The play Macbeth, a Scottish tragedy written in the 17th century by William Shakespeare demonstrates that guilt cannot be lessened by alternative action nor by even the most determined effort to erase the essence of conscience by actively seeking denial and change. Macbeth constantly misunderstands his conscience and guilt as a case of fear. Thus, his way of dealing with his guilt and conscience is to face it openly by committing more crimes, and this only produces added disgrace. On the other hand Lady Macbeth is fully aware of the basic difference between fear and guilt, and she attempts to prevent the onset of the latter by first denying her own sense of conscience and then by focusing her attention upon the management of Macbeth's guilt. These acts of internal repression do not work, and, once her husband has departed to the field of combat and she is left alone, Lady Macbeth assumes the very manifestations of guilt that have been associated with Macbeth. Yet in Macbeth, we are furnished with several examples of how remorse can be addressed, most notably in Macduff's response to the slaughter of his wife and children. Therefore, while Shakespeare show us that feelings of guilt can unleash self-destructive forces, he also teaches us that it is the way in which we cope with guilt which determines our ultimate effects.
A warrior by profession, Macbeth is accustomed to overcoming self-doubts by confronting his fears with sword in hand. When thoughts of slaying Duncan to obtain the crown first enter his mind, Macbeth's concern is that they not be detected. Hence, he proclaims, "Stars, hide your fires/Let not light see my black and deep desires," and, when on the cusp of crime, he again calls on nature to mask his motives, pleading the earth, "Hear not my steps which way they walk". As a man of action, Macbeth is convinced that if only he can hide his crime and further the prophecy given to him by the witches, his ill feelings will naturally dissolve. This belief underlies his reaction to the murderer's news that Fleance has escaped the fate which Macbeth planned for him. Learning of this flaw in the execution of his scheme, Macbeth laments: "Then comes my fit again. I had else been perfect, whole as the marble". For Macbeth, the reason that the ghost of Banquo appears at the feast, then, is that the loose end of Fleance's remaining alive has left him "cabined, cribbed, confined, bound in to saucy doubts and fears". Finally, in his encounter with Malcolm, Macbeth uses the crutch of the prediction that no man born of woman can harm him to buckle his courage, for that being so, "The mind I sway by and the heart I bear/Shall never sag with doubt nor shake with fear". Consistently, Macbeth interprets his mental problem as one of struggling with fear. We realize, of course, that it is not cowardice, but the act of guilt that drives Macbeth toward his tragic end. After all, Macbeth has displayed almost superhuman courage on the field of battle. But Macbeth remains blind to this, and comes to believe that the mental torture he is experiencing is ingrained in some external threat. As the play unfolds, Macbeth remains under the impression that what bothers him is not the psychological impact of his past crimes, but his failure to conduct still more carnage, that is, his inability to fight with fear and do what must be done to overcome its repressive power.
In contrast to her husband, Lady Macbeth knows well in advance of Duncan's murder that her participation in the crime will expose her to the havoc of guilt. Lady Macbeth believes that the potential remorse which she faces is an obstacle to the plot which she has devised to gain the throne, but she does not consider the possibility that guilt might echo after Duncan has been slain. This view is reinforced when she herself contemplates stabbing Duncan in his sleep, but refrains from doing so because he resembles her father.
With Duncan's death, the potentially negative effects of guilt are denied by Lady Macbeth, for, after all, in the beginning, guilt is only a problem insofar as it stands as a barrier to success, having no consequences once this initial hurdle has been overcome. Having denied the after-effects of guilt, Lady Macbeth's subconscious method for coping with it is to concentrate on the symptoms of guilt which arise in her husband. In the wake of his crime, Macbeth hears that internal voice which commands him to "sleep no more". Restless to the end, Macbeth's insomnia is noted by his wife, and she attempt to explain the more vivid and horrifying experiences that he undergoes, such as seeing Banquo's ghostly image at the feast, by referring to natural causes, telling her husband that his vision stems from the fact that he lacks "the season of all'natures, sleep". In the scene which occurs immediately after Duncan's death, Lady Macbeth orders her husband to get some water "and wash this filthy witness from your hand". He rejects her suggestion, crying out, "What hands are here. Hal they pluck out mine eyes!/Will all great Neptune's ocean wash this blood/Clean from my hand?". She, in turn, insists that the tell-tale signs of his crime cannot be seen by others, that "a little water clears us of this deed". For Lady Macbeth, the means through which she responds to the guilt that plagued her is to concentrate on her husband's ridiculous behaviour in case it betray their common part in treachery. Lady Macbeth has so suppressed her own feelings of guilt that she can only address them indirectly, resorting to an imagined effort to calm her husband. The problem, of course, is that Macbeth is not there to divert her attention from her own sense of guilt, and she must therefore confront a state of mind which her thin understanding of guilt as a restriction cannot contain.
Although both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth suffer permanently from the torment of guilt, throughout the play we are presented with characters whom experience guilt but nonetheless deal with it effectively. The first of these is the former Thane of Cawdor. On the execution block, Macbeth's predecessor takes active measures to improve his soul of the guilt of rebellion. It is reported of him to Duncan, "That very frankly he confessed his treasons/Implored your highness' pardon, and set forth a deep repentance". The insurgent Thane, then, acknowledges his crime, begs the forgiveness of its target, and expresses his regret. Similarly, it is by disclosing his shortcomings to Macduff that Malcolm frees himself of his feelings that he will prove a greater tyrant on the throne than Macbeth and is able to renounce "the taints and blames laid upon myself". But the most important example of how guilt can be overcome is that of Macduff. Apprised that his family has been killed by Macbeth's henchmen, Macduff is urged by Malcolm to "dispute it like a man". He agrees on the need for revenge upon Macbeth, but tells the prince, "I shall do so/But I must also feel it as a man". Macduff then protests with himself, admitting that he has been "sinful" in the sense that his innocent wife and children were slain for his resistance to Macbeth. Yet once this guilt is openly acknowledged, Macduff is able to move toward the final confrontation with Macbeth in a deliberate and highly focused manner, refusing to strike down the reluctant soldiers in Macbeth's force and seeking his revenge on Macbeth alone.
In Macbeth, Shakespeare reminds us that sin and additional guilt is everywhere, and warns us of the dreadful consequences of an uneasy conscience. At the same time, in Macduff and in other figures in the play, Shakespeare shows us that guilt can be overcome when it is recognized as such. Plainly, neither Macbeth nor Lady Macbeth rises to this task. Macbeth attempts to substitute fear for guilt and to deal with it through action, while his wife acknowledges the unbearable effect of guilt she limits it into a deterrent, using the management of her husband's guilt as a means for diverting her attention away from her own sense of shame. Both of these courses prove damaging, and, at bottom, the depth of tragedy which Macbeth and Lady Macbeth undergo stems not from their terrible deeds alone, but from their inability to accept the guilt from their crimes.