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Macbeth And Insanity William Shakespeare English Literature Essay

William Shakespeares Macbeth is a story of greed, treason, and guilt. In the story, we see our protagonist, Macbeth, sink into a state of madness after killing the former king, Duncan. Madness and hallucinations are what drive the story for they become the antagonists of the story and bring about the end of Macbeth. The concept of madness and hallucinations is used very heavily in most of William Shakespeare’s plays, but it is Macbeth that uses this concept to the fullest. Not only does Shakespeare use the idea of going insane to his advantage, he uses them in a way that is based on actual beliefs.

In the late 16th and early 17th centuries, the belief in madness and hallucinations was very biased. Back in those days, it was the church that was in charge; so what they say goes. H. C. Erik Midelfort says “Christian faith so completely dominated that all mentally ill people were regarded as demonically possessed or that the mentally ill were frequently persecuted as witches” (5). This is how insane people were viewed as until the 1800s. Hallucinations were also treated in a similar fashion. They believed that hallucinations by were caused demonic possessions and witchcraft. Seeing how Shakespeare wrote Macbeth in the early 1600s, it seems to be clear where he found his sources for depicting madness.

Though they had little information about madness and hallucinations back in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, people tried to do whatever they could to help those who were insane. Evelyn B. Kelly says “With the development of the Christian church during the Middle Ages, exorcism, shrines, and saints became of great importance for the treatment of mental illness” (144). There were no therapists or psychologists back in those days, so it was up to the community to help the mentally ill. This led to the London's Bethlem (Bedlam) asylum, world’s first mental institution being built. Evelyn B. Kelly went to say this when describing the Bedlam asylum : “The term ‘bedlam’ became associated with chaos, confusion, and poor treatment, which reflected the general attitude toward mental illness at the time” (144). Given the evidence, it seems that not only did the treatments of madness and hallucinations not work, it caused them to get worse.

As the story of Macbeth progresses, the main character, Macbeth’s, sanity spirals to the point of madness. Theoretical physicist Albert Einstein defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” This definition perfectly explains how Macbeth became insane. This is because throughout the story, Macbeth goes on to kill anyone who he believes knows that he murdered Duncan. In Act III scene ii, Macbeth says “We have scotch'd the snake, not kill'd it. She'll close and be herself, whilst our poor malice remains in danger of her former tooth” (III.ii.15- 17). Macbeth believes that if he finishes off the “snake,” then he will be safe. This does not work; for not only does the “snake” not die, its final form grows larger and deadlier. The war at Act V is the final form of the snake. Also, the “snake” is a reference to the snake with Adam and Eve. Macbeth believes that he will be fighting off evil with more evil. This is a one way how Shakespeare makes connections to real life.

In addition to Macbeth losing his mind, he witnesses several hallucinations. The first hallucination was one of a ghostly dagger in Act II scene i. Macbeth sees the dagger and says, "Is this a dagger which I see before me, the handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee" (II.i.33-34). A dagger is what Macbeth used to kill Duncan, so this was a way of foreshadowing what was to come. As the story goes on, the hallucinations become worse and worse. It comes to a point where Macbeth begins to see the people that he killed, like Banquo during the dinner party. It is at the dinner party where Macbeth reaches his climax of madness; standing on the dinner table, and shouting and cursing at nothing, and it is where everyone starts to realize that something is wrong with Macbeth.

Lady Macbeth is also another major character that is overcome by madness. Her threshold to insanity starts at Act I scene v, where she gives a monologue about how she wants spirits to “unsex me here and fill me, from the crown to the toe, top-full of direst cruelty!” (I.v.42-44) Seeing how madness back then was defined as some possessed by a demonic power, Lady Macbeth would undoubtedly be classified as “mad”. The spirits she talks to this scene refers to a demon of some sorts. Through this scene, the reader discovers that not only does Lady Macbeth become possessed by a “demon,” she craves it.

The use of blood in Macbeth plays a critical role that is easily overlooked in regards to mental illness. What seemed to be Shakespeare’s way of entertain the audience is also what drives the entire story. Blood represents guilt; the guilt Macbeth and Lady Macbeth feel for murdering Duncan and others. In Act V scene i, Lady Macbeth has a episode where she sees blood on her hands and is trying to wash it off manically. She says “Here's the smell of the blood still. All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand. Oh, oh, oh” (V.i.45-47). No matter how much Lady Macbeth washes her hands, the stain of blood does not come off. This is because there is no blood on her hands; it is a hallucination. A hallucination that is caused by her guilt of the death of Duncan, sleepless nights, and demonic powers. This scene also depicts how little people knew about what mental illnesses are. The doctor doesn’t have a clue why she is acting the way she is and believes that the disease she has is beyond his expertise. Blood is what drive madness and guilt for the characters in Macbeth. For without the stain of blood, their sins would have been washed away and forgotten.

William Shakespeare brilliantly used the actual beliefs of madness and hallucinations to depict the minds of Macbeth and others. William Shakespeare successfully showed the mind of an insane person, all while adding his own touch into the mix. The way he showed Macbeth’s descent, Lady Macbeth’s lust, and the symbolism of blood was nothing short of masterful. The story Macbeth shows us what happens when you minds slips into darkness and is corrupted by sin and guilt. In the end, we see that you will always lose if you commit sins; one way or another.


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