This is a powerful scene in a dramatic play. The scene needs to have impact; it marks an important point, the beginning of the end for the Macbeths. This essay will try to show how Shakespeare has given this scene its impact, what it is that would make the scene dramatic for Jacobean and modern audiences, and to say something about how modern directors have staged it to enhance the dramatic elements for a modern audience.
The scene comes at a dramatic point. Shakespeare has already established a theme of suspense; the scene comes just after we see the English army preparing to fight Macbeth. The fall of the Macbeths, as predicted by the witches, is imminent.
The subject matter of the scene is also inherently dramatic; it shows the mental breakdown of Lady Macbeth.
The portrayal of this inner turmoil is key. This is achieved partly through dramatic irony, where things the unconscious Lady Macbeth says in this scene conflict with her earlier words. For example, in act 3 Lady Macbeth said, “what is done is done”, meaning she would not let the murder worry her, but in this scene she echoes this with “what’s done cannot be undone”. Similarly, where before she said “a little water clears us of the deed”, here we see her washing her hands repeatedly, unable to clear herself completely of the last “spot”. There are other references back to the earlier scene of Duncan’s murder. Her words ” all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand” remind the spectator of Macbeth’s words, after the murder “Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood? Clean from my hand?”.
These verbal reminders both bring back the tension of the earlier scene and help contrast Lady Macbeth’s anguish in this scene, with her previous strength of purpose.
The language Shakespeare uses adds to the drama. Lady Macbeth’s derangement shows in her language:
“The Thane of Fife had a wife. Where is she
now? What will these hands ne’er be clean? No more o’ that”
Lady Macbeth no longer speaks in strong iambic pentameter – her language has disintegrated into choppy prose, with syncopated internal rhyme, for example Fife and wife. We can also see that Lady Macbeth’s thoughts are confused through the way her words sound. The use of short, one-syllable words like Thane and wife means that each word sound heavy and the repetition of the sound ff or th makes the words sound muffled. This is dramatic as we can clearly see Lady Macbeth’s breakdown and confusion. The use of punctuation suggests a staccato delivery, which also conveys derangement:
“Out, damned spot! Out, I say! – –
One: two: why, then, ’tis time to do’t. -Hell is murky!” – –
The short sentences and frequent use of colons, commas and exclamation marks demonstrate dramatically Lady Macbeth’s madness.
The imagery used also adds drama. The imagery used includes such items as blood, the smell of blood, Banquo’s grave, and the need for a light to illuminate the darkness that Lady Macbeth has come to fear. Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking and hand washing are in itself both dramatic metaphors for her inner turmoil.
This scene would have been more dramatic for the Jacobean audience because of their beliefs in the divine right of Kings and their attitudes to suicide. During the 17th Century many people believed in the divine right of Kingship; that kings ruled because God chose them and were accountable to no person but God. This is view is reflected in the Doctor’s words “More needs she the divine than the physician”. The doctor, perhaps half realising what has happened, sees her as being in urgent need of spiritual assistance. The Jacobean audience, knowing, what has happened, would agree. As kings ruled by God’s authority it was blasphemous to oppose them. This idea of the divine right of Kings was topical when this play was written. In 1609 King James I published ‘Works’ in which he talks about the divine right of Kings.
“Kings are not only God’s lieutenants upon earth, and sit upon God’s throne, but even by God himself called gods.”
Jacobean audiences therefore would have had a special horror of regicide.
The suggestion that the nurse should “remove from her [Lady Macbeth] the means of all annoyance” would also be more dramatic for the Jacobean audience as they had strong views on suicide. For most people suicide was a mortal sin. The act carried strong connotations of shame and horror. Suicides were refused burial on consecrated ground and often their property was confiscated. Again this was topical. Three years before this play was written Sir Walter Raleigh, a leading figure, made an unsuccessful suicide attempt. Although the way he reacted to his subsequent execution may have persuaded some to rethink, it is likely, however, that many people would have believed that suicide was a great sin, and would have found Lady Macbeth’s thoughts of suicide abhorrent.
Modern audiences generally would not view regicide and suicide with the same horror. However ordinary murder is now less common than in the 17th Century and so perhaps would be more shocking to a modern audience. Also, the modern audience perhaps would more readily understand the power of the unconscious and, after Freud, would recognize the idea of an obsessive guilt manifesting itself in sleepwalking. They therefore perhaps would understand the scene in a different way, but no less dramatically.
In Shakespeare’s time audiences would have to imagine the scene from clues in the language. In this scene, for example, the opening words:
DOCTOR: “I have two nights watched with you”
would tell the audience that it was dark. Modern audiences are not used to this, and rely more on the sophisticated staging techniques now available for both film and theatre. This is recognised in the productions I have seen where effects of scenery, costume and lighting build on Shakespeare’s words.
In the RSC production of Macbeth (1978), starring Judy Dench and Ian McKellen, this scene is staged with nursemaid and doctor in the foreground, and Lady Macbeth in the background. The nursemaid is dressed like a nun. This adds drama as the image of the piety of the nun contrasts with the evil of what the Macbeths have done. Lady Macbeth’s costume also contrasts with that of the nurse. The nurse is predominantly dressed in white, whereas Lady Macbeth wears black, as if to symbolise her evil. As the nurse and doctor talk we can see Lady Macbeth washing her hands repeatedly in the background, which adds tension. Judy Dench also adds drama to the scene through her portrayal of Lady Macbeth. She changes the volume of her voice unexpectedly, which adds to the sense of derangement. This scene is also in semi-darkness, which is more powerful as we imagine their surroundings and we cannot really see what is happening.
The Edward Hall production of Macbeth (2003), starring Sean Bean and Samantha Bond, shows Lady Macbeth as incredibly disturbed. She darts erratically round the castle, which is depicted by scenery with looming walls creating a forbidding atmosphere of a prison, almost hysterical, sometimes screaming in horror, which is very dramatic for the spectator. Lady Macbeth wears black in this production too.
The film version of Macbeth directed by Polanski (1971) is played very differently to these stage versions. Polanski is not restricted by any of the problems of a stage production and can set the scene inside a real Scottish castle. This is dramatic as it is more realistic. Polanski also uses different camera viewpoints to add drama. For example here we see the doctor and Lady Macbeth only through the lattice of a window. Tension is added because we cannot see all the action. Polanski chose to have Lady Macbeth sleepwalking naked. Though nudity would still have had some ability to shock in 1971, overall this is unsuccessful. The nudity makes the scene less dramatic as it draws away the attention from Shakespeare’s words. This version, like the RSC production, chooses to have little or no lighting, which adds drama, as we cannot see quite what is happening.
In conclusion, this scene is key is setting the direction of the action of the remainder of the play and sets up the downfall of the Macbeths. Both Shakespeare and many modern directors have understood the need to make this scene dramatic. Shakespeare ensures that the stage directions, the choice of character, and the language all contribute to the sense of drama. Shakespeare would have had the advantage of an audience that was better able to take clues from the text and understood better than today the horror of regicide and of possible suicide. Modern directors need to appeal to an audience that is less well attuned to the sensibilities that Shakespeare was writing for, but are able to inject drama through dramatic staging or scenery, costume, sound effects, and dramatic lighting. In doing this they are working on foundations that Shakespeare himself built.