Published 31 Aug 2016
The Symbol of Sleep and Sleeplessness In Macbeth
In William Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” there are a number of symbols and themes used to portray evil and the emotions of the protagonist and his wife. None of these is more effective that the use of sleep, or sleeplessness. This metaphor is used in two different ways. It is used as a representation of the character’s guilt and fear and it is also used to symbolize a lifespan; as a miniature life and each morning, each character is born anew. The concept of nighttime, sleep time, being used to plot and enact evil deeds is prevalent throughout the play. The focus on sleep throughout the play give a general idea of how important the symbolism is and how it plays into the action on stage.
One reason the character of “Macbeth is so dreadfully interesting [is] because it is his intense inwardness that always goes bad, and indeed keeps getting worse down to the very end” (Bloom). Studying Macbeth’s character ties directly into the meaning of sleep in the tragedy. When a person goes to sleep, a peaceful night’s rest is often associated with a clear conscience, whereas sleepless nights insinuate guilt. “Macbeth” uses this tool to establish Macbeth’s and Lady Macbeth’s frame of mind throughout the play. Even as sleep portrays the deeper, and guilty, countenance of the Lord and Lady, it also conveys the innocence of other characters, such as Duncan who is sleeping peacefully when Macbeth slays him.
The first hint that the king will be slain while he sleeps is in Act I, scene V when Lady Macbeth says to Macbeth, “O never / Shall sun that morrow see!” (62-63). Lady Macbeth greedily plots with the unsure Macbeth to kill the innocent Duncan in his sleep. In the next scene, she uses the analogy of sleep to describe Macbeth’s hope of becoming king, “Was the hope drunk / Wherein you dressed? Hath it slept / since? / And wakes it now, to look so green and pale” (I, VII, 9-12). She is referring to Macbeth’s lack of fortitude for aspiring and planning to become king.
The idea of sleep equaling death which translates into peace is an important one in “Macbeth.” In act II, when speaking to Lady Macbeth, Macbeth describes the words he heard cry out, “‘Sleep no more!’ to / all the house: / ‘Glamis hath murdered sleep, and therefore / Cawdor / Sleep no more; Macbeth shall sleep no / more'” (II, 40-45). This scene occurs immediately following the assassination of Duncan when Lady Macbeth is still sure of the plans she has made and Macbeth is still reticent about them. Macbeth hears a mysterious voice calling out that he will no longer rest, no longer find the peacefulness of sleep. What this statement means to Macbeth is that he will never find peace, even in death. “Unfortunately for Macbeth, he has lost that immortality. A mysterious voice has told him that he is doomed to sleep no more because he has murdered the innocent sleep, surely one of the saddest concepts to be found anywhere in literature” (Delaney). Macbeth has lost the immortality of an endless sleep in death.
The time of sleep, nighttime, is used to convey evil doings and plotting. Lady Macbeth uses the time of Duncan’s sleep to plan the murder and Macbeth uses nighttime, sleep time, to plan additional murders. Duncan is asleep when he is sent to ever-after, into a permanent sleep, a time of evil (nighttime) into an act of evil (murder). The contrast of an innocent man being killed while he is asleep, dreaming peaceful dreams reveals just how insidious the evil present is.
Lady Macbeth also lures the innocent grooms to sleep with wine during the murder and them blames the murder on them, “[these daggers] must lie there : go carry them : and / smear / the sleepy grooms with blood” (II, II, 47-49) This is another example of how the peacefulness of sleep is used against the innocent as a breeding ground for evil.
The theme of sleep also lends itself to the concept of a day being a miniature lifetime, where waking up is birth and going to sleep means death. “In saying that sleep is the death of each day’s life, Shakespeare puts the emphasis on life rather than on death” (Delaney). Lady Macbeth herself makes this connection in Act II, “Give me the daggers : the sleeping and the / dead / are but as pictures : Tis the eye of childhood / that fears a painted devil” (II, 54-55). She is likening sleep and death to a mere image, an illusion, which is not to be feared.
