Sleep-Walking Scene in Macbeth: A Masterpiece of Dramatic Art


The famous sleep walking scene (ACT: V, SC: I) in ‘Macbeth’ is, ‘a stroke of creative imagination’, there being no hint of it in Holinshed. For the first and the last time in literature sleep walking is used with great and terrible dramatic effect. Indeed the scene is a masterpiece of dramatic art.

scene from Polanski's Macbeth
It is the scene in which Lady Macbeth is found to be walking in sleep. Lady Macbeth first asleep, is moving with a taper in hand. From the attending woman we come to know that by her instruction a taper is always placed at her bed side for she cannot stand darkness. The dreadful memories of the past led to a disorder of mind. While walking in sleep she speaks incoherently of the horrible past. She rubs her hands and whispers, ‘out, dammed spot’. She utters the words with which she led Macbeth on to the crime! “Fie, my lord Fie! A soldier, and afread? Then the horrible sight of Duncan lying in a pull of blood ever haunts her like a nightmare! Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him. She looks at her hands and cries out, what these hands will never be clean. Next she utters the words with which she chastised her husband at the banquet scene, ‘You married all with the starting’. She seems to hear still the sound of knocking night at the gate at the castle in the down that follows the night of the murder and goes to bed panic stricken.



Thus this scene shows that the imagination of  lady Macbeth has broken  loose and running wild resulting in a serious of incongruous flash backs . This has called for the use of prose which most effectively copes with the broken mumblings of a mind in a state of complete disorder.
 But the most important dramatic function of the scene lies in the fact that it shows that the collapse of Lady Macbeth is now complete. In the earlier scene of the tragedy she appears stronger than her husband. But they have now changed places; Lady Macbeth passed from one desperate action to another. She had on an earlier occasion recommended sleep as the one thing most needed by Macbeth and now her own sleep is afflicted by terrible dream. The sickness of her mind is vividly suggested by her perpetual longing for light and her association of darkness with hell. With Lady Macbeth the curse works itself out, not in fear but remorse; it impels her husband to fresh deeds of blood: she has no hand in any murder but the first. But her sin is ever present to her: awake or dreaming she can think of nothing but that awful night, and the stain upon her hand and soul. At last her over tasked brain breaks down; we witness her mental agony in the sleep-walking scene: " Here’s the smell of the blood still: all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand: oh! oh! oh!" And then she dies, a voluntary and most wretched death.

 Lady Macbeth’s complete collapse in the scene is not at all abrupt and unconvincing. For in the earlier part of the drama there are enough indications suggesting the essential weakness of her nature. As the action of the drama advances because of her constant prick of her conscience. She is more and more relegated to the back ground. After the first crime her husband no longer needs her active co-operation in the murderous deeds that follow. She has no part in the long series of Macbeth’s subsequent assassinations. She is innocent of Banquo’s blood, innocent of the blood of Lady Macduff and her little child. From the very beginning unto her very end, she is essentially a woman. To overcome the weakness which her sex is heir to, she had to invoke the aid of the murdering ministers.
“Come to my woman’s breasts, 
 And take to my milk for gall  ….. ”                                                                                                           
Again she can not enter into Duncan’s chamber for the old king resembles her father:   
 “Had he not resembled   
  My father as he slept, I had done it.”
This speech shows that she has a slaughter concealed underneath her hard relentless exterior. She has also a mother buried within her. That the mother is her is evident in the speech –
“I have given suck, and KNOW
How tender it is for love the babe that milks me.”
To suppress her essential feminine nature she has to take the help of wine. But neither wine, nor artificial strength of mind allow one to go against one’s nature for a long time. The voice of conscience forcibly strangled, reasserts itself and Lady Macbeth begins to sink. When we see her as the queen of Scotland the glory of her dream has faded. She enters disillusioned and weary with want of sleep:“Naught’s had, all’s spent”.
Hence forth, she has no initiative. She has little energy left. The fact is after the initial crime disillusionment and despair prey upon her more and more until she sinks down completely in the sleep walking scene.
 The tragic retribution pierces the soul of Lady Macbeth herself. Sleep that is no sleep becomes her long night agony. She walks in her slumber, and blabs to the dark, that has listening ears, unknown by her, secrets that have blood upon them, washing her miserable hand all murder-stained, and washing in vain. Lady Macbeth is left upon the shore alone. Her occupation is gone, and she has neither imagination nor sympathy to enable her to fill the blank in her life. With her passion consumed her own heart. Her proud will became sapped by remorse: and she, with naked fancy stretched upon the rack, lived a long sleepless dream of hell—a miserable woman, whose nerves, all flayed, were scorched for ever by the hot breath of her sin.
Thus, the sleep walking scene is dramatically most important for bringing out the female effect of the tears growing of Lady Macbeth’s remorse on her. In this scene it is the invisible world of moral reality which is made strongly manifest before our eyes. Lady Macbeth completely over taken by the awful war that is raining in her breast has helplessly broken down. Her feet, her hands, her lips conspire against her in revealing the guilty secrets so long forcibly suppressed.                                           
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An English Teacher;    M. A.(English) , D. Ed., B. Ed., UGC- NET Qualified

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