Editor's Choice

How does psychology influence the events in Macbeth?

Quick answer:

Psychology plays a great role in Macbeth. The power of psychological suggestion motivates Macbeth to act on his repressed desires, as does psychological manipulation by his wife and his need for her approval. Denial of guilt and the "return of the repressed" come to haunt Lady Macbeth, who enacts obsessive-compulsive hand washing rituals in her sleep. Macbeth ends up deeply depressed, as he expresses in his late soliloquy, stating that life creeps on in a "petty pace from day to day."

Expert Answers

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

Shakespeare's Macbeth is a depiction and commentary on the human psyche. The way the characters are influenced by other people and affected by certain actions highlights the way the human brain processes emotions. There are many examples that showcase the role psychology in the play, but perhaps one of the best ways to understand this concept is through a detailed reading of Lady Macbeth.

Lady Macbeth is driven to murder because she is dead-set on getting power. She is determined for her husband to kill Duncan and eventually convinces him to do so. Her desperation for power highlights how the value society places on political power can shape individuals' desires and influence their decisions.

Lady Macbeth eventually begins to have difficulty processing the fact that she is somewhat responsible for another human being's death. Being human herself, she becomes wrought with guilt and begins to have trouble sleeping and functioning properly. Then she begins hallucinating that Duncan's blood is literally on her hands. Here, we see that her psychological health is really beginning to spiral out of control.

Lady Macbeth's hallucination shows how much her role in Duncan's murder is preying on her conscience. She expresses her desperation to get rid of this unreal blood, crying "Out, damn'd spot! out, I say!" (act 5, scene 1, line 34). Her desperation here is not just a desperation to erase the blood: it reveals how badly she wishes for thoughts, reminders, and emotions surrounding Duncan's death to leave her mind.

Ultimately Lady Macbeth commits suicide, which demonstrates the intense psychological consequences of such intense guilt.

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

Psychology plays an important role in Macbeth. First, Shakespeare shows how powerful suggestion is as a psychological motivator. When the witches tell Macbeth what he wants to hear, which is that he will become king, it is a short leap for him between those words and deciding to act to seize the crown. The accuracy of the witches' prophecy that he will become Thane of Cawdor becomes the basis of another psychological mechanism, confirmation bias: because this possibly random or coincidental fact of becoming thane came true, Macbeth uses it to "confirm" the "fact" that is far more important to him—that he will become king.

Lady Macbeth uses her knowledge of her husband's psyche and especially his insecure masculinity and need for her approval to psychologically manipulate him into killing Duncan. She implies that he will be less than a man in her eyes if he does not go through with the deed.

Lady Macbeth also uses denial to goad herself into participating as an accessory to the murder. She represses and denies any feelings of guilt or remorse over the killing. Of course, the guilt is there, and as Freud argued, the repressed returns to haunt us. It does for Lady Macbeth, invading her dreams, causing her to sleepwalk and try to wash the blood off her hands in a repetitive obsessive-compulsive gesture.

Finally, Shakespeare shows the psychological situation of getting what you want and facing the reality that it is not what you expected: Macbeth thought being king would be wonderful, but he ends up miserable. His disillusion leads to depression, characterized by a dulled down disinterest in life. This is expressed in his late soliloquy, in which he describes life as creeping on in a "petty pace from day to day" until he will finally die and be released from misery.

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

Macbeth is a play about how ambition ruins a man, but it is also about a person who has no clear vision of his own, so he buys into whatever is being sold at the moment. For this reason, psychology plays an outsized role in Macbeth, as it does in some of Shakespeare's other great works, such as Hamlet and King Lear. Hamlet sees a ghost and speaks with a skull, while Lear is haunted by his past. Macbeth, for his part, is led astray by being easily thrown off by women and magic.

Macbeth is influenced from the beginning of the play by three witches, whose motivation is unclear. They lecture on dark topics, speak in riddles, and make prophecies. Their effect on Macbeth's frame of mind is unfortunate, because he is an ambitious man who is easily influenced by magic. His psychological weakness is similar to those who want to "get rich quick" and buy into unsound schemes, then lose all their money. But money is not exactly what Macbeth wants. He is seeking power.

When the witches, who don't appear trustworthy, tell Macbeth he will be king, he immediately climbs on their bandwagon. They have been accurate only once, but he hears what he wants to hear and decides their ravings make sense.

Because Macbeth is hyper-focused on power, when his wife suggests he do whatever it takes to unseat his enemies, he agrees. This is partly because he fully believes the witches' prophecy that he will be king, but partly because he prefers to be led, and Lady Macbeth is in charge.

