While Shakespeare isn’t renowned for writing horror, he certainly understood the power of a macabre scene and the dramatic impact of horror when portraying just how evil a character could be.
He created a number of beautifully creepy and macabre scenes that hold definite appeal for horror fans, and which make great reading for October and Halloween.
The horror of Act 5, Scene 1 of Macbeth is subtle, but very real. While there is no real blood on the stage, there is definitely blood on Lady Macbeth’s hands.
After belittling Macbeth more than once for being haunted by visions and ghosts, the same thing happens to Lady Macbeth – or Lady Macdeath, as I like to call her. She is spared such public humiliation, though – her suffering is is revealed in the privacy of her own rooms, witnessed only by her servant and a doctor. This enables the audience to witness the intensely personal and intimate nature of the psychological horror experienced by Lady Macbeth.
In the chaos of her behaviour, the audience sees the extent of Lady Macbeth’s mental torment: she is plagued by guilt and losing her grip on reality. She walks and talks in her sleep, carrying a candle because she cannot bear to be in darkness, and speaking of fragments of bloody images and events. She repeatedly acts as though she is washing her hands, sometimes for fifteen minutes, yet she can never seem to get them clean. She keeps on finding blood on her hands: “Yet here’s a spot.”
Despair and frustration underscore pronouncements such as “Out, damned spot! Out, I say!” and “What! will these hands ne’er be clean?
In her mind, she can still clearly smell and see the blood on her own hands after the murder of Duncan, observing “Here’s the smell of the blood still: all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand. Oh! oh! oh!”.
The doctor and gentlewoman who look on within the scene are disturbed by what they see before them, positioning the audience to share in their disquiet. Her macabre imagery and references to blood and ghosts cause the doctor to conclude that “Unnatural deeds
Do breed unnatural troubles; infected minds
To their deaf pillows will discharge their secrets;
More needs she the divine than the physician.”
The doctor speaks what the audience already knows: it is Lady Macbeth’s conscience rather than her hands that cannot be cleansed. When he instructs the gentlewoman to watch her carefully and remove anything that she might use to harm herself, he is alluding to things that Shakespeare’s generally superstitious audiences would have interpreted as horrific in itself – spiritual torment as a result of one’s own sins, and the thought of committing suicide in such a state, were appalling and dreadful to those who had been taught of the eternal damnation of one who took their own life or died otherwise completely unreconciled with God. The good folk of early modern England feared many things, but burial in unconsecrated ground and spending eternity in hell were right at the top of most people’s list of things they wanted to avoid. Had it been otherwise, the early modern church would have been far less powerful and prominent in the lives of the English people.
Throughout this scene, the power of a guilty conscience over one’s psyche is vividly expressed using the depiction and the imagery of horror.
Shakespeare also uses the Macbeths’ experiences as a distinct reminder of the fact that regicide is never a good idea because the consequences are enormous for the nation as a whole, but it also has significant and permanent spiritual consequences for the perpetrators. Given the number of plots against James I, a Scottish king long before he became an English one, this was a politically expedient message for Shakespeare to deliver to his audiences while at the same time telling a deliciously dark and macabre story.
You can read the whole scene, or the entire play, here.