The Theme of Guilt in "Macbeth"

The bloody dagger is one manifestation of the Scottish king's remorse

Macbeth and the witches

Francesco Zuccarelli / Wikimedia Commons 

One of Shakespeare's most famous and fearsome tragedies, "Macbeth" tells the story of the Thane of Glamis, a Scottish general who hears a prophecy from three witches that he will one day be king. He and his wife, Lady Macbeth, murder King Duncan and several others in order to fulfill the prophecy, but Macbeth is wracked with guilt and panic over his evil deeds. 

The guilt Macbeth feels softens the character, which allows him to appear at least slightly sympathetic to the audience. His exclamations of guilt before and after he murders Duncan stay with him throughout the play, and provide some of its most memorable scenes. They're ruthless and ambitious, but it's their guilt and remorse which are the undoing of both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. 

How Guilt Affects Macbeth — and How It Doesn't

Macbeth’s guilt prevents him from fully enjoying his ill-gotten gains. At the start of the play, the character is described as a hero, and Shakespeare persuades us that the qualities which made Macbeth heroic are still present, even in the king's darkest moments. 

For example, Macbeth is visited by the ghost of Banquo, whom he murdered to protect his secret. A close read of the play suggests that the apparition is the embodiment of Macbeth’s guilt, which is why he nearly reveals the truth about King Duncan’s murder.

Macbeth's sense of remorse is apparently not strong enough to prevent him from killing again, however, which spotlights another key theme of the play: a lack of morality in the two main characters. How else are we expected to believe Macbeth and his wife feel the guilt they express, yet are still able to continue their bloody rise to power?

Memorable Scenes of Guilt in Macbeth

Perhaps the two best-known scenes from Macbeth are based on a sense of dread or guilt that the central characters encounter.

First is the famous Act II soliloquy from Macbeth, where he hallucinates a bloody dagger, one of many supernatural portents before and after he murders King Duncan. Macbeth is so consumed by guilt that he's not even sure what's real:

Is this a dagger which I see before me,
The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee.
I have thee not, and yet I see thee still.
Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible
To feeling as to sight? Or art thou but
A dagger of the mind, a false creation,
Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain?

Then, of course, is the pivotal Act V scene where Lady Macbeth tries to wash imaginary bloodstains from her hands. ("Out, out, damned spot!"), as she laments her role in the murders of Duncan, Banquo, and Lady Macduff:

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.

This is the beginning of the descent into madness that ultimately leads Lady Macbeth to take her own life, as she cannot recover from her feelings of guilt.

How Lady Macbeth’s Guilt Differs From Macbeth's

Lady Macbeth is the driving force behind her husband’s actions. In fact, it could be argued that Macbeth’s strong sense of guilt suggests that he would not have realized his ambitions or committed the murders without Lady Macbeth there to encourage him.

Unlike Macbeth’s conscious guilt, Lady Macbeth’s guilt is subconsciously expressed through her dreams and is evidenced by her sleepwalking. By presenting her guilt in this way, Shakespeare is perhaps suggesting that we are unable to escape remorse from wrongdoing, no matter how feverishly we may try to cleanse ourselves. 

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Jamieson, Lee. "The Theme of Guilt in "Macbeth"." ThoughtCo, Oct. 29, 2020, Jamieson, Lee. (2020, October 29). The Theme of Guilt in "Macbeth". Retrieved from Jamieson, Lee. "The Theme of Guilt in "Macbeth"." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 21, 2023).