Macbeth Themes

Guilt One of Shakespeare’s reasons for writing the play was to illustrate the terrible consequences of murdering a king. The play was first performed in 1605, the year of the Gunpowder Plot, and this theme would be very politically acceptable to an audience composed of members of James I’s court. Shakespeare shows the murderers of a king tormented by their own guilt and driven to their doom.
Act 1 scene 3 The idea of guilt first appears in Act 1 Scene 3, when Banquo shows his surprise at Macbeth’s reaction to the witches’ promises: “Why do you start and seem to fear, /Things that do sound so fair?” The word ‘start’, meaning to jump with shock, is always associated with a guilty reaction. Later, Macbeth’s guilt takes visual form when he hallucinates that a blood-covered dagger is leading him to murder Duncan.
Methought I heard a voice cry “Sleep no more” In the murder scene, we again see Macbeth tormented by guilt. Shakespeare has the murder happen offstage so that he can focus on Macbeth’s tormented mental state. Macbeth is terrified by his own sense of sin, as he could not say ‘Amen’ when he heard someone praying. He imagines his guilty conscience will never let him sleep peacefully again: “Methought I heard a voice cry “Sleep no more””. References to sleeplessness recur later in the play, as when Lady Macbeth says, “You lack the season of all natures, sleep”. Even when he does sleep he will be tormented by his guilt in the “terrible dreams that shake us nightly”.
“the multitudinous seas incarnadine, / Making the green one red”. One of most striking images in the play equates guilt with the idea of blood-stained hands. Macbeth refers to his own hands as “hangman’s hands”, which would be covered in blood from disembowelling victims of execution. When Lady Macbeth urges him to wash the blood off, he realises the impossibility of washing away his guilt. His crime is so wicked that the blood will “the multitudinous seas incarnadine, / Making the green one red”.
A little water clears us of the deed”. During the murder scene, Lady Macbeth reassures him: “A little water clears us of the deed”. The audience will realise the irony of this during her sleepwalking scene later in the play, when she obsessively washes imaginary blood from her hands.
“Thou canst not say I did it. Never shake thy gory locks at me” After arranging Banquo’s murder, Macbeth is tortured by guilt even more. Again this takes visual form, as he imagines the ghost of Banquo returned to accuse him: “Thou canst not say I did it. Never shake thy gory locks at me”!

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