Macbeth, Macduff, Macdeath: Sickness and Health in Shakespeare’s Macbeth

By Mahbuba Afreen

In both the fictional realm and the real world, the atmosphere of a country mirrors the characteristics and mentality of its ruler. In William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, after Macbeth kills Duncan, the former, corrupted by his obsession with his prophecy and new position as king, begins to spread an infectious disease all throughout Scotland; as Scotland is plagued by death, sickness, and chaos, Lady Macbeth and Macbeth leave themselves vulnerable to the disease, which causes the deterioration of their mentalities and loss of Macbeth’s high morals. In the climactic acts of 4 and 5, the Macbeths are the sources of sickness that spread to all of Scotland, leaving the country in a chaotic, painful state; the combination of the Macbeths’ deaths and Malcolm’s ascent to the throne is the antidote and the source of healing for Scotland.

To begin, Lady Macbeth is the cause of the illness which will soon spread to Scotland, her husband, and herself. In Act 1, strong-willed Lady Macbeth persuades Macbeth to murder Duncan, insulting Macbeth’s manliness by calling him a “coward” (I.vii.46). Macbeth resolves to kill Duncan, provoked by Lady Macbeth’s insinuations about his character, and his murder originates the illness and furthers the spreading of it. In Act 2, after Macbeth kills Duncan and is shaken to his core by realizing the consequences of his actions, level-headed, rational Lady Macbeth attempts to calm down her husband by assuring him that “A little water clears [them] of this deed” (II.ii.80). Ironically, over the course of the play and with the help of Macbeth’s own displays of regret, Lady Macbeth realizes that this murder cannot be undone. As the crushing guilt of her actions suffocate Lady Macbeth (on and off-stage), the results of Lady Macbeth’s illness are depicted in the final act of the play as Lady Macbeth is unable to sleep peacefully, experiencing “unnatural troubles” (V.i.63) due to her “Unnatural deeds” (V.i.64). In Act 5, Lady Macbeth experiences hallucinations of imaginary blood–—Duncan’s blood—on her hands while sleepwalking, a “great perturbation in nature” (V.i.8), and relives the night of Duncan’s murder. “Out, damnéd spot! Out, I say!” (V.i.31) She yells while rubbing her hands together as if she were washing them. The doctor notes that “[t]his disease is beyond [his] practice” (V.i.51). Lady Macbeth is suffering from a moral, mental problem, in which she requires immediate help from “the divine [rather] than the physician” (V.i.66). The only cure to Lady Macbeth’s internal illness is an antidote that she “must minister to [her]self” (V.iii.49). Moreover, when talking to Macbeth, the doctor announces that Lady Macbeth is not physically sick as “she is troubled with thick-coming fancies” (V.iii.43). In an attempt to poison Macbeth to achieve his desires, Lady Macbeth has poisoned and “infected” herself as well (V.i.64). To further illustrate that a moral sickness has engulfed Lady Macbeth, Macbeth refers to his “disease”-minded (V.iii.46) wife as having a “stuffed bosom” (V.iii.50), full of “perilous” (V.iii.50) and “rooted sorrows” (V.iii.47). The “rooted sorrow” that Macbeth refers to is the guilt embedded in Lady Macbeth’s “sorely charged” (V.i.46) and a burdened heart, burdened with the secret that she participated in murdering the king. In this way, Lady Macbeth is a victim of a detrimental, infectious, and spreading sickness that she created by convincing and assisting Macbeth in murder.

Secondly, King Macbeth, having killed Duncan, nurtures the disease and spreads it to the rest of his kingdom. Simultaneously, as the illness develops in Macbeth, he becomes apathetic and indifferent to murder and grows careless about human life, including his own. Throughout Act 1, Macbeth is a “brave,” merciless, and honorable warrior in battle favored by the public (I.ii.18). In Act 2, after the murder, Macbeth, overcome with shock, grief, and regret, has difficulty keeping himself together to prevent raising suspicion and confesses that he is “afraid to think [of] what [he has] done” (II.ii.61). Macbeth notes that no ocean can clean his filthy, bloody hands; instead, when he puts his hands in great Neptune’s ocean, his hand will “incarnadine” the sea, “Making the green one red” (II.ii.74- 75). Macbeth articulates that his act of violence, signified by his bloody hands, and the sickness it has caused will spread. Later, as the image of the bloodied ocean foreshadowed, Macbeth does not give himself a moment to think rationally about his decisions but acts immediately on the “very firstlings of [his] heart” (IV.i.163) by ordering the execution of Macduff’s family in Fife. Rather than killing the innocent himself, Macbeth sends murderers to do the job for him, causing others to become murderers themselves. Similarly, Macbeth has troops with him to fight Malcolm and Macduff’s forces. However, the public’s opinion of Macbeth has changed since he has become king. Under Macbeth’s rule, his servants and troops have “absent” (V.iv.18), sick, and infected hearts; they do not serve Macbeth out of love or loyalty like a healthy servant-king companionship would entail but out of pressure, “constrainéd things,” (V.iv.17) to obey Macbeth. When the opportunity arises, “both more and less have given him the revolt” (V.iv.16). Additionally, the enemy side reports on the sickened–”mad” (V.ii.15)– Macbeth, who is plagued by his “pestered senses” (V.ii.27). He can no longer return himself, “his distempered cause” (V.ii.17), or Scotland to sanity by containing it within “the belt of rule” (V.ii.18). As Macbeth’s regression of character and morals continues, Macbeth cockily kills the Young Siward while “smil[ing]” at his sword (V.viii.16). Macbeth is not only apathetic to murder, but he feels joy in killing others. Furthermore, Macbeth sighs, admits that he has a “sick heart” (V.iii.21), and says he has “lived long enough” (V.iii.24). Although he is not actively suicidal, Macbeth does not care about his well-being. The king feels fatigued by the sun’s presence, which alerts him of another miserable day of ruling over Scotland. More so, Macbeth wishes to see the “estate o’ th’ world” (V.v.53) fall apart and be “undone” (V.v.53) for his own selfish entertainment; Macbeth is sick at heart, displayed by his resignation to the wrecked state of things. All in all, the events, dialogues, and actions of certain characters throughout Acts 4 and 5 illustrate the sickness Macbeth has been infected with and how he has spread said illness throughout Scotland.

