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The Theme of Guilt in William Shakespeare’s Tragedy of Macbeth

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In William Shakespeare’s, The Tragedy of Macbeth, the theme of guilt as its own form of punishment plagues the minds of several main characters throughout the play. Guilt as its own form of punishment prevents characters such as, Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, and Macduff, from living normal lives and carrying out their god given duty. In the beginning of the play Macbeth is widely respected by everybody, and as the play goes on he makes a number of bad choices. As a result of his actions he suffers from guilt and this takes a heavy toll on him and his character. It is through the main characters of Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, and Macduff that this theme of guilt as its own form of punishment is portrayed.

Macbeth’s conscience is affected further after he decides to kill Banquo. This is portrayed when Macbeth and Lady Macbeth hold a banquet at their home. After hiring murderers to kill Banquo, Macbeth enters into the banquet and goes to sit at the head of the royal table but sees Banquo’s ghost sitting in his chair. Macbeth is horrified to see Banquo, and speaks to the ghost: “Thou canst not say I did it. Never shake Thy gory locks at me.” Banquo’s ghost is invisible to the rest of the audience and everybody is utterly confused. To prevent Macbeth confessing what he has done, Lady Macbeth takes Macbeth to bed and lets him rest. The quote comes immediately after Macbeth sees Banquo’s ghost. Banquo’s ghost shames Macbeth which brings criminality to Macbeth, which eventually pushes him deeper into guilt. In front of the whole banquet, Macbeth cannot resist himself from acting crazy, which shows that his criminal side cannot be hidden. Macbeth had turned himself into a murderer, from a brave and courageous man. He cannot believe that he had actually committed a crime this bad just to become a king. Macbeth inner-being also seems to be further tarnished after he kills Duncan. He begins to become paranoid and having hallucinations, hearing voices saying, “Sleep, Sleep no more! For Macbeth has murdered sleep”. Macbeth is now punished with the remembrance of past sins in which he has committed. It started with him seeing the “ghost” dagger after killing Duncan, and now he sees Banquo’s ghost in his chair. Macbeth has come to a point where he feels as though he can’t trust anyone, so he goes and has one of his closest friends killed. “His fear of earthly justice compels him to make more inhuman choices. He proceeds with the plan to place the blame upon the grooms and kills them before they can establish their innocence. He believes Banquo suspects him and attempts to have Banquo and Fleance killed, succeeding only with Banquo’s death and Fleance’s escape”. Macbeth is fearful that Banquo may have knowledge about who committed to murder of Duncan, which causes for Macbeth to make a dreadful decision that will ultimately affect him long term. Macbeth also does anything to make sure that he is in his wanted place of power, “Macbeth’s ambition leads him to secure his power; he overlooks his guilt and focuses on doing whatever it takes to hold onto his authority.” 

Seemingly just like Macbeth, at the beginning of the play Lady Macbeth is seen as a strong character, but this changes as the play goes on due to her guilt. After helping Macbeth to kill Duncan, Lady Macbeth is left with blood on her hands and she furiously tries to wash it off. The blood stain is the continuous reminder of her helping to kill Duncan. Lady Macbeth desperately tries to get the blood stain off of her hands but it ultimately does not end well: “Out, damned spot; out, I say. One, two, – why, then ‘tis time to do’t. Hell is murky. Fie, my lord, fie, a soldier and afeard? What need we fear who knows it, when none can call our power to account? Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him.” Lady Macbeth seems to have gone insane, because she keeps seeing the blood stain that will not go away. Lady Macbeth’s conscience constantly haunts her and also reminds her of all the crimes she had committed. She constantly rubs her hands to get rid of the blood, but it will never go away. Lady Macbeth’s constant rubbing of her hands leads to insanity and eventually to suicide. Lady Macbeth says, “These deeds must not be thought after these ways; so, it will make us mad”. Lady Macbeth is stating that she and Macbeth should pay no mind to it and ignore this circumstance in which they are in. Lady Macbeth feels if they spent too much time thinking on their crimes they would begin to feel guilty. Lady Macbeth uses the word “will” to help describe the guilt towards one’s action. Lady Macbeth is not saying guilt will affect her, but instead she suggests that it will “attack” her and she will be overtaken by this feeling.

