Michael Delahoyde, PhD

Professor of English


Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University



Macbeth has a chiastic, or X-shaped, structure, charting at once the upward and downward trajectories of its two protagonists. As Macbeth moves downward toward inhumanity and loss of affect, Lady Macbeth moves upward, toward feeling and horror” (Garber 712).

A doctor hears from a waiting-gentlewoman that Lady Macbeth is somnambulistic and seemingly obsessed with an imaginary text. The woman refuses to report on Lady Macbeth’s utterances, which sounds like a bad indication. Lady Macbeth appears, sleepwalking, and the doctor wonders how she got the light she is carrying. “She has light by her continually, ’tis her command” (V.i.22-23). Lady Macbeth delivers the famous and often misquoted line: “Out, damn’d spot! out, I say!” [This is one of my favorite Shakespeare lines, but that’s because I had a Dalmatian.] “The king and queen persist in imagining that physical actions can root out psychological demons, but the play is an exposition of how wrong they are” (Macrone 106). Lady Macbeth notices that “Hell is murky,” and remarks, “Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?” (V.i.36-40). She experiences olefactory hallucinations too: “Here’s the smell of blood still. All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand” (V.i.50-51).

Lady Macbeth is haunted by Duncan’s blood, spots, and smells. She utters, “What’s done cannot be undone” (V.i.68), an echo of her own “What’s done, is done” (III.ii.12), but this time with the slight hint of regret, and the thematic “un-” prefix.

She repeatedly mutters, “To bed, to bed, to bed” (V.i.68), prompting Dr. Brainiac to ask, “Will she go now to bed?” (V.i.69). He comments on “infected minds” (V.i.72): “More needs she the divine than the physician” (V.i.74). And he ends with, “I think, but dare not speak” (V.i.79).

“Traumatized by fear and horror, accused by some of complicity in her husband’s murder, Mary [Stuart] collapsed into a trance-like depression similar to that of Lady Macbeth” (Whalen 60).


Military forces align against Macbeth: Malcolm and an English army, the Duncan kids’ uncle Siward and his son Siward, and Macduff. The battle will probably take place near Birnan wood. Note is made of the fact that Donalbain does not accompany his brother (V.ii.7f), but discussion quickly shifts away from this potentially disturbing detail to the tyrant Macbeth’s unbalanced state of mind. He is obeyed out of fear, not loyalty, and “Now does he feel his title / Hang loose about him, like a giant’s robe /Upon a dwarfish thief” (V.ii.20-22).


Macbeth, repeating mantra-like the prophecies that seem to assure him safety, nevertheless plays the petty, abusive, tyrannical maniac with servants (one is named Seyton) and demanding his armor as a sort of reassurance of his former identity — now physicalized into the shell of metal. But he also says this:

I have liv’d long enough: my way of life
Is fall’n into the sear, the yellow leaf,
And that which should accompany old age,
As honor, love, obedience, troops of friends,
I must not look to have; but in their stead,
Curses, not loud but deep, mouth-honor, breath,
Which the poor heart would fain deny, and dare not.

Pretty damn good, Shakespeare.

The doctor declares Lady Macbeth’s problem mental, not physical — a matter of “thick-coming fancies, / That keep her from her rest” (V.iii.38-39). Macbeth responds sarcastically,

Cure her of that.
Canst thou not minister to a mind diseas’d,
Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow,
Raze out the written troubles of the brain,
And with some sweet oblivious antidote
Cleanse the stuff’d bosom of that perilous stuff
Which weighs upon the heart?

The doctor says, “Therein the patient / Must minister to himself” (V.iii.45-46). Macbeth shouts, “Throw physic to the dogs, I’ll none of it” (V.iii.47). “It is one of the particularly remarkable passages in Shakespeare, for, of course, we of the twentieth century recognize that Macbeth is asking, and quite accurately, for a psychiatrist” (Asimov 197). Thus Macbeth allows Shakespeare to call for psychiatry as a distinct study from medical science — a paradigm problem for Western culture ever since the first psychologists, trained as medical doctors, applied the terms from medicine (and the treatments — chemicals) to matters of the mind.

He also reflects on the inability of medical science to cure the disease of a nation (V.iii.50ff), anticipating modern notions of institutions as organisms, but also failing to recognize that a fish rots from the head down. In Macbeth, “we see a slow death of the imagination, proceeding from an extreme sensibility through great though self-inflicted suffering to a state of almost complete emotional sterility” (Wells 296).


With a certain environmental insensitivity, the opposing army chops down a forest as camoflage to sneak up on Macbeth and to thwart any attempt at counting their numbers. “The time approaches” (V.iv.16).


Macbeth figures that the castle if sieged will hold. From offstage come the cries of women. Macbeth notes,

I have almost forgot the taste of fears.
The time has been my senses would have cool’d,
To hear a night-shriek, and my fell of hair
Would at a dismal treatise rouse and stir
As life were in ‘t. I have supp’d full with horrors;
Direness, familiar to my slaughterous thoughts,
Cannot once start me.

Seyton enters and laconically reports, “The Queen, my lord, is dead” (V.v.16). We assume Lady Macbeth committed suicide. Macbeth shockingly offers an indifferent “She should have died hereafter; / There would have been a time for such a word” (V.v.17-18) — she’d be dead eventually anyway, but there’s never any time for reflection. Macbeth’s “reaction is less a statement of personal grief than a denial of the validity of human emotion” (Wells 297). He soliloquizes,

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

“Macbeth takes stock of his own indifference to the event. Death … seems to him merely the last act of a very bad play” (Macrone 167). Maybe, but I think it’s a glorious rendering of the monotony of pointlessness. And Charlton Ogburn used to get choked up by this moment, knowing that the playwright had experienced this feeling first-hand.

Hamlet had asked Horatio, “in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain / To tell my story.” Othello requested that his horrified audience “[s]peak of me as I am.” Macbeth alone rejects the tale, and its recuperative powers. For him the image of the world as a stage is not redemptive but a sham and a delusion. (Garber 722)

Reports are that Birnan wood to Dunsinane is a-comin’. Macbeth starts to suspect “equivocation” (V.v.42) in the witches’ prophecy. “In fact, these images of apparent unnaturalism turn out to be natural after all, symbols of health rather than sickness, temporary and necessary inversions of nature brought about so that order may be restored” (Garber 720). Macbeth calls instead for cosmic chaos:

I gin to be a-weary of the sun,
And wish th’ estate o’ th’ world were now undone.
Ring the alarum bell! Blow wind, come wrack,
At least we’ll die with harness on our back.


Malcolm orders the soldiers to throw down the trees. They exfoliate.

Make all our trumpets speak, give them all breath,
Those clamorous harbingers of blood and death.


Macbeth feels like the victim of a bear-baiting (V.vii.1-2). Young Siward (son of Old Siward, y’ see) enters and Macbeth reveals his name. The young git says, “The devil himself could not pronounce a title / More hateful to mine ear” (V.vii.8-9). The name is dramatic, but it has been dehumanized. Macbeth kills this guy, noting, “Thou wast born of woman” (V.vii.11).

Macduff passes through, seeking Macbeth for his own vengeance: “If thou beest slain and with no stroke of mine, / My wife and children’s ghosts will haunt me still” (V.vii.15-16). Malcolm escorts Old Siward into the castle.

SCENE viii

Macbeth makes a good point: “Why should I play the Roman fool, and die / On mine own sword? Whiles I see lives, the gashes / Do better upon them” (V.viii.1-3). Macduff enters and calls Macbeth a “hell-hound” (V.viii.3). Dogs have been used thematically in this play and carry negative connotations. This grim use makes sense, since the dog is a symbol of loyalty and that concept is shot to hell in this play early on.

Macbeth is a bit listless but also seems to feel invincible: “I bear a charmed life” (V.viii.12). Macduff gives him the bad news that he “was from his mother’s womb / Untimely ripp’d” (V.viii.15-16) — a big moment that also connects the pattern of “un-” prefixes with the theme of “time.” But despite the prophecies now spelling doom, Macbeth will not yield to Malcolm nor “be baited with the rabble’s curse” (V.viii.29), but “will try the last” (V.viii.32). “Lay on, Macduff, / And damn’d be him that first cries, ‘Hold, enough'” (V.viii.33-34), shouts Macbeth. And Macduff does lay on. Macbeth is slain, and Shakespeare gives him no dying speech (Wells 298).


Old Siward laments his son’s death but is proud that he died honorably as a soldier — so we’ve got a restoration of good old-fashioned death when a man knew where he was. Macduff brings in Macbeth’s severed head, announcing, “the time is free” (V.viii.21), and all hail Malcolm, King of Whatever, who promises restoration and timely reward. [Historically, Malcolm ended up reigning, with Donalbain waited on the outskirts of the country for 35 additional years (Asimov 197).]

Malcolm announces an end to “thanes,” perhaps an end to the “destructive cycle” of one bloodthirsty traitor replacing another (Garber 723) “My thanes and kinsmen, / Henceforth be earls, the first that ever Scotland / In such an honor nam’d” (V.ix.28-30). “The Scottish title gave way to the English one as the old Celtic language gave way to Teutonic English, so that though Scotland remained politically independent, it became a cultural appanage of the southern kingdom” (Asimov 202).

Malcolm refers one last time to “this dead butcher and his fiend-like queen, / Who (as ’tis thought) by self and violent hands / Took off her life” (V.ix.35-37) — so there’s a last equivocation there too.

So although some balance is restored to the kingdom, there is no change in its value structure. What is restored is the sacred inner circle, in which men are expected to refrain from applying the standards of the outer one: what is reasserted is moral schizophrenia. (French 250)

When we first heard of Macbeth in this play, he was decapitating and eviscerating. So in the end Macbeth himself is decapitated, but whither evisceration? Did it happen metaphorically throughout the play? And what does decapitation symbolize about the consciousness? Hmmm…!


Productions of the play often capture the ambiguous “resolution” at the end. The BBC version hints at tensions between Malcolm and Donalbain, which makes sense given the oddity in Act V, Scene ii. The Polanski 1971 film provides a coda that suggests that the witches will corrupt the next round of Scots. Indeed, how will we get from Malcolm to the Fleance line that was promised to stretch out to the crack of doom? Troubling, eh? And what have we learned? “Macbeth himself can be termed the unluckiest of all Shakespearean protagonists, precisely because he is the most imaginative. A great killing machine, Macbeth is endowed by Shakespeare with something less than ordinary intelligence, but with a power of fantasy so enormous that pragmatically it seems to be Shakespeare’s own” (Bloom 516) “Shakespeare disperses the energies of the mind, so that no single character in Macbeth represents any particular capacity for understanding the tragedy” (Bloom 526). Perhaps “Macbeth reveals how close we who thought ourselves safe may be to the precipice” (Goddard, II 110); “tragedy has to do with men possessing the capacity to become gods who, momentarily at least, become devils” (Goddard, II 115). I know there’s more, but damned if I know what it is! “I think we most identify with Macbeth because we also have the sense that we are violating our own natures, as he does his” (Bloom 534).

Bloom also states that Shakespeare’s Macbeths are “the happiest married couple in all his work” (Bloom 518). For a rather cheeky, in-your-face, but good and engaging web page devoted to Macbeth, see this.