Thirdly, although Scotland falls into chaos that seems irreversible, Malcolm and Macduff are the healing agents to Scotland’s sickness; by causing the deaths of the Macbeths and planning to establish new laws over time with honest intentions to cure Scotland, Malcolm and Macduff provide the country with a more hopeful and joyous path in the future. Throughout the course of Macbeth’s reign as king, Scotland dissolves into a “bleed[ing]” (IV.iii.37) and “grave[-like]” (IV.iii.187) country consisting of “howl[s]” (IV.iii.6) full of “dolor” (IV.iii.9), daily “gash[es]” (IV.iii.47) and “wounds” (IV.iii.48), unacknowledged “sighs...groans, and shrieks that rent the air” (IV.iii.189), “modern” (IV.iii.191) sorrows, and innocent, “sicken[ed],” (IV.iii.194) men. Evidently, due to Macbeth’s selfishness, displayed when he demands the witches to answer him “even till destruction sicken” (IV.i.60), and his decision to prioritize his prophecy before the country, Macbeth is actively allowing Scotland to become diseased.

However, Malcolm, who had his birthright stolen from him, and Macduff, who suffered the loss of his family, decide to make “med’cines of [their] great revenge” (IV.iii.248) in order to “cure this deadly grief” (IV.iii.249) caused by Macbeth. The king of England, bestowed with a “heavenly gift” (IV.iii.175) of a “healing benediction” (IV.iii.174) and the ability to help even the most “pitiful to the eye” (IV.iii.169), aids Malcolm and Macduff by providing them with troops. The implication that, because the God-blessed king is assisting Malcolm and Macduff, God is essentially siding with Malcolm and Macduff further supports that these two men are the antidote to the sickness. Additionally, Malcolm’s troops, “every drop of [them]” (V.ii.34), who fight on the side of the “med’cine,” (V.ii.32) declare to “purge” (V.ii.33) Macbeth, the “sickly” (V.ii.32) king; the troops plan to “dew the sovereign flower” (V.ii.36), meaning they will nurture the true monarch, Malcolm, while “drown[ing and murdering] the weeds” (V.ii.36), which are Macbeth, the greedy plant that absorbs all the water, leaving the country sick and suffering. Moreover, Macduff holds the “usurper’s curséd head” (V.viii.66) on display and announces that Scotland is “free” (V.viii.66) from the evilness and illness that was Macbeth. In agreement with Macduff, Malcolm ends the play on a hopeful and optimistic note of reforming Scotland bit by bit as time passes: ”What’s more to do / Which would be planted newly with time” (V.viii.76-77) and happily invites all of Scotland to his coronation. As Malcolm is the son of the gracious Duncan, a righteous ruler, it is implied that Malcolm will follow in his father’s footsteps; Malcolm, alongside Macduff, will be a part of Scotland’s remedy.

In conclusion, Shakespeare expertly crafts a theme of sickness and health to convey that the Macbeths create and foster an illness which spreads through the country, leaving Malcolm and Macduff to heal and reconstruct Scotland. Although it is short, Malcolm’s optimistic final speech alludes to Scotland’s inevitable restoration of health. By the same token, plant imagery in Act V such as “rooted sorrow” (V.iii.47), “dew the sovereign flower” (V.ii.36), and “drown the weeds” (V.ii.36) articulate the same message. The “bad plants” or ”rooted” (V.iii.47) evildoers like Macbeth must be drowned given the threat that they pose; these wicked plants can spread sickness through their roots, leaves, and pollen while establishing a strong foundation to maintain the sickness for generations. However, the aforementioned two motifs contain an even deeper and symbolic meaning about life, one that is still applicable to modern times: power, desire, and greed are a deadly combination, leaving anyone, no matter how virtuous and principled, susceptible to corruption, psychological disease, and/or physical illness.