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Macbeth Motif of Sleep

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The motif of sleep is vital for our understanding of ‘Macbeth’ as a whole because it conveys how lack of sleep can be caused by overwhelming guilt. Guilt affects Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s sleep throughout the play, it consumes both of them, especially in their dreams and in some cases, they experience hallucinations.

Shakespeare uses sleep as a reward and a consequence by differentiating the innocent from the guilty. The pure characters are rewarded with sleep whereas the non-innocent suffer from insomnia. Macbeth murdered the king while he was sleeping, thus he was vulnerable which is a major contributing factor to why he and his wife cannot sleep during the play.

Sleep and guilt go hand in hand within the plot and they both played an enormous role in our understanding of the play. The play explores the connection between feeling guilty and the effect of this moral turpitude upon sleep. In the play, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth experience insomnia after they murdered the king.

Their dreams were haunted by their guilt which caused them both to suffer severe sleep deprivation and hallucinations. Eventually their guilt causes them both to go insane. They experience hallucinations which the doctor says in this hyperbole ‘A great perturbation in nature, to receive at once the benefit of sleep, and do the effects of watching.” This highlights how they no longer receive the benefits of sleep but instead they only see the effects of hallucinations.

Lady Macbeth starts to decline because of her overwhelming sense of guilt, and she cries, ‘These hands will ne’er be clean.’ This metaphor emphasises that she feels that no matter what her hands will never be rid of the guilt and ‘blood’ that had covered her hands. Guilt and the motif of sleep help us understand the development of the play.

Shakespeare uses sleep as a reward and a consequence throughout the play as those who are innocent reap the rewards of peaceful sleep. The characters who have not done anything to feel guilty are rewarded with sleep. Sleep is vital for a healthy life and when it is taken away it can drive you insane which is the demise of Macbeth.

Macbeth thinks he heard a voice saying, “Sleep no more!” because he feels guilty for killing King Duncan and he suffers the consequence of not sleeping anymore. He killed the king in his sleep and this quote shows how distressed he had become from his actions. Shakespeare implied that even through Macbeth and Lady Macbeth didn’t face formal justice they were punishing themselves. Macbeth said this after killing the king “Therefore Cawdor shall sleep no more, Macbeth shall sleep no more!” It represents how not only they have been punished but so has Cawdor because their political system has become corrupted.

Lady Macbeth suffered from sleepwalking and hallucinations. Without the restorative benefits of sleep, she suffered mental health problems that affected her sanity. She was seeing the murder over and over again and imagining King Duncan’s blood on her hands. The crime she committed had seeped into her subconscious and the unresolved sense of guilt ruined her sleep and wellbeing.

Macbeth killed the King while he was sleeping and understanding the cause and effect of sleep and guilt becomes a major role in understanding the message of the play. When the King was sleeping, he was innocent and defenceless and couldn’t protect himself or his title. Shakespeare developed the characters of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth by exploring their sleepless guilt.

Macbeth yells, “Macbeth does murder sleep,” this personifies him physically murdering sleep. This become his own downfall because after he murdered the King, Macbeth murdered his own sleep. Overtime, Macbeth’s reservations about killing the king faded however they became more intense for lady Macbeth.

Lady Macbeth struggled with sleeping because guilt overcame her, and unlike her husband she never stopped feeling guilty. I think Macbeth felt a sense of power and hierarchy after committing regicide which caused him to organise yet another murder of Banquo, his good friend.

Overall, the motif of sleep is vital for us to understand the play ‘Macbeth’ because it gives us a better understanding of the relationship between guilt and the lack of sleep. Guilt affected the characters of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. The truth of their actions seeped into their unconscious state of mind. Shakespeare used sleep as a reward and a consequence which provides an understanding of crime and power upon human experience. The motif of sleep was central to the plot of Macbeth. All of these points and the motif of sleep became a necessity for us to understand the play.  

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