Guilt is a very strong, uncomfortable feeling that is often a result of one’s own actions. In the play, Macbeth, the author William Shakespeare uses character development to demonstrate how guilt can be self-destructive and ultimately lead to a negative impact on an individual’s mental stability. Macbeth, Lady Macbeth and Macduff all suffer from a guilty conscience which affects them in different ways but ultimately causes them to behave irrationally. A person’s guilt and disgrace has the power to drive them to insanity and sometimes self-destruction. Macbeth starts out as a brave, heroic individual who is widely respected throughout his country. However, behind the valiant image is a secret that is slowly eating away at him. Macbeth is a murderer. The guilt and shame commence when Macbeth allows himself to be manipulated to commit such a beastly act.
When he first experiences his guilty conscience, he mistakes the feeling as fear. This is first evident just before he murders King Duncan and Macbeth has a vision of an imaginary dagger. “Is this a dagger which I see before me,/ the handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee.” (2.1.33-34). He realizes that the dagger is just an image in his mind, but decides that it is a result of his fear and continues with the task. This is the first point where Macbeth shows a sign of a mental breakdown, although he is still able to think somewhat rationally. This ultimately evolves into a hardened Macbeth and causes him to continue with his horrific actions until he is out of control. The murder of King Duncan is followed by the murders of many others, including his closest friend Banquo.
The build-up of guilt begins the affect Macbeth’s mental state more and more until he can no longer think straight. He begins to hallucinate and on occasion has visions of the ghost of Banquo. The ghost first appears at the banquet, where Macbeth sees the bloody image of Banquo sitting at the dinner table. His horrific reaction alone shows the guilt he has for the murder, and the fact that no other guests at the banquet are aware of the ghost confirms that the ghost has been made up in Macbeth’s head. This is the point at which the mental illness begins to take over, causing Macbeth to behave insanely as well. The guilt and shame of his actions is what in the end destroys him. The murder of Macduff’s family is the main example of how rampant he becomes; it is the unnecessary murder of the complete innocent.
Macbeth’s disgrace is obvious near the end of the play, where he informs Macduff that he would not harm him as he is already guilty of murdering his whole family. “But get thee back; my soul is too much charged/ With blood of thane already” (5.8.6-7). He proves this when he has an opportunity to kill Macduff but instead backs down. This is the point in the play that represents the self-destruction of guilt. Out of revenge, Macduff soon after slays Macbeth, taking his life. With such a build up of guilt and shame driving him to the point of insanity, Macbeth’s mental instability eventually took over and led him to his own destruction. Macbeth’s wife experiences similar guilt, although is affected by it in a different way. Lady Macbeth is the individual who first instigates Macbeth to commit his first crime.
She has a considerable amount of ambition for power, and is not afraid to execute any kind of horrific offence in order to get the power she wants. After the murder of the King, Lady Macbeth does not show signs of disgrace like her husband, in fact she tells Macbeth that they need to forget about the crime all together. “Things without all remedy/ Should be without regard: what’s done is done.” (3.2.13-14). However, guilt still haunts Lady Macbeth, but it haunts her in her subconscious. She makes it clear that she is unable to sleep at night and that she is disturbed by nightmares. Although, Lady Macbeth is only involved with the initial murder of Duncan, the several murders that follow are out of her control. Her idea of covering up and forgetting about the crime is soon taken over by an out of control guilty conscience.
She begins to show remorse for the actions, but her guilt is what drives her to her insanity. The point at which this is evident is when she is found sleep walking one night. During her soliloquy, memories of the night of the murder tumble out, revealing some of her guilty secrets. “The Thane of Fife had a wife. Where is she now?” (5.1.30). “I tell you again, Banquo is buried; he cannot come on’s grave.” (5.1.44). This is also the point at while Lady Macbeth’s mental instability begins to show. She starts hallucinating that she has blood on her hands from the murder that she cannot seem to wash off. “Out, damned sport! Out, I say!” (5.1.25). Lady Macbeth’s shame overpowers her, leaving her incapable to think or act rationally and her conscience is what ultimately causes her to take her own life. Lady Macbeth loses control of her emotions and guilt and her shame overwhelms her to the point of suicide.
Macduff is another character who is consumed with guilt as well, but for a different reason. His guilt is not for any crimes he has committed, but it is a result of one of Macbeth’s. Macduff leaves his family alone at their house in Scotland, while he travels to England in order to gather forces to stand against Macbeth. Because of this, Macbeth sees him as a threat to his power and does anything he can to stop him, just as he has to any other individuals who came across as a threat. While Macduff is away, Macbeth murders his wife and children, as well as any employees found in his house. Macduff blames himself and feels guilty for leaving his family alone to be slaughtered. “Sinful Macduff,/ They were all struck for thee! Naught I am,/ Not for their own demerits, but for mine,/ Fell slaughter on their souls.” (4.3.231-234).
Macduff then shows his firsts signs of inability to think rationally as a result of this guilt. His immediate reaction Is revenge on Macbeth, and he is then driven by the idea of his murder. Macduff vows to kill Macbeth on his own blade. When he achieves his wish of revenge and frees the country of Macbeth’s tyranny, he does so in a way that was no better than the acts of Macbeth. Even when a person’s guilt is brought upon them by an act which is out of their control, it can still affect their mental state and cause them to lose control of their emotions.
No matter the individual, or their title, guilt can take over anyone. Both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth had guilt that led to their own self-destruction. Macduff’s led to an irrational decision and a result no better than that of Macbeth’s actions. When individuals allow their emotions take over their actions it to a lack of ability to reason, it can drive a person mad and ultimately lead to their own downfall.