Discuss Macbeth as a psychological study of guilt. Support your answer with examples from text.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

This is a great question.  Of course Macbeth is a study of the guilty conscience.  The main characters display this more accurately than any others:  Macbeth and his lovely wife, Lady Macbeth

Macbeth first suffers from guilty twinges when he waffles with his wife about killing Duncan in the first place.  He tells her that Duncan has recently honored him for his actions in battle, that Duncan is a guest in their home (therefore Macbeth should be protective of Duncan), and that he and Duncan are blood relatives.  For these three reasons, he should not kill Duncan, and they will discuss it no more.  However, she throws the question of Macbeth's manliness into the mix, and all is said and done.

Next we have Macbeth happily plotting Banquo's and Fleance's deaths, but he doesn't count on the ghost appearing every time Macbeth refers to his dear friend.  This is an obvious display of guilt for both Duncan and Banquo's fates, and how funny it is that Lady Macbeth explains it away by telling the nobles that her husband has an "ailment" from which he has suffered since childhood.  Of course, they all think about Duncan's strange death, none of them yet know of Banquo's "safety" in the ditch.

Macbeth continues to visit the witches, grow bold, and make plans without his wife.  All of this shows us the distance that has grown between the two, and it is really no surprise when Macbeth plans the murders of the MacDuff family.

Macbeth's mental state, the state of his marriage, and the state of his country are all described as "sick," "wounded," "bloody."  Macbeth himself tells his wife that his mind is "full of scorpions" which can only mean that he is suffering the effects of their sins.

Lady Macbeth, on the other hand, doesn't show signs of guilt until she complains that Macbeth doesn't spend as much time with her as he used to...this is the sign from her side of the fence that all is not well in paradise.  From here, we have her famous sleepwalking scene, where she moans, "The Thane of Fife had a wife, where is she now?" along with her "who knew the old man had so much blood in him?"  Her handwashing is an obsessive-compulsive action that she can't seem to stop since she always sees the blood and the guilt in such a palpable manner.   Her nurse reports to the doctor that Lady Macbeth has been this way for many nights, and he replies that he would "not have such a heart in my bosom for all of Christendom."  The doctor reports to Macbeth that what the Lady suffers from, he can not cure.  He indicates that she is not physically ill, but it is something deeper.  The final indication of Lady Macbeth's horrible guilt is her own suicide.

Check out the links below for more help in your quest.  Good Luck!

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The most obvious example of psychological guilt appearing in Macbeth is...

This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

when Lady Macbeth cannot stop herself from seeing th blood on her own hands. This happens in Act V, Scene 1 and is one of the most often quoted passages from this play:

Lady M. 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?

This moment marks a culmination of sorts in her descent into psycholgical ruin as a result of her inability to continue to ignore her guilt. Throughout the play, Lady Macbeth is constantly aware of the guilt that she and Macbeth are taking upon themselves, and she seeks to absove the sin by washing it away. She encourages Macbeth to wash away the blood on his hands as well earlier in the play, in Act II scene 1 after the myrder of Duncan. All along, she seems to believe that as long as the evidence of the sin is washed away it is possible to absolve the guilt. That is, until the end of the play when the she cannot seem to make the stain os her evil deeds vanish by simply rinsing them with water.

Beyond the obvious, however, it is possible to analyze almost all of the characters in the play from a psychological perspective. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are motivated by greed and a hunger for power. These are both psychological character traits that lead to their ultimate downfall. Banquo's ghost acts as an element of not only the supernatural but of the psyche as well. He is a reflection of the mind's need to ansolve and acknowledge guilt. The witch's constant presence as well shows how easily "religion" can impact and shape the actions of human beings.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Discuss Macbeth as a penetrating psychological study of guilt. Give examples from the text to prove your point.

First, Macbeth is just a good story.  An honorable man is tempted into committing the unspeakable:  murdering his king, his kinsman, and his guest.  But Shakespeare's greatness lies in his ability to understand human nature.  What separates Macbeth from villains such as Iago is his guilt.  In fact, before the murder, Macbeth knows all the reasons that he should not kill Duncan.  He knows that it is only his "vaulting ambition" that overrides his scruples, but notice that before he goes in to kill Duncan that he is almost delirious, seeing a bloody dagger in the air.  This murder is not easy for him. 

His last words before killing Duncan refer to the bell that "summons thee to heaven or to hell."  This line is an especially important line because Macbeth does believe in the afterlife, and he knows that he is trading his soul for the kingship. 

After the murder, Macbeth is filled with regret and remorse.  He cannot say "Amen" ; he wishes that the knocking at the gate could awaken Duncan.  He feels as if he will turn the green sea red when he tries to wash the blood off his hands.  Macbeth is not a psychopath; he is deeply remorseful for what he did.  And this remorse keeps him from sleeping at night. 

But he has crossed the line into the world of evil, and he feels as if there is no return.  He has already lost his "eternal jewel," his soul, so he becomes more and more desparate to make sure that this sacrifice has been worth it.  To remain safely king, he feels he must continue to kill; this conclusion leads to the murder of Banquo and MacDuff's family.  But these murders affect his conscience as well.  Deeply.   He sees the ghost of Banquo at the banquet, and he reacts with horror. His subconscious guilt cannot be suppressed.   When he faces Macduff in the final act, he does not want to kill him:  "My soul is too much charged/With blood of thine already." 

