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This scene comes after Macbeth has killed Duncan and he seems guilty straight away. He is hearing strange voices, which shows that he is upset. ‘Sleep no more!’ This shows that Macbeth is so guilty that he will never be able to sleep again.
He has murdered the king while he is sleeping, which is a deceitful thing to do especially as the king is in line to God. In Shakespeare’s time people believed in the Divine Right of Kings, which meant that there was a social hierarchy with God at the top. The king was next and so to murder a king would be considered even more awful than by today’s social values. Macbeth’s punishment for this is that his own sleep is murdered. Macbeth says ‘the innocent sleep’ showing that Duncan was blameless and this makes him more guilty for killing him. The two characters contrast and as the play goes on we see this more and more. Macbeth becomes a violent king, largely as a result of his guilt and fear of being exposed. Compared to Duncan, he is unpopular and disliked to the extent that Malcolm eventually gathers an army to overthrow him.
When he says ‘Glamis hath murdered sleep, and therefor Cawdor/Shall sleep no more’ he is talking about his titles that Duncan gave him. At the start of the play, Macbeth was Thane of Glamis and then Duncan gave him the title Thane of Cawdor as a reward for his efforts in the war. This was part of the witches’ prophecy that led to Macbeth killing Duncan. His two titles represent the old and new Macbeth and show that every part of him is guilty.
Then Lady Macbeth takes command and orders him to wash away the guilt. She says ‘wash this filthy witness from your hand’, which means get rid of the evidence.
She is also guilty because she has persuaded her husband to go through with the murder, though she doesn’t show it here. Earlier in the scene she says she couldn’t kill Duncan herself because he reminded her of her own father. Her part in the murder is not physical, though she does go back into Duncan’s room to lay the daggers on the guards. She is composed around the murder, whereas Macbeth’s guilt is evident from the start. Lady Macbeth’s guilt does seem to haunt her though and this reference to hand washing comes back later in the play when we see her sleepwalking and attempting to wash out a ‘damned spot’ from her hands. This is a metaphor for her feeling guilt. Lady Macbeth’s guilt leads to her madness.
Later in the play Macbeth wishes he could sleep like Duncan and be at rest. He is not able to gain any sense of peace because of his actions. His guilt makes him afraid of his friend Banquo and he ends up having him killed as well. The fact that he sends murderers to find and kill Banquo suggests that Macbeth is not prepared to risk the guilt of killing another friend with his own hands.
Overall Shakespeare uses this scene to show Macbeth’s guilt very clearly and shows how the guilt will get worse for both of them later in the play.