Unnatural Medicine for an Unnatural Malady

by Joshua H. Liberatore

In the “sleepwalking scene” of Macbeth (V.1), Shakespeare reveals through vivid dramatic flourish the decaying mental condition of Lady Macbeth, who by now recognizes that washing away her murderous sins is not as simple as she once (rather naively) believed (“Go get some water, and wash this filthy witness from your hands,” [II.ii.46]). Now she mutters hauntingly in her sleep, “What, will these hands never be clean,” as the doctor and the gentlewoman piece together the probable cause of her somnolent hysteria (V.i.46). Lady Macbeth, so calm and calculating, even coldly rational throughout the unfolding of the violent conspiracy to which she is party, and who upbraids her husband for his womanly trepidation, is now plagued by nightmarish delusions and unrest. In this critical scene, the reader gets the satisfaction of witnessing Lady Macbeth’s deserved suffering, but it is the secondary characters who connect her madness thematically with the rest of the play.

    One of the first things Lady Macbeth’s observers comment on is her unusual state, framed in the familiar terms of opposition established throughout the drama: “You see, her eyes are open . . . Ay, but their sense are shut” (V.i.27–28). This whispered exchange between the doctor and the gentlewoman, links Lady Macbeth’s psychosis with a series of contradictory pairings: fair vs. foul, daylight vs. nighttime, tenderness vs. savagery, contemplation vs. action, manly decisiveness vs. womanly hesitation. Lady Macbeth has presented the image of sinister strength up to this point in the action of the play; now her moral weakness is suddenly revealed, her internal torment laid bare. Macbeth, who has “supped full with horrors,” has also seen fits of madness, but as the plot unfolds, becomes increasingly inured to the pricks of regret and confusion: he must live with his sins, and endure the “slaughterous thoughts [that] cannot once start me” (V.v.14–15). In its inherent paradox, the act of sleepwalking completes the cycle of oppositions that appear throughout the play and reveal the deeper pathos of its themes: in the perverted moral universe created by the Macbeths, equivocation and duplicity become the only constants. Mere appearances, such as the flight of Malcolm and Donalbain or Lady Macbeth’s hostess cheer, cannot be trusted: “fair is foul and foul is fair.”

    The doctor’s “diagnosis” also links this scene to a critical theme in the drama: the violation of nature’s laws. As a tyrant usurper, Macbeth has perpetrated against a handful of conventional codes governing human action. He has violated nature, and hence, pays the consequences of an unnatural and humiliating death at the hands of his self-created enemies. Likewise, Lady Macbeth’s “unnatural deeds do breed unnatural troubles,” her condition reaching beyond the usual parameters of medical science (V.i.75–76). The doctor, indeed, admits that in such cases, “more needs she the divine than the physician” (V.i.78). Again, the opposition between natural and unnatural, mortal and divine, is ripe with implications throughout the drama. For example, Macbeth boldly claims that he fears no mortal adversary (“What man dare, I dare,” [III.iv.100]), but is entirely unmanned by the sight of Banquo’s ghost, a hint of the divine forces conspired against him.

    The weird sisters’ prophecies convince the besieged Macbeth that he lives a charmed life, but by the final confrontation with Macduff, he despairs that “these juggling fiends [be] no more believed, [they] palter us with a double sense” putting a final word on the theme of equivocation. By the end of the play, we see that each of the witches’ tidings had an underbelly of deception to it, a double significance, the greater truth of which boded the certain demise of Macbeth. In the “sleepwalking scene,” the doctor recognizes—like the old man in an earlier episode who noted that “this sore night hath trifled former knowings” in its aberrance from nature—that he is powerless against the irrational forces of madness (II.iv.3). The doctor intones Lady Macbeth’s dismal fate as a self-contained malady, with no possible remedy: “Infected minds to their deaf pillows will discharge their secrets” (V.i.76–77). Even their confession is a futile act. Later, as Macbeth wonders aloud whether or not the doctor can “minister to a mind diseased,” the response is one that Macbeth himself must reckon with: “therein the patient must minister to himself” (V.iii.45). In the “unnatural deeds” of his design, Macbeth must salve his suffering with his own unnatural medicine: a hastened destruction at the hands of a man “not of woman born,” thus fulfilling the doctor’s timely prescription.

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