What is the significance of the sleepwalking scene in "Macbeth"?

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gmuss25 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In act five, scene one, Lady Macbeth is shown sleepwalking throughout the castle, maniacally attempting to clean her hands while having a conversation with herself about Duncan's murder. This scene is significant because it depicts Lady Macbeth's guilt and her subsequent insanity after plotting King Duncan's assassination. Initially, Lady Macbeth is depicted as an ambitious, callous mastermind, who feels no regret for convincing her husband to murder the king. Immediately following King Duncan's murder, Lady Macbeth criticizes her husband for his guilty conscience. She tells Macbeth,

"My hands are of your color, but I shame To wear a heart so white...A little water clears us of this deed. How easy is it, then! Your constancy Hath left you unattended" (Shakespeare, 2.2.65-70).

However, Lady Macbeth's formidable nature completely changes in act five. Throughout the sleepwalking scene, the Doctor witnesses her rubbing her hands. Lady Macbeth says,

"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?—Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him" (Shakespeare, 5.1.25-29).

Her incessant attempts at washing the imaginary blood from her hands indicates her guilty conscience. She also seems to be reliving how she warned Macbeth to act calm during the entire affair. Similar to her husband, who suffers from hallucinations, Lady Macbeth also displays signs of mental instability. Shortly after the Doctor witnesses her routine sleepwalking, Lady Macbeth commits suicide.

luannw eNotes educator| Certified Educator

This scene, at the start of Act 5, shows Lady Macbeth's guilt and how her conscience has finally driven her mad.  This serves as an opposition to Act 1, sc. 5, when Lady Macbeth asks for the powers of darkness to fill her with cruelty and to stop her from being bothered by her conscience (Act 1, sc. 5, ll. 46-60).  She appeared to be the strong one as opposed to Macbeth, at the start of the play and now she is the one who succombs to her guilty conscience while Macbeth continues to wage war with his enemies.  The scene is also ironic because Lady Macbeth insists that she always have a lighted candle with her, which again, serves to contrast the powers of darkness that she summoned earlier.  The scene also allows Lady Macbeth to confess her crimes.  She talks as she sleepwalks and she talks about the killing of Duncan and the killing of Macduff's family.  Finally, the scene sets up her death by suicide which adds to Macbeth's woes.