The guilt from helping to kill Duncan leads to Lady Macbeth being punished with a constant reminder of her actions: “Though Macbeth gains in wealth and stature, his nightmares are relentless; he can fool his subjects but not his dreams. Similarly wracked by guilt, Lady Macbeth starts to sleepwalk, rubbing at her hand to erase the evidence of her crimes.” Both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth receive some type of punishment for the crimes in which they commited.

Macduff experiences guilt in a different way than Lady Macbeth and Macbeth. Macduff does not come across hallucinations or sleepwalk from his guilt, he grieves for his guilt. Macduff left his family unprotected at his castle and traveled to England. While Macduff was away, Macbeth sent a murderer to kill his family. Eventually word gets out, and Ross goes to Macduff and tells him about what happened to his family. The stress and anger of having his family killed, made Macduff seek revenge on Macbeth. Much like Lady Macbeth, Macduff let his heart fill with pure evil, which gave him motivation to kill Macbeth. Macduff’s guilt become apparent when he says, “Tyrant, show thy face! If thou beest slain, and with no stroke of mine, My wife and children’s ghosts will haunt me still. I cannot strike at wretched kerns, whose arms, Are hired to bear their staves”. Macduff is very well determined to kill Macbeth, after the brutal murder of his family. Even though it may not have been Macduff’s fault that his family had been killed, Macduff still felt like he was the reason they died after he had left them behind with no protection. Another instance in which Macduff feels guilt as its own form of punishment is after the killing of Duncan. As Macduff is checking in on Duncan in the morning he comes across and horrifying scream and yells: “O horror, horror, horror! Tongue nor heart cannot conceive nor name thee! Confusion now hath made his masterpiece. Most sacrilegious murder hath broke ope. The Lord’s anointed temple and stole thence The life o’ th’ building. Macduff feels guilty for Duncan’s death, as it is his job to wake up the king every morning. He feels like he is responsible for the King and he is the reason for his death. This takes a toll on Macduff, as he continues to feel the guilt for Duncan’s death. From the death of his family and the death of the king, Macduff’s anger grows and soon takes over him. Macduff had it the worse with the past experiences in his life: “Finally, the stress and anger of having his family killed drove Macduff to seek revenge on Macbeth.” Macduff could not take it anymore which eventually drove him to kill Macbeth.

In Williams Shakespeare’s, Tragedy of Macbeth, many characters are overtaken by the guilt from terrible actions in which they committed. Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, and Macduff are led to a life full of killings and anger, that all originated from one murder. In the beginning Macbeth is able to keep his ambition of helping those he is loyal to but after hearing what he could be, he does whatever he can to get there. When Macbeth and Lady Macbeth decide to take extreme measures to try and reach his goal, they are both plagued with guilt and are forever affected by this one action. 

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The Theme Of Guilt In William Shakespeare’s Tragedy Of Macbeth. (2021, March 18). GradesFixer. Retrieved May 21, 2022, from https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/the-theme-of-guilt-in-william-shakespeares-tragedy-of-macbeth/
“The Theme Of Guilt In William Shakespeare’s Tragedy Of Macbeth.” GradesFixer, 18 Mar. 2021, gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/the-theme-of-guilt-in-william-shakespeares-tragedy-of-macbeth/
The Theme Of Guilt In William Shakespeare’s Tragedy Of Macbeth. [online]. Available at: <https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/the-theme-of-guilt-in-william-shakespeares-tragedy-of-macbeth/> [Accessed 21 May 2022].
The Theme Of Guilt In William Shakespeare’s Tragedy Of Macbeth [Internet]. GradesFixer. 2021 Mar 18 [cited 2022 May 21]. Available from: https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/the-theme-of-guilt-in-william-shakespeares-tragedy-of-macbeth/
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