In the beginning of the play, it appears as though Lady Macbeth has no conscience; that she is merely ambitious for her husband and wants him to rise to the throne at all costs. As the play moves forward, Lady Macbeth begins to demonstrate a deeper conscience that originally perceived. After Duncan is killed, she makes excuses for why she could not complete the murder herself, though instigating the action from Macbeth is just as devious: “Had he not resembled / my father as he slept, I had done” (II, II, 12-13). This is the first introduction of her conscience. As more time goes by and Lady Macbeth sees the effect that Duncan’s murder wreaks on Macbeth, her guilt grows and festers, not only for Duncan’s murder but for the effect that murder had on her husband. It culminating in sleepless nights and sleepwalking, uttering the famous line, “Out, damn spot! Out, I say . . . who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him” (V, I, 39-45)? She is unable to find the escape of sleep because her conscience has a great weight pressing on it; something she is unable to rid herself with: the stain of Duncan’s blood on her hands. She keeps seeing it there though it is simply an illusion. While there is no physical blood on her hands, there is moral blood as she instigated the murder. Her sleepwalking gives voice to her deepest secrets as she wanders the castle searching for a way to cleanse herself. Her unrest is so great that she eventually elects for the permanent sleep – suicide. Lady Macbeth “literally dies of guilt . . . Dark dreams of murder and violence drove her to madness. The horror of her crimes and the agony of being hated and feared by all of Macbeth’s subjects made her so ill that her death seemed imminent” (Foster). A way to forever release herself from the stain of blood.
By contrast, Macbeth begins the play with a clear conscience and is able to sleep untroubled; however, this soon changes. He does not feel guilt after the murder and his subsequent crowning, so much as the fear that someone will uncover what he has done and try to take his throne. “Macbeth, who starts more tentatively, becomes stronger, or perhaps more inured, as he faces the consequences of his initial crime. When Lady Macbeth dies, “the lady’s death appears to be regarded as a mere inconvenience and Macbeth never even asks how she died. It is one thing to postpone feelings, quite another not to have any” (Frank). Macbeth’s lack of emotion indicates an inability to feel; he has passed so far beyond the acceptable conscience and behavior that he cannot bring himself to show emotion when his wife and partner kills herself. The play examines the effects of evil on Macbeth’s character and on his subsequent moral behavior” (Foster). Macbeth comes to believe that the only way to assuage his fear is to murder anyone that will try to confront him for his crimes. “Macbeth began to have horrible dreams; his mind was never free from fear” (Foster). He plots for Banquo’s death and orders the murder of Macduff’s family because Macbeth knew that the other’s suspected him of deviousness. “[Macbeth] simply murders what is outward to himself, and at the end is not even certain that Lady Macbeth was not outward to himself” (Bloom). Macbeth murders that which is outside himself, but he is also murdering himself in the process. Near the end of the play, Macbeth says that he has “almost forgot the taste of fear” (V, V, 9). His conscience is clearly overwhelmed by his ambition and greed; it has been decimated by evil. The act of killing so many innocents has killed his very conscience. “He knows what he is doing, and his agonizing reflections show a man increasingly losing control over his own moral destiny” (Foster).
Another aspect of sleep in relation to the characters within the play is that sleeplessness is used to symbolize a kind of purgatory. With Lady Macbeth, she is not fully awake so she does not enjoy the benefits of life; nor is she completely asleep, thereby earning her reward in heaven. She is caught somewhere in between. Much like the ghost of Banquo is after he is murdered. Neither dead not alive, he is wandering trying to create internal havoc for Macbeth. Macbeth cannot control of manipulating the ghost he sees and it taunts him with sons down the line who will inherit the throne from him.
“Macbeth” is ripe with illusions and metaphors for sleep; Shakespeare uses it to convey innocence while evil forces are plotting against the characters inside his world. Whether he is referring to the peacefulness of sleep and the dark deeds that occur there or the presence of the growing guilt of Lady Macbeth, sleep is a definite presence in the play and as the characters work through their sleep issues, though they rarely win, it is clear that the purgatory these sleepless individuals will be plagued by a far more insidious enemy – purgatory, where they will have to wander aimlessly, just as they were during the long sleepless nights, for eternity.
- Bloom, Harold. “Introduction.” Bloom’s Modern Critical Interpretations: Macbeth. (1987). Literary Reference Center. Huntington Beach Public Library. 26 May 2009.
- Delaney, Bill. “Shakespeare’s Macbeth.” Explicator. (Spring 2005). 63:4, 209-211. Literary Reference Center. Huntington Beach Public Library. 27 May 2009.
- Foster, Edward E. “Macbeth.” Masterplots, Revised 2nd Ed. (1996). New York: Salem Press. Literary Reference Library. Huntington Beach Public Library. 26 May 2009.
- Frank, Bernard. “Shakespeare’s Macbeth.” Explicator 43:3.(Spring 1985). Literary Reference Center. Huntington Beach Public Library. 27 May 2009.
- Shakespeare, William. “Macbeth.” The Complete Works of William Shakespeare: All the Poems, All the Plays. V 2. New York: Nelson Doubleday Inc., 1962. 792-815.