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I'm looking back on Macbeth, and I'm wondering something that's piqued my interest again. There's a very well-known scene in Macbeth: the blood-spot scene, the hand-washing scene, and other such names. In it, Lady Macbeth goes... somewhat insane:

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.

Before this point, though, I'm struggling to figure out whether Lady Macbeth was foreshadowed to break under stress. She's mostly been removed from the focus of the play at this point, but Shakespeare draws our attention back to her with the intent to communicate that she, too, suffers for her crimes.

Was any breakdown of sanity foreshadowed or hinted at earlier in the play? Is there something I just missed, or is this supposed to be as sudden as it is in practice?

  • Aw, you didn't include the "all the perfumes of Arabia" line :-P Also, the formatting of that quote is a little odd: it looks like prose as opposed to poetry, but then why include line breaks? – Rand al'Thor Jan 21 '17 at 12:38
  • @Randal'Thor I wanted to keep it short ;) And, to be honest, I'm not totally sure what the best way to format it is. If you have a better way in mind, feel free to edit it until it looks right. – Aza Jan 21 '17 at 12:43
  • She does show some, probably justified, fear during the Kings murder but I don't recall any insanity. – Bellerophon Jan 21 '17 at 14:03
  • @Emrakul You can create line breaks by adding several spaces (say, three or four) where the end of the line should be. It was a little unclear to me from your dashes whether those lines are consecutive. Perhaps a forward slash or a line break would make it clearer. Other than that, this is a really interesting question on Macbeth. – ktm5124 Jan 21 '17 at 18:48
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Oh, yeah, she's clearly unstable from the moment we meet her. Even better, she chooses to be unstable. In her very first appearance, she calls on supernatural forces to remove all traces of compassion:

Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full
Of direst cruelty! make thick my blood;
Stop up the access and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
The effect and it! Come to my woman's breasts,
And take my milk for gall, you murdering ministers,
Wherever in your sightless substances
You wait on nature's mischief!

She knows that she has compassion, and wants it gone. That presages both her viciousness and her breakdown over the consequences. This isn't the speech of somebody entirely in her right mind, right from the start.

There's another particularly horrifying sequence:

I have given suck, and know
How tender 'tis to love the babe that milks me:
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have pluck'd my nipple from his boneless gums,
And dash'd the brains out

There's a huge amount to be made of this. There are no other references to the Macs having children, and in particular no sign that Mac was planning to leave the throne to his family. She must have lost a child: a common enough occurrence at the time, but don't be misled into thinking that they were unaffected. In performance, there's a huge well of grief to be had there.

I want to point out one other line, kind of unassuming, but highly effective in performance:

Things without all remedy
Should be without regard: what's done is done.

In context it's very easy to see that as simply callous, telling Mac to man up. But there's an undertone that says, "OK, maybe we screwed up, but it's finished and we can't fix that so there's no point in feeling guilty".

That is the strongest presage of the mad scene: she does feel the guilt, just as she knew she would. It's reflected in her final line:

To bed, to bed! there's knocking at the gate:
come, come, come, come, give me your hand. What's
done cannot be undone.--To bed, to bed, to bed!

She's re-living the moment (thus, the knocking at the gate, introducing the Porter scene). And she repeats her line, this time desperate to forget. She cannot, and soon she will be dead.

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    The ambiguity of Lady Macbeth possibly having lost a child is interesting, since Justin Kurzel's recent adaptation chose to substantiate that even further as part of the Macbeths' characterization. – Cahir says Reinstate Monica Jan 23 '17 at 22:50
  • I keep meaning to see that version. – Joshua Engel Jan 23 '17 at 23:00
  • I saw a really depressing play called Dunsinane, set after Macbeth, featuring Lady Mac (who didn't actually die; the report Mac heard was false) instigating an uprising against the feckless Malcolm, to put her son on the throne. Siward tries to pacify the country, but it all goes to shit. It was a pretty transparent allegory about the Iraq war. Brilliantly done and well acted, but damn depressing. – Joshua Engel Jan 23 '17 at 23:02
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    Back in 1933, when I was but a wee lad, L C Knights wrote an essay called How Many Children Had Lady Macbeth?. The essay starts on page 19 of the PDF, page 15 of the book. – verbose Feb 6 '17 at 6:36

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