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As Lady Macbeth nervously waits for her husband to return from executing the king, she hears an owl shrieking and calls it "the fatal bellman" announcing Duncan's death, just as the bell near Newgate Prison announces the execution of a prisoner. Then she hears a call from upstairs, and her nervousness turns to fear that Macbeth has bungled the murder. But soon Macbeth enters covered in blood and announces "the deed is done." The two engage in a dramatic, brief conversation that is very revealing about both characters. Macbeth is already racked with guilt and remorse; his wife again scorns every sign of his weakness. Macbeth looks at his bloody hands and says, "This is a sorry sight." Lady Macbeth scoffs and says "a foolish thought."
Macbeth briefly explains how he tried to utter the word Amen, as if in prayer, but the word stuck in his throat. His wife retorts, "Consider it not so deeply" and "These deeds must not be thought; it will make us mad." Then Macbeth explains how he heard a voice crying, "Sleep no more, Macbeth does murder sleep." His conscience is already at work speaking to him and accurately predicting his fate. He will live in the darkness for which he once begged, and he will live in his own hell, separated from God. As Macbeth entertains these thoughts, his wife bemoans his fear saying, "You do unbend your noble strength to think so brainsickly of things." This brief, fast-paced conversation between husband and wife is like a chaotic dance (and a flashback to the evil witches) that heightens the dramatic impact of the scene.
Then Lady Macbeth takes charge, much like a mother to a frightened child, and tells her husband to wash the blood off his hands and take the daggers back to the room. Macbeth's true state of mind is then revealed in his answer, "I am afraid to think what I have done" (yet he can think of nothing else); "To look on it again, I dare not" (but it is constantly before his eyes). With no ounce of understanding or sympathy, Lady Macbeth (the personification of pure evil in this scene) calls her husband an infirm coward. She takes the daggers from her husband's hand and leaves to put them back upstairs. In her absence, there is loud knocking in the castle, and Macbeth falls to pieces, saying, "Every noise appalls me." He looks at his hands and asks if the great ocean could even clean the blood from them -- a question that is rhetorical in nature since Macbeth knows the blood will be washed away, but his soul can never be cleansed.
When Lady Macbeth returns, her hands, like Macbeth's, are also covered in blood from smearing the servants. She and her husband are blood partners in evil! But Lady Macbeth, unlike her husband, is not bothered by the sight of the blood (she was the more blood thirsty one, never swaying in her desire to have the king murdered). Instead, she mocks her husband saying she would be ashamed to have his white (cowardly) heart; ironically, a white heart would usually mean a pure heart, and Macbeth's heart is certainly not pure! She then says, in total contrast to Macbeth's imagery of washing his hands, that "A little water clears us of the deed." She has no remorse, no conscience, and naively claims that the hard part is over and that everything from here on will be easy for them. She then berates her husband once more for losing his courage and warns him to "be not lost so poorly in your thoughts." Macbeth guiltily replies "Twere best to not know myself." He is filled with self-hatred. Only the knocking at the door interrupts his thoughts, and it serves to cause further panic and to forewarn of the beating he will take throughout the rest of the play.
This scene, although short, is masterfully written. Once again the theme of appearance versus reality is developed. Macbeth lives in a world of appearances and imaginings (a voice calling him to sleep no more, the earlier imagined dagger); his wife lives in reality and practicality (the shrieking owl outside, the need for nightgowns). In this play, it is hard to know what is real and what is not. There is no doubt, however, that Duncan's murder is real. The reader is spared the details of the murder scene, but the understatement of the bloodied couple and murder weapons create vivid images. The brief conversation between husband and wife after the murder is perfectly developed to reveal the inner nature of the two characters. Macbeth is racked with remorse and guilt, while his wife continues to be cold and calculating. Macbeth cannot even entertain the thought of returning the daggers to Duncan's chamber and viewing the corpse; Lady Macbeth goes calmly back, thinking only of protecting herself and her husband. Even though Macbeth is despicable in his greed for power and his murderous action, Shakespeare has successfully created Lady Macbeth even more despicably.