What did Lady Macbeth do in her sleepwalking scene in Macbeth?

In Macbeth, the most important thing Lady Macbeth does in her sleepwalking scene is rub her hands together as if washing them, trying to remove the blood of the people she helped murder.

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The "sleepwalking scene" occurs in act 5, scene 1 of Macbeth by William Shakespeare. The scene opens with an anonymous gentlewoman of the court describing Lady Macbeth's sleepwalking to a Doctor. The gentlewoman says that Lady Macbeth has been sleepwalking: while asleep, Lady Macbeth has been getting up, writing something on paper, and then going back to bed.

Lady Macbeth herself then enters the scene and rubs her hands as if washing them. The gentlewoman comments that she often spends up to fifteen minutes doing this. Then Lady Macbeth herself begins to speak, uttering the lines:

Out, damned spot! out, I say! ... Yet who would have thought the old man
to have had so much blood in him.

As she continues talking, it becomes apparent to the audience that she is wracked with guilt over her role in killing Duncan and Banquo. She is terrified that she will go to Hell for her acts. She thinks that she is covered with blood and stained by it and continues to try to scrub away the imaginary blood as she talks about the murders. Eventually, she heads back to bed and the Doctor and the gentlewoman, who do not fully understand her words because they do not know the details of her part in the murders, nonetheless worry about her mental stability and understand that her conscience is troubled by some sort of foul deeds she may have committed.

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In act 5, scene 1, the Gentlewoman tells the Doctor that she has witnessed Lady Macbeth rise in her sleep, unlock her closet, take out some paper, fold it, and write on it before sealing it and returning to her bed. The Gentlewoman refuses to tell the Doctor what she overheard Lady Macbeth say the previous night while she was sleepwalking before the queen enters the scene holding a candle. They watch as Lady Macbeth begins to act like she is washing her hands and attempting to remove blood stains, which alludes to her participation in Duncan's murder. As Lady Macbeth rubs her hands together, she laments about the amount of blood on her hands and says, "Out, damned spot! Out, I say!" (5.1.25). Lady Macbeth then begins to question her husband about murdering Lady Macduff and cautions him about acting suspiciously. The Gentlewoman and Doctor also listen as Lady Macbeth says,

Here’s the smell of the blood still. All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand. Oh, Oh, Oh! (5.1.35–36).

They are also astonished to hear Lady Macbeth comment on Banquo's death before she hurries to bed after hearing a "knocking at the gate." Overall, the Gentlewoman and Doctor witness Lady Macbeth pretend to wash her hands and comment on Macbeth's bloody deeds while she is sleepwalking. Lady Macbeth's sleepwalking scene illustrates her tortured soul and guilty conscience.

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In the last act, Lady Macbeth is wracked by guilt.  She is so overcome with her role in the murder of King Duncan that she cannot rest.  She sleepwalks, writes, and tries over and over again to wash her hands, but she cannot get the blood out because it is no longer there—it is in her mind.

The gentlewoman describes Lady Macbeth’s disturbing actions.

…I have seen her rise from her bed, throw her nightgown upon her,

unlock her closet, take forth paper, fold it, write upon't, read(5)

it, afterwards seal it, and again return to bed; yet all this

while in a most fast sleep. (5:1)

The fact that Lady Macbeth has a letter in this act parallels her first scene in the play, when she also had a letter from Macbeth.  She has come full circle. At the time, she was full of ambition and did not care about the consequences of her actions. She now is wracked with guilt.

In addition to trying to write, Lady Macbeth also tries to wash her hands while sleepwalking.  She cannot seem to get the “spot” of blood off of them.

Out, damned spot! Out, I say! One–two—

why then ’tis time to do't. Hell is murky. Fie, my lord, fie!

A soldier, and afeard? What need we fear who knows it,

when none can call our power to account? (5:1)

In the end, this is too much for Lady Macbeth.  Shortly after this sleepwalking scene, she screams and dies.  We find out later that she took her own death.  First she lost her mind, then she killed herself.

This is one of the most interesting parts of the play, because in the first act neither Macbeth seemed particularly virtuous.  They were willing to kill, and only for their own personal gain.  There seemed to be only minor wisps of guilt.  In Lady Macbeth’s case, she was shocked to see the blood on her hands after taking the knives from Macbeth and putting them back.

My hands are of your color, but I shame(80)

To wear a heart so white. (2:3)

Yet after this, both of them seem perfectly content with their roles in the murder—until Macbeth sees Banquo’s ghost.  His mental instability might have also bothered Lady Macbeth, and led to her downfall.  We do not know.  We do know that she took a deep dive into insanity.


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