From The Hysteria of Lady Macbeth. Isador H. Coriat, M.D. Boston: Four Seas Co.
The sleep-walking scene is not mentioned in Holinshed and it must therefore
be looked upon as an original effort of Shakespeare's creative imagination.
Lady Macbeth had none of the usual phenomena of sleep, but she did show with a startling degree of accuracy all the
symptoms of hysterical somnambulism. Somnambulism is not sleep, but a special mental state arising out of sleep through
a definite mechanism. The sleep-walking scene is a perfectly logical outcome
of the previous mental state. From the
very mechanism of this mental state, such
a development was inevitable. She is
not the victim of a blind fate or destiny
or punished by a moral law, but affected
by a mental disease.
It is evident from the first words
uttered by the Doctor in the sleep-walking scene, that Lady Macbeth had had
several previous somnambulistic attacks. That we are dealing with a genuine somnambulism is shown by the description of
the eyes being open and not shut. Now several complexes or groups of suppressed ideas of an emotional nature
enter into this scene and are responsible for it. The acting out of these complexes themselves are based upon
reminiscences of her past repressed experiences.
The first complex relates to the murder
of Duncan as demonstrated in the continual washing of the hands, an act not
seen earlier and here clearly brought out
in the sleep-walking scene. This automatic act is a reminiscence of her earlier
remark after the murder of Duncan, "A little water clears us of this deed."
The second complex refers to the murder of Banquo, clearly shown in the
words, "I tell you yet again, Banquo's
buried; he cannot come out of his grave,"
thus demonstrating that she is no longer
ignorant of this particular crime of her
The third complex entering into the
sleep-walking scene distinctly refers to the
murder of Macduff's wife and children
- "The Thane of Fife had a wife, where
is she now?" Various other fragmentary
reminiscences enter into this scene, such
as Macbeth's terror at the banquet in the
words, "You mar all with this starting,"
the striking of the clock before the murder of King Duncan, and the reading of
the first letter from Macbeth announcing the witches' prophecy. Thus a vivid and
condensed panorama of all her crimes passes before her. Like all reported
cases of hysterical somnambulism, the episode is made up, not of one, but of all
the abnormal fixed ideas and repressed
complexes of the subject. The smell
and sight of blood which she experiences,
is one of those cases in which hallucinations developed out of subconscious fixed
ideas which had acquired a certain intensity, as in Macbeth's hallucination of
the dagger. Since blood was the dominating note of the tragedy, it was evidence of Shakespeare's remarkable insight that the dominating hallucination
of this scene should refer to blood. The analysis of this particular scene also discloses other important mental mechanisms.
There is a form of nervous disease
known as a compulsion neurosis in which
the subject has an almost continuous impulsion to either wash the hands or to repeat other actions almost indefinitely.
As a rule, this compulsion appears meaningless and even foolish to the outside
observer and it is only by an analysis of
the condition, that we can understand its
nature and true significance. The compulsion may arise from the idea that the
hands are soiled or contaminated or there
may be a genuine phobia of infection or
As an example, I had
the opportunity to observe the case of a
young girl who would wash her hands a number of times during the day. She could give no explanation for this impulsion. A psychoanalysis, however, disclosed the fact that the washing of the hands was due to ideas of religious absolution from certain imaginary sins and
arose as an act of defense against imaginary contamination. Now a similar
group of symptoms is found in Lady
Macbeth. In the sleep-walking scene the
following dialogue occurs -
Doctor. What is it she does now? Look, how
she rubs her hands.
Gentlewoman. It is an accustomed action with
her, to seem thus washing her hands: I have known
her continue in this a quarter of an hour.
Then later in the scene, Lady Macbeth speaks as follows, disclosing the complex which leads to this apparently meaningless action. "What, will these hands
ne'er be clean? ... Here's the smell of
the blood still: All the perfumes of
Arabia will not sweeten this little hand."
Here the symptom develops through
Lady Macbeth transferring an unpleasant group of memories or complexes,
which have a strong personal and emotional significance, to an indifferent act
or symptom. The act of washing the hands is a compromise for self-reproach
and repressed experiences. The mechanism here is the same as in the compulsion neuroses, a proof of Shakespeare's
remarkable insight into the workings of the human mind. When the doctor later
states, "This disease is beyond my practise," he expressed the attitude of the
medical profession towards these psychoneurotic symptoms until the advent of
In the words, "Out damned spot - Out
I say," the mechanism is that of an unconscious and automatic outburst. It is
very doubtful if Lady Macbeth would have used these words if she were in her
normal, waking condition. Thus the difference between the personality of Lady
Macbeth in her somnambulistic and in the normal mental state, is a proof of the
wide gap existing between these two types of consciousness.
Lady Macbeth may therefore be
looked upon as possessing two personalities, which appear and disappear according to the oscillations of her mental level.
In her normal, waking state, repression and an assumed bravery are marked. In
the sleeping or somnambulistic state, the repression gives way to free expression
and her innate cowardice becomes dominant. In her waking condition, she
shows no fear of blood, but shrinks from it when in a state of somnambulism.
Her counsel to her husband while awake is that of an emotionless cruelty, while in
somnambulism she shows pity and remorse. If one could believe in the
womanliness of Lady Macbeth, then her sleeping personality must be interpreted
as the true one, because removed from the inhibition and the censorship of voluntary repression.
Thus Shakespeare, with most remarkable insight, has made the sleep-walking scene exactly conform to all the characteristics of a pathological somnambulism
- that is - the subject sees and hears
everything, there is a regularity of development, as the subject repeats the
same words and gestures as in the original experience and finally, on a return to
the normal personality after the attack is
over, there is no memory for the attack,
in other words, amnesia has taken place.
Lady Macbeth's actions during the sleepwalking scene are very complicated, show
a clear memory of her past repressed experiences, in fact, they are an exact reproduction and rehearsal of these experiences. Finally, she shows an amount
of reasoning and association which would be impossible during the annihilation of consciousness during sleep and which only
could have taken place when consciousness was very active.
Thus somnambulism is not sleep, but
an abnormal mental state, distinct from
the ordinary mental state of the subject.
Somnambulism may be defined as a mental state in which the subject possesses
particular memories and does particular
acts, but of which there is no memory on
return to the normal state of consciousness. The amnesia of somnambulism is
of the same nature as all hysterical amnesias, - the subject is incapable of attaching to his normal personality the
memories of the somnambulistic attack.
How to cite this article:
Coriat, Isador. The Hysteria of Lady Macbeth. Boston: Four Seas Co., 1920. Shakespeare Online. 10 Aug. 2010. (date when you accessed the information) < http://www.shakespeare-online.com/plays/macbeth/macbethsleepwalking.html >.