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Jill Griffith

Professor Read/Professor Estrada

Eng 138

15 March, 2017

Macbeth Beneath the Surface

In 1853 Hormuzd Rassam, an esteemed Assyriologist, uncovered the first known artifacts

containing the Epic of Gilgamesh (Britannica). This 4,000 year old epic illustrates many things:

the innovation of humans, the desire to create, the drive to excel, the passion of the mind. For as

long as there have been written words, there have been humans behind those words with a desire

to create lasting stories, notes, historical documents and many other forms of literature and

writing. The importance of this fact demonstrates that the human race has always had the desire

to say something significant. From Freuds consideration of the human mind, to Tysons

exploration of cosmic quandaries, the drive to create ideas and bridge concepts is a strong facet

of humanity. Arguably the most notable author in history, William Shakespeare, was no stranger

to these deep insights. Many of his most famous works, including Hamlet, Macbeth, and King

Lear explore the underlying aspects of human psychology. Shakespeare was a pioneer of the

mortal mind that explored the human psyche in new ways, expanding upon psychological

concepts of the mentally ill.

Shakespeare lived and experienced both the Elizabethan Era and Jacobean Era. During

these two reigns, the mentally ill faced treatment of quite similar fashions. Though there were

those who explored the human mind, and thought to have come up with adequate treatment,

there was no scientifically successful treatment for the mad during these eras. Treatments ranged

from hanging the ill upside down, to direct blood flow to the head, to chaining them in small,
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confined spaces. During Shakespeares time, The Bethlehem mental hospital was a prominent

figure in the treatment, or mistreatment, of those suffering from melancholy. Even during this

century, the hospital was known for its gross mistreatment of patients, even leading to the death

of some. Nicknamed Bedlam, this hospital quickly became the place to go only for the

mentally ill to become mentally insane. As a way to profit, Bethlehem Royal Hospital began

admitting the public for a fee to view the mentally ill patients. This became known as one of the

most scandalous plots that the hospital of Bethlehem had taken advantage of (Andrews).

The Bethlehem Royal Hospital is even briefly visited in Shakespeares King Lear. When

Gloucesters son, Edgar, is plotted against, he must flee for his life. His solution is to dirty and

disrobe himself and act as a mad beggar outside Bethlehem:

My face Ill grime with filth,

Blanket my loins, elf all my hairs in knots,

And with presented nakedness outface

The winds and persecutions of the sky,

The country gives me proof and precedent

Of Bedlam beggars (King Lear 9-14).

This excerpt from King Lear shows that Bethlehem Royal Hospital, or Bedlam, was a significant

piece of identity for the mad during the 16th century. For it to surface in a piece of literature

written by Queen Elizabeths patron himself, is a strong indicator that the issues and problems

surrounding Bethlehem Royal Hospital were drastic and well known. The question that begs to

be answered is whether or not Bedlam influenced Shakespeares keenness toward representing

the insane, or if an outside factor influenced him to explore the mad, including Bethlehem Royal

Hospital, in his works.

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In order to identify external factors, one must explore the timeline of Shakespeare.

Unfortunately, dates arent as cut and dry as one would like for a study of literature. However,

many scholars have attempted to define dates and times of many of Shakespeares tragedies. J.

Leeds Barroll, a prominent Shakespeare expert and author, wrote a concise theoretical essay on

precise dating of Shakespearian plays. In The Chronology of Shakespeares Jacobean Plays and

the Dating of Antony and Cleopatra Barroll states, A number of scholars have carefully

investigated the problem of Shakespeares tragic chronology, and nothing very different can arise

here, (115). Essentially, what Shakespearian historians have to work with are dates that the first

play was produced, and a methodical science of comparisons: full lines, split lines, unsplit lines

with pauses etc. The study of these works, along with other historical data, can present a rather

accurate timeline of Shakespeares works, with little to no error.

With such a methodology in place, it can be determined that the bulk of Shakespeares

tragedies, with the exception of a few in his early career, took place after August 9th, 1596. The

significance of this reveals that perhaps Shakespeares delve into the human psyche took place

after his own real-life tragedy. On August 9th, 1596, Shakespeares 11 year old son, Hamnet, died.

