In Shakespeare’s play Macbeth, the title character begins to attempt to cover up his murder of the king very quickly after the murder is committed. Significantly, however, it is his wife, Lady Macbeth, who is the first to suggest practical action. She is often the instigator of actions in the first half of the play, and it was she, of course, who urged her husband to murder the king in the first place. Therefore it seems fitting that she should also be the one who initially takes the lead in attempting to cover up the crime. Thus she tells her husband (in the “Open Source Shakespeare” edition of the play [www.opensourceshakespeare.org]):
. . . Go get some water,
And wash this filthy witness from your hand.
Why did you bring these daggers from the place?
They must lie there: go carry them; and smear
The sleepy grooms with blood. (706-10)
Of course, the play will subsequently show that responsibility for the crime cannot be hidden as easily as this, either from others or from Macbeth.
Unsurprisingly, it is Lady Macbeth who once again takes the initiative when her husband seems to falter:
. . . Infirm of purpose!
Give me the daggers: the sleeping and the dead
Are but as pictures: 'tis the eye of childhood
That fears a painted devil. If he do bleed,
I'll gild the faces of the grooms withal;
For it must seem their guilt. (714-19)
When Macbeth again seems to regret what he has done, Lady Macbeth once more speaks with an authority and self-assurance that later prove extremely ironic:
A little water clears us of this deed:
How easy is it, then! Your constancy
Hath left you unattended. (734-36)
A few seconds later, she again instructs her husband, this time advising him to change his clothing:
Get on your nightgown, lest occasion call us,
And show us to be watchers. Be not lost
So poorly in your thoughts. (739-41)
Later, Macbeth pretends as if nothing has happened when a visitor comes calling for the king:
Macduff. Is the king stirring, worthy thane?
Macbeth. Not yet.
Macduff. He did command me to call timely on him:
I have almost slipp'd the hour.
Macbeth. I'll bring you to him. (809-13)
Almost immediately after killing the king, then, Macbeth and his wife must undertake a task far more difficult than committing the crime itself: attempting to distance themselves from being suspected of the murder.