What is the doctor's attitude towards knowing the secrets of Lady Macbeth in Act 5, scene 1 in Shakespeare's Macbeth?The doctor claims that Lady Macbeth's illness is "beyond my practice." Is he...

What is the doctor's attitude towards knowing the secrets of Lady Macbeth in Act 5, scene 1 in Shakespeare's Macbeth?

The doctor claims that Lady Macbeth's illness is "beyond my practice." Is he really only protecting himself and thinking of exposing the truth?

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William Delaney eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The Doctor is subjected to many different emotions during his visit to Macbeth’s castle. He feels inadequate to treat Lady Macbeth’s because her illness, as he says, is beyond his practice. Yet, something is expected of him by the dangerous and temperamental tyrant who has summoned him and is paying him a fee. The Doctor does not want to know either Lady Macbeth’s secrets or her husband’s, although he obviously feels certain that they both have been responsible for murders, including the murder of King Duncan. The Doctor makes many significant statements that reveal his feelings. When he tells the Nurse, “Go to, go to. You have known what you should not,” he is revealing that he now knows what he should not know himself. Such knowledge can be very dangerous because Macbeth is quite capable of silencing anybody who might tell unpleasant truths.

The Doctor is very likely to keep his knowledge a secret for at least two reasons. One is that he appears to be a highly professional, responsible and ethical man. It would be unprofessional and unethical to gossip about his patient or her husband. Another good reason for keeping silent is that Macbeth has spies all over his kingdom and would be sure to hear about anything the Doctor might say to a third party. The Doctor feels insecure the whole time he is in attendance at the castle. He believes that Macbeth is just as crazy as his wife, if not more so. Not only that, but there is an invading army approaching the castle, and the Doctor stands a good chance of getting killed just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Towards the end of his visit he says that not even profit could lure him to Macbeth castle if he were in safety now:

Were I from Dunsinane away and clear,

Profit again should hardly call me here.

His last duty is to report to Macbeth and give him some sort of diagnosis. He tells the mad king that his wife is troubled in mind with "fancies" though not in body:

Not so sick, my lord,

As she is troubled with thick-coming fancies

That keep her from her rest.

This prompts Macbeth to reply, half contemptuously and half sincerely, in some of Shakespeare’s most beautiful lines, that the doctor must cure her by plucking from her mind the deep sorrow and erase the troubles of her brain:

Cure her of that.

Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased,

Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow,

Raze out the written troubles of the brain,

And with some sweet oblivious antidote

Cleanse the stuffed bosom of that perilous stuff

Which weighs upon the heart.

The Doctor suspects that Macbeth is making fun of him and his profession. His reply is interesting because it shows discretion, compassion, understanding, professionalism, and an insistence on being treated with at least a modicum of respect. He says that such miracle cures must be self-administered by the patient, not by him:

Therein the patient must minister to himself.

The Doctor wisely refrains from saying that the patient must minister to herself because, for one thing, he believes Lady Macbeth is too far gone to be able to do anything therapeutic for herself. But he also shows that he knows Macbeth is talking about is own “mind diseased” and his own “rooted sorrow.”  By using the generic “himself” the Doctor can appear to be expressing a professional opinion about psychiatric ailments in general and not pretending to advise Macbeth personally or even suggesting that he thinks Macbeth has a guilty conscience or a psychological problem.

What Shakespeare says about psychiatric illness through the Doctor makes good practical sense. In the long run, many people who run to “shrinks” for counseling might be just as well off, if not better, if they ministered to themselves.