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William Shakespeare is a name recognised by many as one of the most acclaimed authors in English literature. His plays are known around the world, creating characters that you either love, hate, or pity. The play Macbeth is an examination of the depth of the human mind. The character of Lady Macbeth is one such character that, despite being a villain in the play, most readers come to feel sorry for her in the end. She transformed from a formidable and commanding woman to a frail shadow of herself driven to madness by a guilt-ridden conscience. Through Lady Macbeth’s descent into madness, Shakespeare brings to light one of the central themes of the play: the corruption of the human mind by ambition. During the modern age, if a person were to endure the same ordeal as Lady Macbeth, they would be diagnosed with a form of paranoid schizophrenia. Someone with paranoid schizophrenia is consumed by delusions and hallucinations, suffers from insomnia and sleepwalking, and removes themselves from social interaction. As the play progresses, these same symptoms are exhibited through Lady Macbeth’s actions, causing her to become mentally unstable.
Lady Macbeth’s questionable mental state and deterioration becomes apparent as early as Act 1 when her character is first introduced. In Act 1, Scene 5, she starts to display one of the most common and widely found symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia: delusions. During this scene, Lady Macbeth expresses delusions of grandeur for her husband, driven by her ambition and love for him. She proclaims, ‘Glamis thou art, and Cawdor, and shalt be / What thou art promised’. She promptly begins plotting the murder of Duncan, and starts off on fantasies of Macbeth ruling the country. Later on in the same scene, Lady Macbeth entertains an even more bizarre delusion where she believes she is summoning dark spirits to help her murder Duncan. The woman calls out, “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”. Various psychologists agree that such delusions of grandeur and trouble separating fantasy from reality are signs of paranoid schizophrenia. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, ‘People who suffer from paranoid schizophrenia may ‘lose touch’ with some aspects of reality, believing in delusions that aren’t genuinely plausible.’ This fanatic episode of delusion is particularly significant to Lady Macbeth’s downfall, for it marks the first step of her mental deterioration.
Hallucinations are another symptom of mental illness present in Lady Macbeth’s character. In Act 5, the doctor sees Lady Macbeth rub her hands as though washing them. The blood she imagines is symbolic of inescapable guilt. She realises that she was the indirect cause for all the subsequent murders after Duncan, as Macbeth’s villainous actions were an outcome of her own manipulation. She says, ‘The Thane of Fife had a wife; where is she now? What, will these hands ne’er be clean?” The blood appears to stain her hands, just as her conscience is tainted with the guilt of the murders Macbeth ordered. This creates a contrast to after Duncan’s murder when she told Macbeth ‘A little water clears us of this deed: / How easy is it then?’, as if he could simply wash away his wrong doings. With this new perspective, she realises nothing can erase the errors that she has committed. The hallucinations worsened when she loses control of her power in her house, as Macbeth becomes more dominating and controlling, connecting to her loss of control over her own mind. When a person has paranoid schizophrenia, they see, hear, or smell things that others do not. These paranoid hallucinations reflect profound fear and anxiety along with the loss of the ability to discern what is real and what is not. ‘You might see things that aren’t really there,’ observes doctor Neil Lava. These hallucinations mark the next step in Lady Macbeth’s decline into insanity as her guilt and mental stress become too great for her reality to handle.
In the very same scene, Lady Macbeth’s actions are characterized by sleepwalking, the third symptom of paranoid schizophrenia demonstrated in the play. This scene of sleepwalking shows the results of Lady Macbeth’s surrender to evil at the beginning of the play. It reveals the suffering of a tormented soul on the verge of a complete breakdown. ‘This is her very guise; and, upon my life, fast asleep. Observe her, stand close’ says the gentlewoman as she and the doctor watch Lady Macbeth. The line reflects the doctor’s earlier statement; ‘A great perturbation in nature, to receive at once the benefit of sleep, and do the effects of watching’. Towards the end of her life, Lady Macbeth falls into the pattern of sleepwalking, reliving her feelings of extreme guilt even while asleep. Sleepwalking is a common symptom of paranoid schizophrenia as the person is consumed by their delusions even while asleep, symbolising the breaking point of many people’s minds. ‘It affects the person’s thought processes and makes it difficult to think clearly,’ reads an article on Medical News Today. This scheme is significant because it shows Lady Macbeth’s final step and completion of her descent into madness.
A smaller, less common symptom of paranoid schizophrenia that is apparent in Lady Macbeth’s actions is the removal from social interactions. This self-exclusion first starts with the deterioration of her relationship with Macbeth. He no longer confides in her, denying her knowledge of his plans for Banquo in Act 3; ‘What’s to be done? / Be innocent of the knowledge, dear chuck, / Till thou applaud the deed’. Their husband-wife relationship deteriorates as Lady Macbeth’s disillusionment grows and Macbeth becomes more merciless. Even after making an effort to redeem him in the banquet scene, her exhaustion is evident as she realises she has failed to save him, her power over him being greatly diminished. As a result of this failure, Lady Macbeth removes herself from social contact, only being seen when she sleepwalks. According to a study done by the National Center for Biotechnology Information, ‘the vast majority of patients with schizophrenia report sleep abnormalities, which, in the most severe of cases, can lead to a heightened likelihood of suicide.’ This symptom of sleepwalking stems from the fact that people with paranoid schizophrenia become consumed by their delusions so they withdraw themselves from society, as Lady Macbeth does in the play.
Of all the tragic characters portrayed in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Lady Macbeth is the single most tormented and unstable character. Her once determined will is broken, her conscience overcome with guilt. She suffers from delusions, hallucinations, sleepwalking and isolation from society. Were Lady Macbeth alive today, her actions would suggest that she has paranoid schizophrenia due to the deterioration of her mental state. Shakespeare’s insight and knowledge about the human mind and its corruption by ambition is shown powerfully in the stark contrast between the proud lady of the first Act and the shattered being in the fifth. The Queen of Scotland gets herself caught in a downward spiral into insanity. As a result of being unable to endure her sufferings, she finds death by her own hand, causing her suffering to have had no value. As Macbeth so wisely says, ‘Life is a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing’.
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