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Shakespeare’s Macbeth – Macbeth’s Guilt

Macbeth’s Implacable Guilt

The Shakespearean tragedy Macbeth underscores the important and usually unforeseen effect of sin, that of guilt. The guilt is so deep that Lady Macbeth is pushed to suicide, and Macbeth fares only slightly better.

Blanche Coles states in Shakespeare’s Four Giants that, regarding guilt in the play:

Briefly stated, and with elaborations to follow, Macbeth is the story of a kindly, upright man who was incited and goaded, by the woman he deeply loved, into committing a murder and then, because of his sensitive nature, was unable to bear the heavy burden of guilt that descended upon him as a result of that murder. (37)

In “Memoranda: Remarks on the Character of Lady Macbeth,” Sarah Siddons mentions the guilt and ambition of Lady Macbeth and their effect:

[Re “I have given suck” (1.7.54ff.)] Even here, horrific as she is, she shews herself made by ambition, but not by nature, a perfectly savage creature. 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)

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)

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

Lady Macbeth is of a finer and more delicate nature. Having fixed her eye upon the end – the attainment for her husband of Duncan’s crown – she accepts the inevitable means; she nerves herself for the terrible night’s work by artificial stimulants; yet she cannot strike the sleeping king who resembles her father.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as the Fools of Hamlet

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as the Fools of Hamlet

In William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Prince Hamlet replaces the letter that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are carrying to England with a forgery of his own making, thus sending these two men to their deaths. He does this without giving it a second thought and never suffers from any guilt or remorse for his actions. Considering that these two men were friends from his youth, this would at first glance seem to reflect poorly on his character. However, one must consider carefully the characters of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern before passing judgment on Hamlet.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are sent for by the King and Queen to spy on Hamlet and learn why he “puts on this confusion” (III, i.2). While some are fooled by Hamlet’s act of insanity, the king is not. He is convinced that it is an act and, being a sly man himself, he suspects that Hamlet is up to something. Having obtained the throne through deceit and murder, he believes Hamlet capable of the same. While King Claudius is evil, he is not a fool and he would never have sent for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern if they were such close friends of Hamlet. They are even told outright that they will be rewarded for their efforts (II, ii. 21-6).

The very fact that they undertake this task for the king is proof enough of their lack of love and loyalty toward Hamlet. Despite their actions, Prince Hamlet gives them ample opportunity to show their loyalty by admitting that they were sent for and why. By showing so much reluctance, they show themselves to be allied with the king. Hamlet asks them to “be even and direct with me, whether you were sent for or no.” But after this direct question, Rosencrantz s…

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…let’s warning. Either way, they are indeed fools and they die a fool’s death in the end. They carry in the form of a letter, the king’s command to have Hamlet beheaded upon his arrival in England. Hamlet switches the letter with a forgery and seals it with a likeness of the king’s seal. The new letter orders the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, thus they handcarry their own death sentences to their executioners. A poetic justice is served to these unfaithful “friends.”

Works Cited

Frye, Northrop. 1991. Northrop Frye on Shakespeare London: MacMillan.

Girard, A Theater of Envy: William Shakespeare New York: Oxford University Press, 1991

Shakespeare, William. The Tradegy of Hamlet Prince of Denmark. New York: Washington Square Press, 1992

Watts, Cedric. Hamlet Twayne New Critical Introduction to Shakespeare; Boston: Twayne, 1988.

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