The emotional turmoil a parent might face during or following the death of a child could

certainly be substantial enough to act as a catalyst into a new psychological state of mind. Its

understandable that Shakespeare may have used this new, maddening perspective to achieve

some of his most famous tragedies. Peter Ackroyd, an award-winning biographer, asserts that, It

is impossible to gauge the effect upon the dramatistHe may have sought refuge, as so many

others have done, in hard and relentless work. The plays of this period have nevertheless been

interpreted in the light of his dead son. One critic has described Romeo and Juliet as a dirge for

the sons death (Kristeva 9); this stretches chronology, if not credulity. (288).
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One of Shakespeares most prominent tragedies, Macbeth, was written during this post-

child-loss phase. Macbeth, written in 1606, explores a different side of mental illness. Similar to

Hamlet, a new idea is fashioned, and the inner workings of the human mind are poked and

prodded, revealing new psychological depths. When Macbeth is contrasted to the likes of Iago or

Edmund, one may not pick up the subtle differences in psyche. All three characters are generally

thought of as antagonists, adding to the drama, and ultimately, catastrophic deaths of the

dramatic piece. However, as one begins to expand upon the beginnings of the madness of these

characters, stark contrasts can be drawn. Whereas Iago and Edmund are inherently evil, Macbeth

is not. Iago, for example, is introduced in Othello and immediately descends into a scheming

traitor as only, one can assume, his character could allow him: I follow [Othello] to serve my

turn upon him. / We cannot all be masters, nor all masters / Cannot be truly followed. (Othello

45-47). The reader never sees any traces of empathy, compassion or understanding in Iago.

Similarly, Edmund of King Lear begins the play innocent enough, only to expose his dastardly

and corrupt plans when he is left to himself, spinning a web of deceit, in a revealing soliloquy:

Legitimate Edgar, I must have your land.

Our fathers love is to the bastard Edmund

As to th legitimate. [...]

Well, my legitimate, if this letter speed

And shall my invention thrive, Edmund the base

Shall top th legitimate. I grow, I prosper.

Now, gods, stand up for the bastards (King Lear 17-23)!

Macbeth, however, shows adamant disapproval, fear, anxiety, sympathy and regret before his

descent into a usurping tyrant. At the urging of his wife to kill King Duncan, Macbeth replies,
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We will proceed no further in this business.

He hath honored 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 (Macbeth 34-38).

As evidenced by his retort to Lady Macbeth, this newly appointed Thane of Cawdor has no

interest in manipulating fate, as prophesied by the Weird Sisters. King Lear and Othello focus on

the antagonist as someone with an inhuman ability to distance themselves from the very

emotions and reactions that make us human, whereas Macbeth focuses more narrowly on the

psychology of evil and how ambition corrupts one man and his wife (Greenwood 269).

As one begins to understand the subtle differences between different Shakespeare

antagonists, one can piece together Shakespeares thought processes on human psychology, and

how his beliefs had a profound impact on the development and portrayal of his characters.

Macbeth is a prime example of a dynamic character: a character that undergoes substantial

changes, integral to the plot of the story. One might view Macbeth as an experiment of sorts. His

evolution from a hero of King Duncans court to a loathed tyrant of Scotland explores the deep

psychological component of hallucination, imagination, and committing acts of terror.

Macbeth, initially, is a character wrought with a sense of right and wrongwhat we

would call a conscience. He is plagued with the weaknesses of the human antagonist: morality,

ethics, and code of conduct. After he painfully and hesitantly decides to commit his first act of

murder, the reader begins to see his mind slip away from him. Quickly, he begins to enter a

pseudo-schizophrenic state. Before the act is even committed, Macbeth enters a full-blown

hallucinatory condition. These visions, even before the murder of Duncan has taken place, are
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potentially foreshadowing the steep downward spiral Macbeth enters psychologically after the

murders and deaths by his hand begin. After harsh words from Lady Macbeth, one might assume

his machismo overcomes his cowardice in an attempt to satiate his wifes desires. Regardless

of the major factor that propelled Macbeth to begin his string of murders, it is evident that his

state of mind is fragile, catapulting him into this imaginary realm:

Is this a dagger which I see before me,

The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee.

I have thee not, and yet I see thee still.

Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible

To feeling as to sight? Or art thou but

A dagger of the mind, a false creation

Proceeding from the heat oppressd brain?

I see thee yet, in form as palpable

As this which now I draw (Macbeth 44-53).

It is not long after the murder of King Duncan, framed to appear committed by Duncans

own guards, whom Macbeth then slays in revenge for the king, that Banquo begins to suspect

that Macbeth may have had a hand in Duncans undoing. Considering Macbeths unraveling state

of mentality, it is not long before he has ordered Banquo and his son, Fleance, to be killed as

well. After Banquos murder has taken place, the ghost of Banquo haunts Macbeth. Banquos

ghost, perhaps mocking Macbeth and paying homage to the prophecy of the Weird Sisters, takes

the seat of King Macbeth. In front of his guests, Macbeths mental state, once again, begins to

unravel: Which of you have done this? /Thou canst not say I did it. Never shake/ Thy gory

locks at me (Macbeth 59, 61-62). Here, Macbeths fears and anxieties begin to manifest
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themselves in the form of hallucinations. Colin McGuinn, the author of Discovering the

Meaning Behind the Plays: Shakespeares Philosophy, believes that,

It is not an accidentthat Macbeths imagination is closely tied to his conscience. His

guilt expresses itself in the form of unwanted imaginings. That is psychologically astute

on Shakespeares part: for some reason, a guilty conscience does manifest itself in just

this wayWhen we are afraid of something we are prone to imagine it. Everything from

anxiety dreams to a phobia of heights bears this outSo we imagine what we are afraid

of and we imagine what makes us feel guilty (McGuinn 100).

