Thursday, 26 September 2013

The Theme of Guilt in Shakespeare's Macbeth

Next to ambition, guilt is the second most important theme within the play. It is essential in our ability to empathise with Macbeth and to see him as a tragic hero, rather than a villain. 

In other words, guilt is what keeps him and Lady Macbeth ‘human’.

The Guilt of Macbeth


Macbeth displays signs of guilt before he
even wields the dagger that kills Duncan
Macbeth begins to display hints of guilt long before he has murdered Duncan.

In fact, as soon as the thought of murder occurs to him, he acknowledges the wrongness of it. “Stars, hide your fires,/Let not light see my black and deep desires”

And, of course, his infamous “Is this a dagger which I see before me…” hallucination suggests that anticipatory guilt is already pushing him toward the brink of insanity.

Of course, after committing regicide and claiming the throne, Macbeth is unable to enjoy the ill-gotten kingship. In part, this is due to his growing sense of paranoia, but it is predominantly due to the growing sense of guilt, which leads to insomnia and visions of Banquo’s ghost

What’s really interesting though, is that despite a guilt that is driving him insane, Macbeth does not stop.

He just keeps killing.

Now, it could be said that this indicates a lack of morality. However, it also suggests that, after the initial murder, Macbeth’s subsequent actions are motivated by fear of losing his position of power, and fear of discovery. In either case, the heavy burden of guilt, which he undeniably bears, is not enough to stop him.

The Guilt of Lady Macbeth


Is all of Lady Macbeth's
guilt subconscious?
Unlike Macbeth, whose guilt is very much brought to the surface, Lady Macbeth seems to conceal her feelings of self-reproach.

At least, the audience is not given much insight into them. This may be because she is unwilling to acknowledge it consciously.

In other words, her feelings of remorse are expressed only in her subconscious; while she sleeps.

However, after the death of Duncan, Macbeth becomes increasingly isolated from his wife. The audience, therefore, sees very little of her. Subsequently, she could be experiencing conscious guilt that we are just not privy to.

In either case, shortly after the famous sleepwalking scene of Act Five, Lady Macbeth’s guilt is so intense that it drives her to suicide.


This post is an excerpt from What's It All About, Shakespeare? A Guide to Macbeth. If you'd like to learn more about the play, the guide is available from Amazon, Smashwords, Barnes and Noble and a range of other ebook sellers.