Sleeplessness and Fear in “macbeth” by William Shakespeare

In William Shakespeare’s play, Macbeth, sleeplessness was a broad theme that was evident across the play. Sleeplessness is brought out not only due to Macbeth’s culpability for assassinating Duncan, his rival for the thrown, and other innocent people but also by the fact that many other characters in the play experienced insomnia. Macbeth’s actions led to his guilty conscious and lack of sleep. Macbeth’s assassinations and killing of Duncan in the play have been implicated to as being killing sleep along the murders. As much as it is true that Macbeth is having troubles sleeping due to different reasons, the main one being his culpability, it is also evident throughout the play that many other characters are experiencing insomnia. The thesis for my essay will consider the fact that sleeplessness in Macbeth has affected not only Macbeth but also many other characters in the play and the whole of Scotland.

The play begins with a scene showing the dangers associated with sleep; the susceptibility in sleep due to the unconsciousness. The susceptibility and lack of cognizance in sleep has been linked to Duncan’s death which created fear among the citizens and hence resorting to sleeplessness for safety. Lady Macbeth affirms the loss of control and loss of mindfulness associated with sleep (Mac.1.7.69-70). She also mentions the fact that the sleeping and the dead are much more alike when she scolds her husband for not returning to the crime scene to cover-up the murder (Mac.2.2.51-2). Sleep and death are repeated throughout the play according to Lady Macbeth in both sleep and death the body rests but the soul is awake and alive. After murdering Duncan in his sleep, Macbeth confirms that sleep is the death of every day’s life (Mac.2.2.36). Sleep was, therefore, compared to murder and this created fear among the people. People couldn’t sleep in fear that they may be murdered hence the wide spread insomnia among the people in the play. The sad news about the slaying of Macduff’s wife, children and servants clarifies further the strange connection between sleep and death. The news were enormous for Macduff to comprehend at once and when he finally did he asks the heavens to rest them and by saying this he likens death to sleep. Therefore, insomnia was a reassurance for safety and security due to the fact that many people have lost their lifes while asleep. Thus, sleeplessness was experienced by many characters in the play due to insecurities that have been inflicted on them by the actions of their leader. Macbeth was not the only one experiencing insomnia in the play.

The fear of the supernatural has also been implicated to be the reason for the sleeplessness in the play. The fear of the supernaturals is seen in the scene with the two witch sisters. It is actually the first scene that brings sleeplessness in the play. One of the witches was snubbed by sailor’s wife and in revenge the witch casted a spell on her husband as a punishment (Mac.1.3.18-22). The spell casted on the sailor deprived him sleep and thus his sleeplessness. The scene proofs that the witches possess a supernatural power which they can use to inflict harm on those their victims. The scene proofs that sleeplessness is caused by a supernatural phenomenon that the witches can inflict on the people due to their behavior or violation of social norms. According to this scene, it is clear that one doesn’t have to do wrong to be afflicted by witches spells but rather actions of one individual may call for a punishment for other people also. The scene also further proofs the fact that other characters in the play are experiencing sleeplessness just like Macbeth. Sleeplessness is not centered on Macbeth only. This therefore suggests that sleeplessness in the play may have its origin in the supernatural phenomenon and it is affecting many innocent members of Scottish society due to boisterous actions of a few individuals. Another correlation between sleeplessness and the supernatural has been brought out in the renowned speech in the play by Macbeth. After killing Duncan, Macbeth returned to Lady Macbeth and gives a report about the incident. He narrates his experience after killing Duncan that he heard a voice crying (Mac.2.2.33-8). Elsewhere in the play the supernatural phenomenon have been shown when the witches prophesy about Macbeth’s future in the play (Mac.1.3.47). The supernatural phenomenon therefore proofs the fact that many other characters in the paly experienced sleeplessness in the play other than Macbeth. Sleeplessness might also be concluded to have been a punishment by supernaturals on the people due to the wicked actions of some members of the Scottish society in the play.

Insomnia in the play has also been implicated to have been caused by Macbeth’s actions of killing off all the agents that were a prerequisite for sleep. In the play, Macbeth has been implied to have murdered sleep by doing away with and corrupting all the symbols of safety and sanctuary at nighttime that are needed for peaceful sleep. Macbeth hired murderers to assassinate Banquo and Fleance who were responsible for night watch. The duo whose sole responsibility is to provide security at night when people were asleep were killed by three assassins sent by Macbeth. Macbeth, therefore, takes away the sanctuary provided by night’s watch and thus creating a night environment full of danger for his subjects. The citizens are placed in harm’s way by Macbeth’s actions and this created fear amongst them hence the insomnia resulted so that the people in the play may provide security for themselves rather than sleeping. In relation to this, another symbol of refuge and safety in the night among the characters in the play is the chime of the was a sign of safety throughout the night allowing the citizens to have peaceful sleep. However, in the play the symbol was distorted and corrupted that it led to sleeplessness among the citizens in the play. Rather that the clock chime acting as a sign of safety in the play, it acted to announce the impeding danger due to harsh governance of Macbeth and the instability in his rule in the region. Lady Macbeth is the proof of the corruption of the symbol of clock chime when the signal from the clock is used when to murder Duncan. The chime of the clock, which symbolized safety, was contrary been used to announce when to commit a cold blooded murder and get away with it (Mac.2.1.62). Thus, it is clear that the use of the symbol of clock chime for a purpose that was not intended for, signaling when to murder innocent citizens, has created insomnia in the play due to fear that has been subjected to the people. People were scared and with the fear in them, it was difficult for them to sleep.

