‘Out, damned spot’ is one of the most recognisable phrases uttered by Lady Macbeth in William Shakespeare’s great tragedy. The scene mirrors Macbeth’s earlier references to his own guilt, and acts as a clear indication of how the once-defiant and determined Lady Macbeth, one of Shakespeare’s most fully realised female villains, has become undone by her own conscience. And she reveals all of this while she’s asleep.
Let’s go through the relevant passages from Act 5 Scene 1 of Macbeth, often known as the ‘sleepwalking scene’ featuring Lady Macbeth, offering a summary and analysis of the scene as we go. (We have analysed Macbeth as a whole here.)
SCENE I. Dunsinane. Ante-room in the castle.
Enter a Doctor of Physic and a Waiting-Gentlewoman
I have two nights watched with you, but can perceive no truth in your report. When was it she last walked?
The famous ‘sleepwalking scene’ takes place in a room in Dunsinane castle, now owned by the Macbeths since their killing of Duncan and Macbeth’s claiming of the crown of Scotland. A Waiting-Gentlewoman who serves in the Macbeths’ household has told the Doctor who accompanies her that Lady Macbeth has been seen sleepwalking around the castle, but although he has accompanied her for two nights now, they have, as yet, failed to see Lady Macbeth walking around on her somnambulistic travels.
Since his majesty went into the field, I have seen her rise from her bed, throw her night-gown upon her, unlock her closet, take forth paper, fold it, write upon’t, read it, afterwards seal it, and again return to bed; yet all this while in a most fast sleep.
As Kenneth Muir observes in his notes to the excellent “Macbeth” (Arden Shakespeare: Second Series) edition of the play, Macbeth did not actually go ‘into the field’ of battle, but was besieged within the grounds of Dunsinane, where he will (later in Act 5) be vanquished and killed. (See 5.5.5-7 for Macbeth’s speech where he pretty much reveals as much.) Even Shakespeare has some plot holes!
A Waiting-Gentlewoman attended on the lady of the house, and spent her time in close quarters with her. Lady Macbeth has been observed getting out of bed, putting on her night-gown, and taking a paper out of her private closet. She has written something, read it, and then sealed it up again. But, as the Gentlewoman reveals, she has done all of this in her sleep.
What Lady Macbeth was writing (or ‘sleepwriting’) on these occasions is never revealed: Shakespeare keeps it a mystery. But it has been speculated that she is writing a letter to her (supposedly) absent husband, trying to reassert her control over him even as their plans unravel and they become besieged on all sides. However, it’s also possible that she is writing down her sins and confessing, having suffered a pricking of conscience (of which more below). It’s even been suggested that she was writing to Lady Macduff to warn her of Lady Macbeth’s husband’s plan to murder Lady Macduff and her children.
Of course, this ambiguity leaves the scene open to numerous interpretations, although how much scope this gives actors and theatre companies is questionable, unless they show the paper (and there’s nothing in Shakespeare’s text to suggest that it is retrieved from the almost certainly locked closet).
Still, the open-ended nature of that piece of paper – which is, as it were, blank for us to write our own assessment of Lady Macbeth upon it – means that the conclusions we draw reveal much about how convincing we find Lady Macbeth’s change of character. Is she still defiant, despite her clearly troubled mind (and writing to Macbeth to try to remind him who’s the real boss)? Is she feeling worried about the state of her immortal soul, and trying to make amends as a means of spiritual self-preservation (and confessing her sins on paper in the hope that it will persuade God to go easy on her in the afterlife)? Or has she (perhaps more improbably) recalled her last traces of humanity and compassion (and, realising they have both gone too far, is writing to their enemy to warn her of the danger she is in)?
A great perturbation in nature, to receive at once the benefit of sleep, and do the effects of
watching! In this slumbery agitation, besides her walking and other actual performances, what, at any time, have you heard her say?
‘Sleep’ is a key word in Macbeth, appearing more than thirty times in what is one of Shakespeare’s shortest plays. Most of the instances of the word ‘sleep’ are found in speeches by Macbeth or, to a lesser extent, Lady Macbeth. There is something dreamlike and hazy about much of the action of the play, as if the characters are acting in a daze, not in full control of their senses, either because they are tired from lack of sleep (as Macbeth is after the killing of Duncan) or because, even in sleep, they cannot find any rest or peace (as is the case with Lady Macbeth here).
So, sleepwalking is a very neat device for Shakespeare to use here, as it taps perfectly into the question of agency that hangs over the whole play. Is Macbeth really in control of what he does, or is he acting under the influence and direction of the Witches or Weird Sisters, and his own wife? Now, Lady Macbeth – who seemed to be more in control of her own fate – is under the sway of her own conscience.
That, sir, which I will not report after her.
You may to me: and ’tis most meet you should.
Neither to you nor any one; having no witness to confirm my speech.
The Gentlewoman refuses to tell the Doctor what she has heard Lady Macbeth say during her nightly sleepwalking. There is possibly a legal reason for her reluctance: if the Doctor repeated what she said to him in confidence, and the Macbeths found out what she had said, she might be tried for treason against the King and Queen (as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth now are, of course). Without a witness there to confirm what she said to him, the Doctor may twist her account. She seems to be aware of her place in the pecking order and doesn’t want to say anything that might incriminate herself; it would be better for the Doctor to observe Lady Macbeth directly.
Enter LADY MACBETH, with a taper
Lo you, here she comes! This is her very guise; and, upon my life, fast asleep. Observe her; stand close.
And sure enough, in comes Lady Macbeth at this point, with a candle.
How came she by that light?
Why, it stood by her: she has light by her continually; ’tis her command.
