Macbeth, Thane of Glamis, is told by a trio of witches that he will soon be promoted to Thane of Cawdor, and later will be King of Scotland. When the first of their prophesies comes true, he tells his wife, who is filled with ambition and determines to ensure that the second is realized as well. She persuades her husband to murder King Duncan, and so Macbeth becomes King.

The rest of the play traces the couple's downfall as a result not only of the murder and hence the political injustice of Macbeth's reign, which leads to war in Scotland, but also because of the terrible psychological effects of guilt. Neither of them sleeps soundly again; Macbeth sees ghosts and appears to go mad; Lady Macbeth sleepwalks, endlessly washing her hands of the metaphysical blood that stains her, and eventually commits suicide. Macbeth dies when Macduff, rightful heir to the throne, besieges his castle and beheads him in battle.


The play provides a detailed exploration of the pathological effects of guilty conscience. As soon as the murder is committed, Macbeth realizes that he has "murdered sleep," and for the rest of the play he is haunted (quite literally, in his visions of Banquo's ghost) by the psychological (as well as political) consequences of the act that has obliterated his peace of mind, making the play a study in the effects of anxiety.

While his wife seems at first to be less remorseful than Macbeth, it is she who exhibits classical Renaissance symptoms of mental disturbance. In the famous sleepwalking scene, she is observed and commented on by a doctor. Macbeth appeals to him to "minister to a mind diseased" (5.3.40), but the doctor says that, when guilt is the cause, the patient must "minister unto himself" (5.3.46). Lady Macbeth dies soon after.

Gender is crucial in the effects of guilt. While Lady Macbeth's ambition is instrumental in bringing about the murder, the play implies that as a woman she is less able to withstand the strain than her husband is. In order to carry the act through, she calls on the spirits to "unsex me here," implying that a woman, and especially a mother, lacks the will power for such an act. Macduff, who finally kills Macbeth, was born by Cesarean section or, as the witches put it, is "not of woman borne" (4.1.79).


First published: London, 1623 (first folio). Also known as The Tragedy of Macbeth.


Penguin: The New Penguin Shakespeare

Place Published

New York




G. K. Hunter

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