Although Macbeth isn't sure killing King Duncan is wise, he goes along for the sake of pleasing Lady Macbeth and because his psychology requires someone else to lead him.

Although Macbeth used to be faithful to Banquo, his friend and a fellow soldier, he turns on him by hiring a trio of murderers to kill Banquo in the first three scenes of act 3. Afterward, he is haunted by Banquo's ghost, which he briefly glimpses during a banquet. His vision of himself—never very clear—is beginning to darken.

Shortly after the banquet, Lady Macbeth acts strangely and develops a sleepwalking habit. Her mental instability does nothing to anchor Macbeth, who by now is becoming more psychologically dependent upon the witches, in the absence of his wife. As he subjugates himself to the spell of the witches, he gets drawn into a murky and nebulous spiral of poor decision-making.

Each murder Macbeth commits leads to the need for more murder. By the time he meets Macduff in battle, he loses all confidence when Macduff reveals he was not born of woman, at least not in the usual way. The witches told Macbeth he could never be defeated by any man born of women. At this point, Macbeth's reliance on the witches is shattered, and, since he cannot stand on his own, his psychological weakness leads to his defeat by Macduff.

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

Judging from Macbeth's and Lady Macbeth's behavior and its psychological consequences, Shakespeare understood the human psyche long before Freud analyzed it and modern psychiatry categorized the ways it can come unglued. The Macbeths’ killing Duncan to steal the crown illustrates clearly the interaction of the id, the ego, and the super ego, as Freud identified them, and in the couple’s subsequent psychological deterioration, several manifestations of mental illness are evident.

The complexity in the Macbeths’ characters, and a great deal of the play’s drama, is developed through the interplay among these elements of the psyche. As psychologist Kendra Cherry explains, the id “strives for immediate gratification of all desires, wants, and needs.” After the witches' prophesy that Macbeth will be king one day, he and Lady Macbeth want the crown, and they waste no time in murdering Duncan to get it—the id at work.

After deciding to kill the king, the Macbeths are controlled by the ego, the part of the psyche that puts the brakes on the primitive id. The ego demands they satisfy their desires in a way that is acceptable to society. Initially, Macbeth rejects the idea of murdering Duncan, willing to delay gratification by waiting for the witches’ prophecy to be fulfilled without his intervention. Lady Macbeth, however, will not deny her need for immediate gratification. Through psychological manipulation in which she belittles her husband’s character and courage, Lady Macbeth forces Macbeth to proceed. There is no way to kill the beloved Duncan that will not outrage society, but through deceit, the Macbeths can make their behavior appear acceptable. They commit the murder surreptitiously with great attention to detail and skillfully deflect suspicion from themselves when the king’s body is discovered. With Malcolm and Donalbain blamed for their father’s murder, the Macbeths claim the throne, but they cannot enjoy the gratification of their desires because the super ego, the repository of the conscience, asserts itself.

The super ego is obvious in Macbeth even before the murder. Macbeth hungers for the crown, but the thought of killing Duncan, his king, benefactor, and friend, appalls him. Before entering the sleeping Duncan’s chamber, Macbeth agonizes over what he is about to do; after committing the murder, he is tortured by his conscience. Unable to sleep, he obsesses about the horrendous nature of his crime. In Lady Macbeth, the super ego is submerged temporarily through an act of will; before the murder, she steels herself against it, mistakenly assuming it is an expression of feminine weakness. After the murder, she denies its existence, insisting to Macbeth that “a little water clears us of this deed.” Washing Duncan’s blood from their hands, she believes, is all that’s necessary to escape retribution. She fails to recognize the presence and power of the super ego. Ultimately, however, it overrides Lady Macbeth’s psychological defenses, and she commits suicide.

Shakespeare doesn't employ the vocabulary of mental illness, but the manifestations of depression and psychosis are evident in the Macbeths’ mental and emotional deterioration. Shakespeare also understands their source—relentless, unalleviated guilt and fear. Macbeth lives in fear from the moment he first consents to murder the king, and after killing Duncan, he is consumed with guilt and plagued with insomnia. At various times, he suffers from visual and auditory hallucinations, and as his condition deteriorates, he becomes increasingly paranoid. Macbeth feels hopeless, his despair and bitterness expressed most vividly in the play’s conclusion as he prepares to go to war.

Shakespeare devotes much of the play to detailing Macbeth’s psychological deterioration, but he illustrates Lady Macbeth’s in one scene. As she walks in her sleep, sighing pitifully and trying to wash her hands of blood that now exists only in her unconscious mind, the extent of her mental destruction is made clear. That she soon kills herself, as her servants feared she would, comes as no surprise. Her death is entirely consistent with the psychological unraveling of her personality.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial