Guilt is a state of mind in which an individual or group of individuals experiences conflict at having done something that one believes one should not have done. In extreme cases of guilt, the feeling will not go away easily and if it is ignored it may cause people to develop mental illnesses such as depression. In William Shakespeare’s play Macbeth, the idea that guilt cannot be ignored is explored through the main characters, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. Shakespeare explores this idea through the use of symbolism, character development and religious references throughout the play as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth do their best to ignore their guilty conscience after planning and committing the murder of the Scottish king, King Duncan, and the subsequent murders that followed this in order to keep Macbeth on the throne.
Immediately after Macbeth had killed King Duncan his guilt was apparent, though Lady Macbeth’s guilt was not shown until later in the play. When their guilt had finally been acknowledged, neither one of them was willing to take responsibility for their actions and so the guilt continued to eat away at each of them, resulting in devastating consequences for both of them. Perhaps the most obvious technique used by Shakespeare to express the idea that guilt cannot be ignored was Symbolism. Shakespeare consistently employed this technique throughout the play through his reference to blood as a symbol of characters guilt, “Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood Clean from my hand? No this my hand will rather the multitudinous seas incarnadine Making the green one red.” (Act 2, Scene 2). This comment made by Macbeth as he looked at his blood-stained hands immediately after he had “done the deed” and murdered Duncan, showed that he had realized the enormity of what he had just done and that he was immediately regretful and unsure if he would ever be able to forgive himself for what he had done.
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Shakespeare also used blood as a symbol to show Lady Macbeth’s guilt as in act 5 scene 1 she said “Here’s the smell of blood still; all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand” and she eventually killed herself after being unable to get rid of an imaginary spot of blood on her hand, “Out, damned spot! Out I say!” At the beginning of the play, Lady Macbeth was presented to the audience as cruel and ambitious and appeared to be without remorse or regret at the murder that she had initiated. Her character development throughout the play was used by Shakespeare to reinforce the idea that guilt cannot be ignored as her character went from feeling no guilt about Duncan’s murder to feeling so guilty that she ended up killing herself. When Macbeth expressed his immediate regret at killing Duncan, “this is a sorry sight” (Act 2 scene 2), Lady Macbeth replied by telling Macbeth not to think so much about what he had done “My hands are of your colour, but I shame to wear a heart so white.” (Act 2 scene 2).
This cool reaction to Macbeth’s humanity began to disintegrate as the play continued, and by the end of the play, Lady Macbeth felt so guilty about creating the monster that Macbeth became that she started expressing this guilt subconsciously as she slept “The Thane of Fife had a wife. Where is she now? What will these hands ne’er be clean?” this reaction shows how much her character had developed as it was contrasted to Lady Macbeth earlier saying that a little water would clear her and Macbeth of this deed. Through reference to religion, Shakespeare was also able to develop the idea that you cannot ignore the guilt. The belief in God was extremely important during Shakespearian times and it was believed that a king was God’s representative on earth. When Macbeth considered murdering Duncan in Act 1, he felt guilty at even thinking about committing this sin “as his host who should against his murderer shut the door, not bear the knife myself.
Besides, this Duncan hath borne his faculties so meek, hath been so clear in his great office, that his virtues will plead like angels, trumpet-toung’d against the deep damnation of his taking-off. “and he thought that if he murdered Duncan then there would be outrage in heaven. After murdering Duncan, Macbeth realized he had violated what God wanted, and he felt so guilty about this that he was unable to say amen “I could not say ‘Amen’ when they did say ‘God bless us.’” Throughout Macbeth, Shakespeare explored the theme that guilt cannot be ignored without resulting in devastating consequences. Shakespeare was successfully able to cause me to agree with this idea through the use of symbolism, character development and religious references throughout the play as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s guilt over the deeds they had committed resulted in devastating consequences for each of them.