The Guilt of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth Essay

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Characters in the Shakespearean tragedy Macbeth scarcely feel guilt - with two exceptions: Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. In this essay let's consider their guilt-problem.

In his book, On the Design of Shakespearean Tragedy, H. S. Wilson comments regarding the guilt of the protagonist:

It is a subtler thing which constitutes the chief fascination that the play exercises upon us - this fear Macbeth feels, a fear not fully defined, for him or for us, a terrible anxiety that is a sense of guilt without becoming (recognizably, at least) a sense of sin. It is not a sense of sin because he refuses to recognize such a category; and, in his stubbornness, his savage defiance, it drives him on to more and more terrible acts. (74)
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The very use of such a tender allusion in the midst of her dreadful language, persuades one unequivocally that she has really felt the maternal yearnings of a mother towards her babe, and that she considered this action the most enormous that ever required the strength of human nerves for its perpetration. Her language to Macbeth is the most potently eloquent that guilt could use. (56)

Clark and Wright in their Introduction to The Complete Works of William Shakespeare explain how guilt impacts Lady Macbeth:

Having sustained her weaker husband, her own strength gives way; and in sleep, when her will cannot control her thoughts, she is piteously afflicted by the memory of one stain of blood upon her little hand. (792)

The Tragedy of Macbeth opens in a desert place with thunder and lightning and three witches who are anticipating their meeting with Macbeth. Macbeth is greeted by the witches with "hail to thee, thane of Glamis," "thane of Cawdor," and "thou shalt be king hereafter!" When Ross and Angus arrive with news of Duncan's reward ("He bade me, from him, call thee thane of Cawdor"), it is logical for Macbeth to assume that all of the weird sisters' prophecies will come true. At this point in the play there is no guilt felt.

After the king's announcement that "We will establish our estate upon
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