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Hidden Guilt and Intention in "Macbeth"

Cara is a student at Florida Atlantic University working towards a BS in management information systems. She writes in her free time.


Revealing heavily-guarded emotions in times of deep despair can invoke a sense of vulnerability in the human mind. Hiding these feelings for too long will result in severe consequences for the guilty and those around them. William Shakespeare, a playwright known for his subliminal messages and reoccurring themes, includes many of these interesting ideas in his work, Macbeth. Macbeth, the co-commander of the military of Scotland, comes across three weird sisters who tell him that they see the position of king in his future. After discovering this news, he falls into a deadly cycle of murder and betrayal, all to receive his spot at the throne and ensure that he keeps it. His wife, an ambitious and audacious woman, convinces him to change from a weak, fearful man into a king. Throughout their journey, this lovely couple learns the true consequences of hiding emotions and intentions behind words and faces, and they pay the price for it. Throughout Macbeth, William Shakespeare repeats the disputed idea of disguises behind words, faces, and hallucinations through the tale of the troubled Macbeth and his journey to the throne and back.

The three witches and Hecate manage to hide their true intentions behind evasive rants and double-edged claims. Their prophecies all come true, but in twisted and different ways than expected. Hecate, the leader of the witches, informs Macbeth that “none of woman born shall harm Macbeth” which leads to Macbeth making the idiotic assumption that a man not woman-born cannot exist and, therefore, nobody can ever harm him (Shakespeare 4.1). However, he does not know that “Macduff was from his mother’s womb untimely ripp’d” and, therefore, does not count as woman born (Shakespeare 5.8). The witches know that Macduff matches the requirements for not woman born, so they word their prophecy to ensure that they lull Macbeth into a false sense of security, only for him to find out that he should have worried all along. In the form of a young child with a tree in his hand, Hecate allays Macbeth by saying that nobody will succeed at removing him from the throne “until Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill shall come against him” (Shakespeare 4.1). Macbeth lets his over-confidence take over here and laughs at the preposterous idea of the woods coming up the steep hill. Hecate advises Macbeth to “be lion-mettled … and take no care who chafes, who frets, or where conspirers are” as an attempt to make him feel even safer (Shakespeare 4.1). Macbeth’s self-esteem continues to exponentially increase and he proves the success of the witches and Hecate later on when he says, “I will not be afraid of death and bane/ till Birnam forest come to Dunsinane” (Shakespeare 5.3). His greatest fears come true when a messenger informs him that “the wood [has begun] to move” (Shakespeare 5.5). One other warning from the witches that Macbeth ignores says he should “beware Macduff… [b]eware the thane of Fife” (Shakespeare 4.1). Since Hecate tells Macbeth the other prophecies, Macbeth does not see it necessary to fear Macduff, since he assumes Macduff cannot bring the forest up the hill. He makes a mistake doing this and partially causes his demise. Had Macbeth prepared for the arrival of Macduff, he might have fought him off for longer and possibly won the fight. Macbeth’s decision to rely on the interpretative words of the weird sisters cost him his sanity, his reputation, and, later on, his life.

Within Macbeth, the characters hide true emotions and intentions behind pleasant-looking faces and facades. Lady Macbeth and Macbeth must watch their facial expressions and put walls up when plotting to kill King Duncan and attempting to hide it. Lady Macbeth begs for night to come to hide her crimes and save her innocence by saying, “Come, thick night… that my keen knife see not the wound it makes” (Shakespeare 1.5). She believes that if nobody sees her commit the crime, the consequences and guilt cannot haunt her. She also warns Macbeth that his face “is as a book where men may read strange matters” as an attempt to convince him of the importance of keeping a straight (but pleasant) expression (Shakespeare 1.5). Lady Macbeth also later instructs Macbeth to “look like the innocent flower, but be the serpent under’t” (Shakespeare 1.5). Her statement serves as an allusion to the Bible, and Herbert R. Coursen Jr. follows this comparison throughout the plot of Macbeth, where he sees Lady Macbeth as the serpent, Macbeth as Eve, and the throne of Scotland as the fruit (Coursen 376). He sees Macbeth’s first murder as the first sin (when Eve ate from the tree of knowledge). Macbeth says, “[f]alse face must hide what the false heart doth know,” meaning that even though his heart feels stomped on, his face must not express any of the pain he feels or he could give himself away and end up dead (Shakespeare 1.7). He knows having his face portray his emotions identifies weakness and causes vulnerability, which can inevitably lead to his doom.

