Sleepwalking Scene in Macbeth – Detailed Analysis

Macbeth by William Shakespeare
Macbeth by William Shakespeare

The sleepwalking scene is a critically celebrated scene from William Shakespeare’s tragedy Macbeth (1606). The first scene in the tragedy’s 5th act, the sleepwalking scene is written principally in prose, and follows the guilt-wracked, sleepwalking Lady Macbeth as she recollects horrific images and impressions from her past. The scene is Lady Macbeth’s last on-stage appearance, though her death is reported later in the act. Well known phrases from the scene include “Out, damned spot!” and “All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand.” The British tragedienne Sarah Siddons (1755-1831) was distinguished for her performance and interpretation of the scene.

The sleepwalking scene opens with a conference between two characters making their first appearances, the Doctor of Physic and the Waiting-Gentlewoman. The Gentlewoman indicates Lady Macbeth has walked in Her sleep. She will not report to the Doctor anything Lady Macbeth has spoken in her somnambulistic state, having no witness to confirm her testimony.

Carrying a taper (candlestick), Lady Macbeth enters sleepwalking. The Doctor and the Gentlewoman stand aside to observe. The Doctor asks how Lady Macbeth came to have the light. The Gentlewoman replies she has ordered a light be beside her at all times (she is now afraid of the dark, having committed her crimes under its cover). Lady Macbeth rubs her hands in a washing motion. With anguish, she recalls the deaths of King Duncan, Lady B Macduff, and Banquo, then leaves. The Gentlewoman and the bewildered Doctor exeunt, realizing these are the symptoms of a guilt-ridden mind. The Doctor feels Lady Macbeth is beyond his help, saying she has more need of “the divine than the physician”. He orders the Gentlewoman to remove from Lady Macbeth the “means of all annoyance”, anticipating she might commit suicide. Despite his warning, the audience are informed she does commit suicide off-stage.

The doctor has been watching for two nights with the gentle woman to find out the nature of Lady Macbeth’s ailment. The gentlewoman says that she has found Lady Macbeth walking in her deep sleep, unlocking her closet, taking a piece of paper, writing something on it, sealing it, and then returning to bed. The doctor asks if she has heard Lady Macbeth saying anything at that time. The gentlewoman says that she will not reveal that. When they are talking, Lady Macbeth enters walking in her sleep with a taper in her hand. Her eyes are open, “But their sense is shut.” She starts rubbing her hands. The gentlewoman says that it has been her usual action continued for a quarter of an hour, symbolizing the washing of her hands from guilt. Soon, Lady Macbeth starts speaking. She reveals their murder of the old king, Duncan. She repeats her words to her husband earlier, encouraging him to do the act. Then she expresses her shock that the old man had so much blood in him.

After that, she reveals that they have murdered the thane of Fife’s wife. She is in a depressed condition, and questions herself whether her hands will never be clean. She also laments that all the perfumes of Arabia can not sweeten her little hand. Then she talks about Banquo’s murder. She says that Banquo, whom they have murdered, is in his grave, and he can not come out of his grave. The doctor, who hears everything, is greatly surprised when he finds out the reason for Lady Macbeth’s sleep walking sickness. He observes that infected minds will reveal their secrets to their deaf pillows. He concludes that Lady Macbeth needs the divine more than the doctor. He asks the kind nurse to look after Lady Macbeth, “removing from her the means of all annoyance.” Finally, he leaves the place, saying that he will not talk about this to anybody. This scene shows that the imagination of lady Macbeth has broken loose and running wild resulting in a serious of incongruous flash backs. This has called for the use of prose which most effectively copes with the broken mumblings of a mind in a state of complete disorder.

But the most important dramatic function of the scene lies in the fact that it shows that the collapse of Lady Macbeth is now complete. In the earlier scene of the tragedy she appears stronger than her husband. But they have now changed places; Lady Macbeth passed from one desperate action to another. She had on an earlier occasion recommended sleep as the one thing most needed by Macbeth and now her own sleep is afflicted by terrible dream. The sickness of her mind is vividly suggested by her perpetual longing for light and her association of darkness with hell. With Lady Macbeth the curse works itself out, not in fear but remorse; it impels her husband to fresh deeds of blood: she has no hand in any murder but the first. But her sin is ever present to her: awake or dreaming she can think of nothing but that awful night, and the stain upon her hand and soul. At last her over tasked brain breaks down; we witness her mental agony in the sleep-walking scene: “Here’s the smell of the blood still: all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand: oh! oh! oh!” And then she dies, a voluntary and most wretched death.

Lady Macbeth’s complete collapse in the scene is not at all abrupt and unconvincing. For in the earlier part of the drama there are enough indications suggesting the essential weakness of her nature. As the action of the drama advances because of her constant prick of her conscience. She is more and more relegated to the back ground. After the first crime her husband no longer needs her active co-operation in the murderous deeds that follow. She has no part in the long series of Macbeth’s subsequent assassinations. She is innocent of Banquo’s blood, innocent of the blood of Lady Macduff and her little child. From the very beginning unto her very end, she is essentially a woman. To overcome the weakness which her sex is heir to, she had to invoke the aid of the murdering ministers.

“Come to my woman’s breasts,

And take to my milk for gall…..

Again she can not enter into Duncan’s chamber for the old king resembles her father:

“Had he not resembled

My father as he slept, I had done it.”

This speech shows that she has a slaughter concealed underneath her hard relentless exterior. She has also a mother buried within her. That the mother is her is evident in the speech –

“I have given suck, and KNOW How tender it is for love the babe that milks me.”

To suppress her essential feminine nature she has to take the help of wine. But neither wine, nor artificial strength of hind allow one to go against one’s nature for a long time. The voice of conscience forcibly strangled, reasserts itself and Lady Macbeth begins to sink. When we see her as the queen of Scotland the glory of her dream has faded. She enters disillusioned and weary with want of sleep: “Naught’s had, all’s spent”. Hence forth, she has no initiative. She has little energy left. The fact is after the initial crime disillusionment and despair prey upon her more and more until she sinks down completely in the sleep walking scene.

The tragic retribution pierces the soul of Lady Macbeth herself. Sleep that is no sleep becomes her long night agony. She walks in her slumber, and blabs to the dark, that has listening ears, unknown by her, secrets that have blood upon them, washing her miserable hand all murder-stained, and washing in vain. Lady Macbeth is left upon the shore alone. Her occupation is gone, and she has neither imagination nor sympathy to enable her to fill the blank in her life. With her passion consumed her own heart. Her proud will became sapped by remorse: and she, with naked fancy stretched upon the rack, lived a long sleepless dream of hell-a miserable woman, whose nerves, all flayed, were scorched for ever by the hot breath of her sin.

Thus, the sleep walking scene is dramatically most important for bringing out the female effect of the tears growing of Lady Macbeth’s remorse on her. In this scene it is the invisible world of moral reality which is made strongly manifest before our eyes. Lady Macbeth completely over taken by the awful war that is raining in her breast has helplessly broken down. Her feet, her hands, her lips conspire against her in revealing the guilty secrets so long forcibly suppressed.


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