Macbeth is a good man who commits evil acts.  And in so doing, loses everything: his peace and contentment in the here and now as well as his soul, and he is acutely aware of these consequences throughout the play.    Through Macbeth,Shakespeare shows the overwhelming effects of guilt.   

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Discuss Macbeth as a penetrating psychological study of guilt. Give examples from the text to prove your point.

Shakespeare's Macbeth presents several facets of suffering brought on by guilt.  Lady Macbeth presents the most complex study of guilt, though, so I'll center on her. 

At first glance, she seems completely free of guilt early in the play.  She is ruthless and aggressive and, in fact, worries that her husband will not be able to follow through with an assassination attempt.  After the murder, when her husband shows signs of guilty feelings (hearing voices and obsessing about the victim's blood on his hands), she dismisses these qualms and seems not to be at all bothered. 

Yet, she is not quite as hardened to guilt as she seems.  Her speech in Act 1.5 (in which she asks to be unsexed--to be made more like a man) is often quoted as a sign of her ruthlessness.  And it is.  Yet, the fact that she feels the need to ask the spirits to unsex her, to thicken her blood so softer emotions like pity and kindness won't reach her mind, and to exchange her breast milk for poison, suggests that she has her doubts.  In other words, she is worried, too, that she won't be able to go through with it, as well as that her husband won't be able to go through with it.

As the play continues and her guilt, apparently, deepens, it is made known in the famous sleepwalking scene (Act 1.5).  Asleep, Lady Macbeth's conscious restraints that would normally protect her from incriminating herself are inactive, and she reveals the heinous acts she has caused, directly (Duncan's murder) or indirectly (the murders of Banquo and Macduff's wife).  Rubbing her hands, she displays O.C.D.-like symptoms as she obsesses over nonexistent blood on her hands--Duncan's blood. 

Soon, Lady Macbeth commits suicide. 

In the course of the play, then, Lady Macbeth is doomed by her guilt: destroyed by that which she earlier worried would doom her husband from reaching his desired destiny.     

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Discuss Macbeth as a penetrating psychological study of guilt. Give examples from the text to prove your point.

In the play 'Macbeth' by William Shakespeare, it is true to say that macbeth appears tortured, but whether it is by guilt is difficult to say - and critics still argue over this point. If he is truly psychologically disturbed, then it is possible that Macbeth is psycopathic and is unable, due to past childhood experiences to feel guilt, remorse, contrition or any other emotion requiring an abiltity to empathise with others at all, let alone victims. When he says 'I am in blood stepped in so far that,should I wade no more,returning were as tedious as go o'er' (Act 3 Scene 4) it is hard to tell whether it is pity for victims or himself or fear or punishment that is driving him - it seems that any guilt is outweighed by the idea of being in a penny, in for a pound - and no going back. In that,he is culpable.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In what ways is Macbeth a psychological study of guilt? Give supporting evidence from the text.

Macbeth--a man who earns respect because he distinguishes himself through his heroic deeds, proves to have a moral conscience, but unfortunately possesses a character flaw--ambition--that destroys him and everyone close to him. 

The deep guilt Macbeth feels humanizes him and moves the audience.

Recall that Macbeth's noble character is established from the start.  A dark side of Macbeth is revealed, savagery even in the way he kills the opponent Macdonwald: "Till he unseamed him from the nave to th' chops, And fixed his head upon our battlements" (Macbeth 1.1).

As soon as Macbeth receives the new title as Thane of Cawdor from king Duncan, his ambition is inflamed. However, he still knows the line between right and wrong and is firmly standing on the side of good. 

At the very first thought of removing king Duncan from the throne so that he could be king, Macbeth feels terrified and ashamed. "Stars, hide your fires, let not light see my black and deep desires" (Macbeth 1.4)  He is ashamed to bring to light this dark side of his psyche, this greedy ambition that would lead him to have such evil thoughts.

After Lady Duncan strongly urges Macbeth to go forward with the murder plot, Macbeth still carefully reasons the pros and cons of the plan. He thinks about his responsibility, his loyalty, about morals.  He announces firmly to his wife that they will not proceed any further in this business (1.7 paraphrase). He knows it is wrong, period.

Sadly, he succumbs to her manipulation and an attack on his manhood, and agrees to her murder plot.

The play is known for its blood imagery that highlights both Macbeth's, and later, Lady Macbeth's guilt.  As soon as he commits the murder, Macbeth begins his downward spiral of self destruction from unbearable guilt.  The famous lines that show his deep remorse for killing Duncan are when he looks at his murderer's hand in disbelief ("What are these hands?" he asks, "They pluck out mine eyes!").  He says that he has murdered sleep and will never again have the peaceful rest again.

Examing the magnitude of Macbeth's guilt in these lines:

"Will all great Neptune's ocean wash this blood Clean from my hand? No, this my hand will ratherThe multitudinous seas incarnadine,Making the green one red." (2.2)

Macbeth's tragedy is magnified by his own recognition of his mistake. In his famous soliloquiy at the end of the play he looks at his life's accomplishment and what he can be proud of. Nothing.  Re-read carefully his speech "Out, out, brief candle."  He says that life is like a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.  He recognizes that his climb to the top has only brought him misery, pain, and absolute destruction. He has lost his humanity, ability to feel, and his conscience. He has become a monster, and he feels ashamed.

Lady Macbeth is a whole separate psychological study of guilt because for a long time she completely denies it, but she, too, is destroyed by it as she sleepwalks under the great burden of a guilty conscience, loses her mind, and eventually takes her own life.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on