Table of Contents | Message Board | Printable Version | Barron's Booknotes
Act V, Scene 1
This scene takes place in the castle at Dunsinane with an unnamed lady-in-waiting conversing with a physician about Lady Macbeth's sleepwalking. The doctor has observed the queen for two days and not seen any incidents like the gentlewoman has described, and he is beginning to doubt her truthfulness. He questions her about what things Lady Macbeth has said while sleepwalking, but the gentlewoman refuses to answer, for she feels no one would believe her.
Lady Macbeth then enters the scene in a tranced state, unable to see the others even though her eyes are open. She pauses and rubs her hands, as if washing them. When she can't get them clean, she screams, "Out, damned spot" (of blood). She then begins to talk, as if speaking to Macbeth, and incriminates both of them in the process. "Fie, my lord...What need we fear who know it, when none can call our power to accompt (account)? Yet who would have thought the old man (Duncan) to have so much blood in him?" She continues by revealing Macbeth's part in the deaths of Banquo and Macduff's family. But her thoughts are constantly interrupted by the image of the blood on her hands, and she asks, "Will these hands ne'er be clean?....all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand." The doctor then tells the lady-in- waiting that "This disease is beyond my practice," and says that Lady Macbeth needs a priest more than she needs a physician. Before he departs, he begs to the heavens, "God forgive us all!"
This scene serves several purposes. First, it is a flashback to all the evil in the play, as remembered by the tranced Lady Macbeth: the execution of Duncan, the murder of Banquo, the slaughter of Macduff's wife and children, and the belief on the part of the king and queen that they were too powerful to be touched. The evil has driven her to insanity, and when she looks at her hands, she sees blood upon them. She tries over and over to clean the evidence from her person, but the blood always remains, just as her guilt remains. Her hands (synonymous with her heart and soul) will never be clean again. Ironically, this is the same lady who told Macbeth after Duncan's murder that "A little water clears us of this deed: how easy is it then!" She has found out the hard way that guilt is never easy, but a powerful force that destroys both her and her husband.
The scene also serves to reinforce two of the play's central Themes. Lady Macbeth appears to be awake with her eyes wide open, but the appearance lies. (Remember Duncan stating that it is always hard to recognize a traitor in his face, to distinguish appearance from reality.) In truth, Lady Macbeth is in a tranced state, but reveals the reality of her soul. To develop the appearance theme further, Lady Macbeth imagines that she sees blood upon her hands (an appearance) and tries to wash it away (as if that could cleanse her soul). The audience sees nothing on her hands (reality), but sees inside to the soul covered with blood. The scene also develops the theme that evil begets evil, but will be punished. Lady Macbeth's past (evil) has driven her to madness (evil), which is truly a living death and a punishment for the actual deaths she has caused.
The scene is also filled with irony. In the past, Lady Macbeth has begged for the darkness of night to hide her evil deeds. Now she cannot stand the darkness and keeps a candle always by her side, almost as if trying to disperse the darkness of her soul. It is also ironic that Lady Macbeth is able to sleep (unlike her husband who is driven to madness by his sleeplessness), but her sleep, interrupted by sleepwalking and fits of guilt, does not bring relief, but greater pain. (Remember at the end of the banquet scene in Act III, Lady Macbeth tells her husband that all that is wrong with him is that he needs to get some sleep.) It is also ironic that Lady Macbeth's guilt has driven her mad, but in her madness she is much more likable than when she was the cold, calculating, greedy mind behind Duncan's murder. Lady Macbeth was untouchable before, but is even more untouchable now, as evidenced by the doctor saying he cannot help her. Only a priest (a symbol of goodness, forgiveness, and God) can help her now.