In other words, Lady Macbeth is now afraid of the dark, and must have a light nearby at all times at night. The woman who was once so fearless in her ambitions is now fearful.
You see, her eyes are open.
Ay, but their sense is shut.
That is to say: Lady Macbeth’s eyes may be open but she cannot ‘sense’ or see the Doctor and Gentlewoman as they watch her.
What is it she does now? Look, how she rubs her hands.
It is an accustomed action with her, to seem thus washing her hands: I have known her continue in this a quarter of an hour.
Lady Macbeth’s hand-washing recalls another recurring trope in the play: hands. After he has killed Duncan, Macbeth looks at his hands and pronounces them ‘a sorry sight’ and ‘hangman’s hands’; Lady Macbeth, seeing the blood on her husband’s hands, commands him to go and ‘wash this filthy witness from your hand.’ And then Macbeth rhetorically asks, ‘Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood / Clean from my hand? No, this my hand will rather / The multitudinous seas in incarnadine, / Making the green one red.’ And later still, after Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking and handwashing scene, Angus will say of Macbeth: ‘Now does he feel / His secret murders sticking on his hands’.
Yet here’s a spot.
Hark! she speaks: I will set down what comes from her, to satisfy my remembrance the more strongly.
Out, damned spot! out, I say! – One: two: why, then, ’tis time to do’t. – Hell is murky! – Fie, my lord, fie! a soldier, and afeard? What need we fear who knows it, when none can call our power to account? – Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him.
‘Out, damned spot!’: Lady Macbeth is trying to wash imaginary blood from her hands. Even today, we talk metaphorically of those who are guilty of some terrible crime of having ‘blood on their hands’, and although Lady Macbeth’s hands are physically clean, they are figuratively stained with her guilt. She, after all, was the one who conspired with Macbeth to kill Duncan so her husband could seize the throne.
This is quite a turnaround from Lady Macbeth’s earlier confidence: after Macbeth had complained about the depths of his guilt (the ‘Will all great Neptune’s ocean’ speech quoted above), his wife had retorted: ‘My hands are of your colour; but I shame / To wear a heart so white.’
The ‘One: two’ is a reference to the clock striking two o’clock in the morning, as Lady Macbeth’s next statement makes clear. ‘Hell is murky’, meanwhile, picks up on her fear of darkness. Lady Macbeth seems to address her husband in the ‘soldier’ references that follow, reminding him that nobody can bring a king to account for his actions: he is above the law.
Do you mark that?
The Thane of Fife had a wife: where is she now? – What, will these hands ne’er be clean? –
No more o’ that, my lord, no more o’ that: you mar all with this starting.
‘The Thane of Fife’ is a piece of doggerel, an old rhyme, that seems to prefigure Lady Macbeth’s own demise (‘had a wife’ suggesting the wife is dead). She continues to try to clean her guilt from her hands.
Go to, go to; you have known what you should not.
She has spoke what she should not, I am sure of that: heaven knows what she has known.
Muir, in “Macbeth” (Arden Shakespeare: Second Series), argues definitively that the Doctor’s line is not addressed to the Gentlewoman, but this seems to make more sense than that he is addressing Lady Macbeth. It’s possible that he is speaking to himself, telling himself that he is witness to the Queen’s confession of guilt over Duncan’s murder. Certainly, the Gentlewoman’s response supports either reading.
Here’s the smell of the blood still: all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little
hand. Oh, oh, oh!
More recalling of her husband’s earlier words about ‘all great Neptune’s ocean’ being unable to ‘wash this blood clean from my hand’.
What a sigh is there! The heart is sorely charged.
I would not have such a heart in my bosom for the dignity of the whole body.
This seems to be double-edged from the Gentlewoman, meaning both ‘I would not be so hard-hearted and callous as to have got myself tied up in my own guilt as the Queen has’ and ‘I would rather die than keep myself alive with such guilt tearing me up inside.’
Well, well, well –
Pray God it be, sir.
Here the Gentlewoman plays on the double meaning of ‘well’: the Doctor is expressing his surprise at the revelations Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking have brought to his attention, but the Gentlewoman picks up on the idea of things being ‘well’.
This disease is beyond my practice: yet I have known those which have walked in their sleep who have died holily in their beds.
Wash your hands, put on your nightgown; look not so pale. – I tell you yet again, Banquo’s buried; he cannot come out on’s grave.
To bed, to bed: there’s knocking at the gate. Come, come, come, come, give me your hand. What’s done cannot be undone. – To bed, to bed, to bed!
The knocking Lady Macbeth imagines she hears recalls the actual knocking at the gate when Macduff arrived at the Macbeths’ castle, just after Macbeth murdered Duncan. (See our analysis of the famous Porter scene for more on this.) ‘Done’ is another word that, like ‘sleep’ and ‘hand’, comes at us again and again in Macbeth. Here, Lady Macbeth’s ‘What’s done cannot be undone’ echoes what she told her husband in Act 3 Scene 2: ‘What’s done is done.’
Will she go now to bed?
Foul whisp’rings are abroad. Unnatural deeds
Do breed unnatural troubles: infected minds
To their deaf pillows will discharge their secrets:
More needs she the divine than the physician.
God, God forgive us all! Look after her;
Remove from her the means of all annoyance,
And still keep eyes upon her. So, good night:
My mind she has mated, and amazed my sight.
I think, but dare not speak.
Good night, good doctor.
The scene ends with the Doctor switching from prose to blank verse to conclude and sum up what he has discovered. Lady Macbeth needs a priest rather than a doctor, for what ails her is spiritual rather than medical. ‘Mated’ here means ‘confounded’ or ‘confused’.