Notes on the Theme of Guilt in Macbeth by William Shakespeare

Only a person who knows good from bad will feel the guilt for doing something wrong. Guilt is one of the most important thematic concerns of the play Macbeth. Macbeth, the play’s protagonist has a strong sense of good and bad but his unsettling ambition overpowers his conscience.

His ambition is due to his lust for power for its own sake. He doesn’t want power for the responsibilities which comes along with it. So, after killing Duncan, ascending his throne, he does such deeds which he didn’t know of earlier and his inability to contain his conscience against the realisation of such misdeeds descends him into guilt and disintegration. 

At the beginning of the play, we see King Duncan genuinely acknowledging Macbeth’s bravery and grandeur as a fighting and victorious general but Macbeth’s heart is already corrupted by prophecies of the three witches.

His conflict is his knowledge of how he looks like and what he really is. He says, “let not light see my black and deep desires…yet let that be which the eye fears, when it is done, to see.” 

By scene 7 in Act 1, Macbeth hesitates by saying, “we will proceed no further in this business. He hath honoured me, of late, and I have bought golden opinions from all sorts of people, which would be worn now in their newest gloss, not cast aside so soon.

This is where the playwright shows that the character is going to feel guilty. His awakened conscience is suppressed under the provocations made by Lady Macbeth. Both of them are to realise the graveness of their error and disintegrate inwardly.

The first psychic effect of his inner guilt is physically illustrated when he hallucinates of a bloody dagger in Act 2. Lady Macbeth’s vulnerability to guilt is first shown when she thought of her father while looking at King Duncan asleep.

When Macbeth has finally committed the murder, he shouts, “sleep no more, Macbeth does murder sleep.” It means, he is going to be haunted by his conscience and confirming it he says, “I am afraid to think what I have done. Look on’t again I dare not.” 

As a vastly imaginative character, Macbeth summons vast visuals to express his tremendous guilt. He says, “Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood clean from my hand? No, this my hand will rather the multitudinous seas incarnadine, making the green one red.

Lady Macbeth combats to this with her already vulnerable self by saying, “My hands are of your colour, but I shame to wear a heart so white.” This tells us how the guilt has already started dividing their inner selves.

Afterwards, every time they mention the word “blood” it signals the further intensification of their guilt. Ironically, it is Lady Macbeth who first succumbs to her guilty conscience and descends into madness and finally dies.

Afterwards, Macbeth gives upon any reason and his final battle is almost suicidal. Macduff, a secondary character shows guilt too for abandoning his family but it is the guilt of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth which drives the plot and gives us an everlasting moral.