Ghost voices in the play also provided proof that sleeplessness affected many characters in the play and whole of the Scotland at large. The reports were a credible source to confirm that Macbeth was not the only one experiencing sleeplessness in the play. According to Lennox, he was able to hear the ghost voices Macbeth was hearing at the same time (Mac.2.3.50-2). In the night Macbeth affirms his loss of sleep, Lennox reports that Macbeth might have heard the ghost voices and indeed, after Macbeth murders Duncan, he heard a ghost voice saying that he has murdered sleep. In the play, there were many scenes referencing ghost voices and it was actually evident from the play that many characters in the play were hearing the ghost voices. Macduff also confirms the fact that different characters in the play we hearing ghost voices whose origin was unknown. According to Macduff, the origin of the ghost voices may be may be the cries of the people of Scotland and the heavens above, mourning in anguish. After Lady Macbeth dismissed the guest of the feast, Macbeth hears two more ghost voices and tells her about them (Mac. Lennox reports also make reference to similar voices as those heard by Macbeth. The messages of the ghost voices were filled with horror and gloom and they were pleas of caution due to Macbeth’s brutal and wicked actions of killing innocent citizens. The ghost voices decreeing Macbeth’s wrongdoings spread all over Scotland and many people heard the voices. Many characters in the play affirms hearing the voices and described them as horror-filled and full of disturbing messages. The voices, therefore, disrupted the sleep of the characters due to the fact that the messages were horror-filled and hence generated fear among the characters. Thus, it is true that many characters experienced sleeplessness in the play due to the ghost voices they heard that disturbed their peace at nighttime and thus leading to lack of sleep. As much as Macbeth, heard the voices and experienced sleeplessness as a result, it is also true that many other characters experienced sleeplessness due to the same reason since the above illustrations has clearly provided evidence that he was not the only one hearing the ghost voices.

Macbeth in his pursuit to resolve the sleeplessness he has inflicted on himself and on his subjects, further lead to more sleeplessness. Pictures of sleep has been used in the play in Macbeth’s description of murder. All the murders committed by Macbeth, from Duncan’s murder to Macduff’s murder, are strategized and described using allegories of sleep. Sleep has been paralleled to death in many instances in the play and it is also evident that that those who are asleep can easily be victims of injustices. In Macbeth nighttime was associated with witchcraft, murder and rape. In one of the vocalizations by Macbeth, the sleepers are sympathized as they are the prospective targets for witches, ghosts, murderers and rapist (Mac.2.1.49-56). The above illustrations bring about the susceptibility associated with sleep and the predicaments that come with it. All this has, therefore, led to more fear and increased sleeplessness among the citizens in the play because they don’t want to be victims of the predicaments that were associated with sleep. The sleeplessness among the citizens was in an attempt to remain safe and guard themselves from the impending night danger. Macbeth’s action to restore his sleep was the driving force that further led to all this escalation of element of fear amongst his subjects. Another instance that brings out sleeplessness among the Scottish citizens in the play, is the scene when Lady Macbeth was sleepwalking and talking awhile a gentlewoman and a doctor were observing her (Mac.5.114-5). Lady Macbeth was disturbed and he couldn’t sleep peacefully. She makes a confession while sleepwalking and talking and her confession scared the duo who were observing her. They both dared not to speak about her confession since it created fear in them and they knew if they talk about it they will be killed by Macbeth (Mac.5.1.69). Thus, it is evident that sleeplessness in Macbeth has not only affected Macbeth but also many other characters in the play including Lady Macbeth. The characters in the play, in fear of being preyed on by murders, rapist and witches, were forced to find sanctuary in sleeplessness. Sleeplessness was their refuge and source of security against all the perils that have been associated with sleep and most of which find origin on Macbeth’s actions. As a result, many characters in the play has experienced insomnia.

In conclusion, it is evident that sleeplessness is a broad theme in Macbeth by Shakespeare. Sleeplessness has not only affected Macbeth, the main character in the play, as many will suggest but also many other characters and eventually the whole of Scotland. The illustrations above have given evidence of the fact that many characters in the play are experiencing insomnia. The cause of sleeplessness in the play has majorly been due to Macbeth’s wrongdoings that were equated to murdering sleep and lead to abolishment of all agents needed for peaceful sleep. Other causes of sleeplessness in the play include the ghost voices that were heard many characters in the play, perils associated with the susceptibility and unconsciousness during sleep and the supernaturals who can bring punishment upon the people for their wayward actions as in the case of the two witch sisters who casted a spell on the sailor causing him to loss sleep. Sleeplessness has, therefore, affected many characters in the play.

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Sleeplessness and fear in "macbeth" by william shakespeare. (2021, Mar 30). Retrieved August 10, 2022 , from

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