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The Psychoanalysis of Lady Macbeth

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 husband.

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 contamination.

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 modern psychopathology.

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. < >.

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