Macbeth Essay, Research Paper
Still it cried, “Sleep no more!” to all the house.
“Glamis hath murdered sleep, and therefore Cawdor
Shall sleep no more; Macbeth shall sleep no more.”
(II, ii, 50-52)
Sleep is one of the most powerful and most used words in the play Macbeth. Its use and implications span between both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. Through sleep you can see the changes that go on between the two aforementioned characters. Sleep in the play is used as a way to show how the characters evolve and transform into that which is most feared by those characters.
Before the witches prophesize to Macbeth they vow to whip up a storm and destroy the ship of a sailor. Interestingly the witches do not say that they want to murder the sailor. Instead, they plan to destroy his sleep:
I’ll drain him dry as hay;
Sleep shall neither night nor day
Hang upon his pent-house lid.
He shall live a man forbid.
(I, iii, 19-22).
For the witches the inability to sleep is symbolic of a tormented soul. The man who cannot sleep lives in chaos, night is day and day is night. To the characters in Macbeth sleep is the, “chief nourisher in life’s feast” (II, ii, 48) without it one becomes mad. Characters invoke the word sleep as a symbol of order. But in the play sleep is also a complicated term because it represents a character’s control over their lives. When characters cannot control their sleeping habits they have entered into the realm of chaos where the fires burn and the cauldrons bubble.
Macbeth, his arms soaked in blood after murdering Duncan turns to Lady Macbeth. Surprisingly some of his first words to Lady Macbeth are, “Macbeth does murder sleep,’ the innocent sleep,/ Sleep that knits up the ravelled sleave of care,” (II, ii, 44-45). Macbeth’s first admonition that his decision to murder Duncan has destroyed him, is his recognition that he will no longer be able to sleep. Racked by guilt Macbeth instantly recognizes that the order around him is turned upside down. Macbeth’s rule is of darkness for Scotland and inner turmoil for himself. Ross speaking to an old man describes Macbeth’s Scotland by saying, “Is it night’s predominance, or the day’s shame,/ That darkness does the face of earth entomb,”(II, iv, 9-10). Macbeth, like the owl, both hunts and rules by the shadow of night. And like the owl he cannot sleep at night. He is a creature of chaos.
Lady Macbeth as she is eaten up by guilt and goes mad is robbed of the ability to control her sleeping habits. She is robbed not like Macbeth of the ability to sleep but the ability to stay awake. Lady Macbeth lives in a surreal world where she writes, washes, and walks all in a fast sleep. The doctor who attends her before her death describes it by saying:
I have seen her rise from her bed, throw her nightgown
upon her, unlock her closet, take forth paper, fold it,
write upon it, read it, afterwards seal it, and again
return to bed. Yet all this while in a most fast sleep.
(V, i, 4-7).
The use of the word sleep to describe Lady Macbeth’s actions is fascinating for Lady Macbeth before her death is not really sleeping as much as living in a hallucination state. The fact that her altered state is referred to as sleeping is not really true to the definition of sleep. Sleep is usually defined as a time for the body to rejuvenate. But Lady Macbeth was not in a state of rejuvenation when she slept. To her sleep was the torment that being awake was to Macbeth.
Lady Macbeth’s sleep is representative of the portrayal of a woman’s place in the play Macbeth. As a woman her guilty conscience makes her sleep. Her madness makes her benign. Lady Macbeth is the prototype of the madwoman in the attic who lives in a state of semi-sleep, mumbling to herself, and washing her hands. She poses no threat to anyone but herself. Her madness makes her less dangerous then when she was in control of her senses. In contrast the inner chaos of Macbeth causes him to be awake. His madness makes him dangerous. His inability to sleep causes his mind to grow bloodier and his rule over Scotland more treacherous. Macbeth’s madness is characteristically masculine. In his madness he achieves the thickening of his blood that Lady Macbeth wishes for. Macbeth becomes emboldened and more violent; he becomes more awake. In contrast Lady Macbeth undergoes a feminine transformation as madness makes her sleep and more docile. In her madness she becomes profoundly female even adopting stereotypical female habits like washing and fretting about spots of blood. She becomes a docile creature, which is the exact opposite of what she wished at the beginning of the play:
Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here
And fill me, from the crown to the toe, top-full
Of direst cruelty! Make thick my blood,
(I, v, 43-46)
Lady Macbeth and Macbeth through sleep have almost changed roles in the play with Macbeth becoming the violent person that Lady Macbeth wished upon herself and Lady Macbeth becoming the more passive person Macbeth was at the beginning of the play. The word sleep has manifested itself not only with Macbeth’s inability to sleep but also in Lady Macbeth’s benign existence at the end of the play.
Macbeth is a play, which is filled with many symbols. Sleep is the most dynamically used one, which helps guide and explain what is going on within the characters. Since sleep is one of the most important parts of a human’s life it can be used to show changes in a person’s attitude and life. Shakespeare made good use of sleep to show how Macbeth and Lady Macbeth changed and the process that they went through to complete the changes.