Many characters, through hallucinations and weak moments, let their guards down and reveal deeply-buried secrets. Once he has drunk too much, the Porter rants about how the castle feels like hell and comes to the conclusion that even hell would hate the castle. He explains that “this place is too cold for hell” because an inescapable depression has fallen over Scotland and left it cold and desolate, filled with screams of pain and despair (Shakespeare 4.3). Lady Macbeth lets her guilt take over and her walls collapse, leading her to sleepwalking and hallucinating in front of her servants and her doctor. Each night, Lady Macbeth’s servant watches her “take forth paper, fold it, write upon’t, read it, afterwards seal it, and again return to bed” all while still asleep and has begun to worry for her (Shakespeare 5.1). They realize the power of guilt and fear when Lady Macbeth lets her guard down while sleeping and “[speaks] what she should not…[for only] heaven knows what she has known” (Shakespeare 5.1). Lady Macbeth believes that all the servants have left and confesses to her sins as an attempt for salvation. The doctor attempts to explain this peculiar occurrence to the servant by saying that “infected minds to their deaf pillows will discharge their secrets” (Shakespeare 5.1). Chen-Bo Zhong and Katie Liljenquist explain that “if physical and moral purity are so psychologically intertwined, Lady Macbeth’s desperate obsession with trying to wash away her bloodied conscience … [was not] in vain” (Zhong 1451). “[A]n implicit threat to one’s moral image can produce a psychological need to engage in cleansing behaviors” and can cause anxiety disorders such as anxiety, insomnia, depression and PTSD, which explains why Lady Macbeth’s conscience keeps her up at night and reveals her secrets (Zhong 1452). The porter and Lady Macbeth have guilt that has forced its way up to the surface so that all may know of it. Their facades seem strong when they seem strong, but the second that a crack shows in the foundation (like in a moment of weakness or a hallucination), all of the walls come crashing down.

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Throughout the story of Macbeth, William Shakespeare portrays the idea of double meanings and hidden emotions through the words, facial expressions, and hallucinations of the characters. Hecate and the witches’ prophecies all came true, but in their own twisted way, unique from the original expectation. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth put up walls to keep their facial expressions pleasant and non-revealing, which ensures the safety of their deepest secrets. After drinking a fair amount, the Porter stumbles around the gates of the castle and reveals his true feelings about the castle and its similarities to hell. Similarly, Lady Macbeth’s doctor and servants observe her as she sleepwalks and confesses to the many murders she committed or had a hand in. The characters in this piece of writing all have secrets and hidden intentions that cannot stay buried for long. Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, and the rest of the supporting cast each have a subconscious that sabotages their plans. Macbeth’s face acts like a window into his soul, and Lady Macbeth cannot keep her mouth closed when she sleepwalks. The porter talks when he has drunk too much. The subconscious of each of these characters purposefully releases confidential information as an attempt to attract attention and receive help from others. The human body/mind often reaches a point where it cannot hold a secret any longer. It will purposefully sabotage itself to release the secret and, with that, the cause of their stress and guilt.

Works Cited

Coursen, Herbert R. “In Deepest Consequence: Macbeth.” Shakespeare Quarterly, vol. 18, no. 4, 1967, Accessed 17 April 2017.

Shakespeare, William. “The Tragedy of Macbeth.” Macbeth: Entire Play, MIT, 10 Oct. 2012, Accessed 27 Mar. 2017.

Zhong, Chen-Bo, and Katie Liljenquist. “Washing Away Your Sins: Threatened Morality and Physical Cleansing.” Science, vol. 313, issue 5792, 2006, Accessed 18 April 2017.

© 2018 Cara Savoy

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