Macbeth, Act 5: Lady Macbeth's insanity:
What is the point of showing Lady Macbeth's insanity--her repetitive handwashing and other symptoms of distraction--in a play with supernatural events and "causes" that are so obviously meant to be taken seriously?
Why is it Lady Macbeth who suffers this fate while Macbeth does not? And how does Macbeth take the death of his beloved wife?
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Lady Macbeth's insanity functions as a contrast to Macbeth's, and it shows the effect of our actions on our conscience, our minds and (this would be important to an Elizabethan audience) our souls.
Lady Macbeth and Macbeth change places as the play progresses. In the beginning, Macbeth is the one troubled by his conscience while Lady Macbeth is unfazed.
After Macbeth kills Duncan, he says that all of Neptune's ocean can't wash the blood from his hands, he feels so guilty. Lady Macbeth, on the other hand, claims she feels nothing. She says "a little water clears us of this deed," by which she means that all they have to do is wash away the physical evidence and their consciences will be clear.
By the end of the play, Macbeth has lost his conscience and Lady Macbeth is unable to escape hers, even in sleep. The two characters show us opposite extremes of what might happen if we go against our own sense of right and wrong. Either we cross over and become evil, as Macbeth does, or we become so guilt ridden that it infects our spirits. In both cases, the action leads to ruin; however, Lady Macbeth's is more subtle.
As to why this passage shows up in a play rife with supernatural events and causes, it is because it allows us to see the effect on the spirit that comes with trusting supernatural beings that should not be trusted. Banquo nails it when he says that sometimes the instruments of darkness show us truths to win us to greater harm. This is exactly what happens to Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. Macbeth loses everything he gained, along with his wife. Lady Macbeth's sleep-walking would not have been interpreted by an Elizabethan audience in psychological terms, but rather in spiritual terms. As the attending doctor says,
Do breed unnatural troubles: infected minds
To their deaf pillows will discharge their secrets:
More needs she the divine than the physician.
What he means by this is that she needs a priest, or someone to minister to her soul, and not her body. In the end, he is right: Lady Macbeth's spiritual unrest causes her to lose her life, along with her eternal soul (she commits suicide, a mortal sin).
Macbeth realizes the folly of what they have done when he hears the news of his wife's death. He feels he is nothing but a player on a stage, and that the two of them have been like actors living out a script foolishly walking towards their deaths:
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!(25)
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
He thought he was in control of his life, but he was not. His life has no great purpose, no meaning, and he sees no order in his universe or his world. An Elizabethan audience would probably have seen this as a sign that he has lost faith.
I would make the case that just because the supernatural events of Macbeth are meant to be taken seriously doesn't mean that someone can't go insane in reality. The pressure and stress involved with committing a murder was too much for Lady Macbeth (even though she would have protested me saying this before the murder actually happened). Apart from this being a great work of literature, that fact is still true: the stress involved with committing a murder has caused people to bridge the gap to insanity. Perhaps Shakespeare wanted to have us keep one foot in reality?
As to why Lady Macbeth suffers this fate while Macbeth does not, one can only guess. The answer to that question can only be opinion. That being stated, my opinion is that both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth misinterpreted how they would handle themselves after committing a murder. Lady Macbeth was confident from the start, yet loses her marbles as a result. Macbeth wavered right away, yet sticks it out until the apparitions all come true. Although one could argue that seeing ghosts and floating daggers isn't exactly a manifestation of perfect sanity. (Ha!)
Finally, Macbeth takes the news of Lady Macbeth's passing with despair (at least despair enough to randomly go out and kill Young Siward); however, it isn't really despair in losing his wife. It is despair that all life has no worth. Macbeth utters these words in one of the most famous speeches of a Shakespearean tragic figure.
It is a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury / Signifying nothing. (5.5.26-28)
What a way to end the day with optimism!
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