in that moment, he understands that a life without sleep is death.
Macbeth’s unconscious guilt, having been repressed for his first two murders, accumulates to such a point that his increasingly diseased mind hallucinates Banquo at the head of his table, displacing him as ruler and, symbolically dislodging his efforts to suppress any feelings of guilt. The constant desire for an escape from this culpability that could only be achieved in sleep continues to corrupt Macbeth’s diseased mind.
As Macbeth’s state of sleeplessness and the insanity that goes along with it evolve throughout the play, he becomes more and more desperate for a cure. Macbeth’s unconscious guilt, having been repressed for his first four murders (including Duncan, the guards, and Banquo), accumulates to such a point that his increasingly diseased mind hallucinates Banquo at the head of his table, displacing him as ruler and, symbolically dislodging his efforts to suppress any feelings of guilt. The constant desire for an escape from this culpability that could only be achieved in sleep continues to corrupt Macbeth’s diseased mind, driving him to a search for the cure to his disturbance. When Lady Macbeth’s doctor informs Macbeth of her insomnia-related illness, he immediately replies: “Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased. / Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow...Cleanse the stuffed bosom of that perilous stuff / Which weighs upon the heart?” (5.3.50-56). Macbeth casts off the doctor’s reply of self-healing and refuses ‘treatment,’ as he starts to comprehend that his own disease, like that of Lady Macbeth, has no cure. Lady Macbeth’s death and incurability foreshadows Macbeth’s own torturous guilt-ridden fate, driving Macbeth into a frenzy of irrationality and to the zenith of his insanity immediately before his own death.

As guilt consumes both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, the dead and sleeping innocent increasingly represent the symbolic equivalence between sleep and innocence that remains pertinent throughout the play. Macbeth kills Duncan, a man innocent of any misdeeds who went to bed with complete trust in his hosts that he would wake up the next morning. He becomes a symbol of innocence that haunts Macbeth and Lady Macbeth night and day. Banquo, Macbeth’s moral underling who refused temptation and who also died an innocent death, becomes a recurrent figure representing innocence that appears in Macbeth’s hallucination during a dinner, and later during Macbeth’s second meeting with the witches. The haunting continues as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth remember Macduff’s family, whose slaughter Macbeth ordered in the shadow of Macduff’s threat to Macbeth’s tyranny of Scotland, about which Lady Macbeth expresses deep regrets during her sleepwalking episodes: “The Thane of Fife [Macduff] had a wife. Where is / she now?” (5.1.44-45).

Other symbols of innocence, though less contributory to Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s illnesses than those of Duncan, Banquo, and Macduff’s family, are the guards, innocently asleep at their posts when Duncan’s blood is smeared upon them, for “it must seem their guilt” (2.2.73). Macbeth then murders them before they even have a chance to defend themselves from the deed. The innocent, falsely portrayed as guilty, only add to guilty conscience and sleeplessness of the murderer who robbed them of their sleep.
Shakespeare draws a symbolic connection between sleeplessness and guilt and sleep and innocence through the expression of the characters in Macbeth. With the progression of guilt comes the increasing loss of ability to sleep peacefully, a pure escape from reality. It is this inescapable culpability that eventually drives Macbeth and Lady Macbeth to sleeplessness, madness, and death.




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