Hallucinations & Sleep in Macbeth


Throughout the whole play there’s a surreal/unreal atmosphere. It doesn’t only make us doubt what’s “foul” and what’s “fair”, it also makes it unclear whether certain visions in “Macbeth” are real or merely hallucinations. Hallucinations are supernatural symbols of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s guilt, and they generally serve as a reminder of what they have done or are about to do.


One of the most important hallucinations/visions that occur in “Macbeth” is the floating dagger, which accompanies Macbeth as he goes to murder Duncan, King of Scotland. The vision of the dagger starts off by Macbeth speaking his famous words: “Is this a dagger which I see before me?” This is also a soliloquy, since it’s spoken in an interior monologue and is not directly addressed to the audience. Macbeth doesn’t believe that the floating dagger is real, since he can’t actually touch it, yet he still sees it. Macbeth even suggests himself that it might be a hallucination:
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-oppressèd brain?”

(Act 2, scene 1, Lines 36-39)
The dagger is covered with blood and it’s pointing like an arrow towards the king’s chamber. It’s clear that the dagger signals that something bad is about to happen and it also represent the point of no return, since it’s crucial to the whole story whether Macbeth succeeds in murdering Duncan or not. Furthermore, it’s a foreshadowing of chaos and disorder.
Later on in the play, Macbeth sees Banquo’s ghost sitting in his place at a big feast. Macbeth is paranoid and worried that he will be found out. The hallucination of Banquo’s ghost reminds him that he has murdered a former friend, and thereby reminding him of his guilt.
Not only Macbeth is affected by what he and his wife have done, but also Lady Macbeth eventually gives in to visions and hallucinations. As she sleepwalks, she believes that her hands are covered with blood, and it can’t be washed away no matter how much she tries. You could argue that Lady Macbeth has gone mad, and she is now – after being the strong character that keeps a cool head – filled with guilt and perhaps regret.
Sleep is an important, recurring motif in Macbeth. As just mentioned, Lady Macbeth eventually shows weakness and starts sleepwalking (Act 5, scene 1). Here we get a view into Lady Macbeth’s unconscious mind and thereby her true feelings. Lady Macbeth seems to be fragile and vulnerable, and for the first time in the play we have sympathy for her. The sleepwalking is caused by Lady Macbeth’s attempt to repress strong feelings of guilt.


Another example is the murder of King Duncan, which is essential to the whole play. When “the deed” is done, Macbeth says: Macbeth does murder sleep — the innocent sleep, Sleep that knits up the raveled sleave of care” (Act 2, scene 2, Lines 35-36). Sleep is a powerful image of the natural, good and healthy. Sleep brings “lose ends together” and it can heal you; it can clear up your mind and help you settle all your thoughts. In addition, sleep is a symbol of innocence, which Macbeth kills along with everything that is good, healthy and natural. According to the Elizabethan World Picture, Macbeth has destroyed the natural order of the universe. Neither Macbeth nor Lady Macbeth is able to sleep afterwards, which eventually affects them psychologically.
King Duncan is very vulnerable in his sleep, just like everyone would be. He is in his most peaceful and innocent state – sleeping – and therefore completely defenceless. It is the most disrespectful, dishonourable and cowardly crime to commit and Macbeth also pays for it at the end of the play.