Lady Macbeth Sleepwalking Scene
The memorable sleepwalking scene is a “stroke of creative imagination”. There is no hint of it in Holinshed. The scene with “subdued whispered” horror is the “top most peak of all tragic conception”.
The gentlewoman describes that conduct of Lady Macbeth during her sleepwalking. She tries to get rid of the oppression of her secret by committing it to paper. The doctor explains it as the agitation of mind. She sleeps and keeps awake at the same time. Lady Macbeth enters with a taper. She has light by her continually. Darkness frightens her now. In sleep, her nature gives way to cursed thoughts – dreadful memories. She rubs her hand continually in an attempt to wipe away the stain of blood.
‘A little water does not clear her of the deed.’
As she recalls the darkness of the night of crime, she thinks of the darkness of hell, thus showing “her fear of the after death”. Old memories come in a disorderly fashion. She taunts her husband. She recalls her old words to her husband before the murder:
“Who dares receive it other”.
The sight of Duncan lying in a pool of blood has been a persistent memory with her. She recalls the horror of it in sleep. She questions her husband about the wife of Macduff. His hands are always red with blood. Lady Macbeth gives out the secret here. The same old persistent spot in the hand comes back to her mind. She now feels that the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten the damned spot. She remembers the banquet scene.
She exhorts her husband. The knocking at the gate comes back to her mind. She is frightened, and goes back to bed.
This is the picture of the broken and ruined Lady Macbeth. We watch the effects of her subconscious reactions. Her awareness of the enormities of their crime is shown in the writing of the letter while asleep. Is her sub-conscious fashioning a confession, a warning to Lady Macduff or even an appeal to her husband? We shall never know, but the dramatic impact is immediate, poignant, tense. The active mind, so quick and competent in action and response, is wrapped in the darkness of insanity: events, and her part in them have distracted her reason. She has done violence to her feminine instinct, and she pays the penalty for it. She exists in the present, but her imagination lives in the past. Her last sane words to her husband:
“You lack the season of all natures, sleep”
now ironically apply to her. The light she keeps beside her shows her fear of darkness (but she once has invited darkness) which was the cover for her own evil deeds. ‘The little water’ can now never be enough to cleanse either her hands or soul – with splendid irony Shakespeare invests her in her madness with her husband’s capacity for hallucination.
Her ramblings also embrace the murder of Lady Macduff (The Thane of Fife had a wife, where is she now?) and the traumas of the banquet scene. She recalls her comforting words to her husband. Her firm, assured
“What’s done cannot be undone”
is here picked up by her and repeated in brokenness. Nothing can be undone, but her poor shattered mind is the inevitable result of the doing.
The bold, brave, impulsive, impassioned woman thinking more for her husband than of herself is reduced and battered by their deeds, and the retribution of conscience which she despised in Macbeth, eventually drives her insane.
Her battered condition is the inevitable retribution. She is an essential woman but she has sacrificed her womanliness –
“Come to my woman’s breasts and take my milk for gall”.
Lady Macbeth was conscious of the compunctious visitings of nature. She had appealed to the murdering ministers to unsex her. She has the motherly instinct in remembering her babe and daughterly instinct in seeing in Duncan the face of her father. She cannot stand the shock of the discovery of murder, she faints. Her words
“Nought’s had, all’s spent”
reveal the depth of her desolation. Her energy in the banquet scene shown to save the compromising situation is the last flicker of the dying embers. From the state of nervous debility and spiritual desolation, the sleepwalking and mumblings in sleep are the natural and inevitable transition. It is the inevitable climax of a process of natural retribution.
The scene is in prose which is proper to the broken utterance of sleepwalking. But the words are charged with emotion. The dreadful memories of the Lady which come to her incoherently are appropriately uttered in broken prose. It expresses adequately the ‘perilous stuff’ that weighs upon her heart.
The prose of her anguish is a suitable medium for its expression, since the strong and determined woman that she was spoke the full-blooded poetry of action, courage and ambition for her husband, the broken woman she now is speaks in the disconnected fragments of prose that constitute her memory and the frailty of her waning life.
The Sleepwalking scene reveals Shakespeare’s deep psychological insight into the sub-conscious-three hundred years before the theories of Sigmund Freud became known. The linguistic fragmentation and dislocation is the method of the stream of consciousness technique adopted in the modern age for revealing the sub-conscious.