Perhaps Macbeths mind was in a sort of limbo: caught between his resolute moral code and his

ravenous drive for power. The sheer act of Banquos ghost taking the seat of King Macbeth

illustrates to the reader that Macbeths mind is caught up in insecurities. His fear of being

overthrown, coupled with the anxiety of being discovered as the murderer, leads to his

imagination running wild. As McGuinn suggested, the sheer fear and shock that Macbeth could

be undone is wildly rampant in his own mind. His guilty conscience slowly chips away at his


As we have discovered, antagonists such as Edmund and Iago were never presented with

much of a conscience. They are inherently evil by nature. For them, we never saw mental highs

and lows, only occupational and physical undoings. This is possibly why Macbeth is so

compelling. Audiences and readers can relate to Macbeth, while not necessarily entirely, at least

on some level. Macbeth was once a kind, trustworthy man that gave way to a monstrous dictator

without fear of repercussion.

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As Macbeth progresses further and further into a state of mental decline, the thought of

committing murders becomes easier for him. The murder of Macduffs family was as casual as a

flick of the wrist:

The castle Macduff I will surprise,

seize upon Fife, give to th edge o th sword

His wife, his babes, and all unfortunate souls

That race him in his line. No boasting like a fool;

This deed Ill do before this purpose cool (Macbeth 171-175).

In this scene, the idea of slaughtering a family does not sit heavily upon Macbeths conscience

the way the murders of King Duncan and Banquo did. It becomes increasingly evident with each

act of murder that Shakespeare was exploring the loss of the human soul. Macbeth was losing a

piece of what made him human, unlike Iago and Edmund: his soul. With each act committed,

Macbeth turns further and further from his human self.

William Shakespeare was not only a pioneer of the English language, but one of the

human mind. His journey into unfathomable pain and loss, coupled with his unrivaled ability to

move the human spirit with words, was the perfect medium with which to paint his story and his

exploration of human psychology. Macbeth is often coined, the easiest Shakespeare drama, but

this is a huge disservice to Shakespeare. At surface level, the plot is easy, the drama is

straightforward, and it is obviously quite short. However, what Macbeth lacks in length it makes

up for in depth. A short swim in the pages of Macbeth will reveal little to you about the

autonomous human soul. However, a deep submerge into the storyline will reveal the layers of

human psyche that were not so intricately and delicately understood in an age where the mentally

ill were tortured rather than treated. Macbeth lacks no substance. It is profound and relatable.
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Shakespeare truly aimed to capture the entire essence of the human experience in one drama, and

did so swimmingly.
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Works Cited

Ackroyd, Peter. Shakespeare: The Biography. Great Britain: Chatto & Windus. 2005. 287-289.


Andrews, Jonathan. Bedlam Revisited: A History of Bethlem Hospital c.1634 c.1770. London:

Queen Mary and Westfield College, London University; 1991. Web. 01 Apr 2017.

Barroll, J. Leeds. The Chronology of Shakespeares Jacobean Plays and the Dating of Antony

and Cleopatra. 1965. Essays on Shakespeare. Ed. Gordon Ross Smith. University Park:

Pennsylvania State UP, 1965. 115-54. Print.

Encyclopedia Britannica. Hormuzd Rassam.. Encyclopedia Britannica. Encyclopedia

Britannica, Inc., 20 July 1998. Web. 01 Apr 2017.

Greenwood, Cynthia. Macbeth. The Complete Idiots Guide to Shakespeares Plays.

Indianapolis: Penguin Group. 2008. 269-280. Print

Kristeva, Julia. Tales of Love. Ed. L.S. Roudiez. New York, 1987. 9. Print

McGinn, Colin. Macbeth. Shakespeares Philosophy. New York: Harper Collins. 2006. 90-108.


Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Ed. Barbara A. Mowat. New York: Washington Square Press.

1992. Print

Shakespeare, William. King Lear. Ed. Barbara A. Mowat. New York: Washington Square Press.

1993. Print.

Shakespeare, William. Macbeth. Ed. Barbara A. Mowat. New York: Washington Square Press.

1992. Print.

Shakespeare, William. Othello. Ed. Barbara A. Mowat. New York: Washington Square Press.

1993. Print.