The final act of MacBeth lays out a total reversal of what has gone on up until this point. We see the once powerful and domineering Lady MacBeth racked with guilt, wandering the halls in a dream like state, mumbling secrets, and trying desperately to wash her hands of blood she senses upon them. She is reduced down to this almost pathetic ghost of a person because of the evil in which she took part. Her physical form cannot withstand the force of guilt that comes with overthrowing a King, and ultimately that guilt destroys her.
MacBeth, on the other hand, seems to have finally taken control of the situation. He calls in a Doctor to “cure her of that…” meaning, it is assumed, to cure Lady MacBeth of her penchant for walking the halls and revealing treasonous secrets from their collective past. Yet it is the first time we see him really take charge of anything. We see MacBeth calling the shots and issuing orders. He has reached a position of power and command, and he is embracing his power.
Later however, in 5.3, after the death of his wife, he delivers one of the most famous speeches of all time.
We see again a weaker side of MacBeth, even a remorseful side, as he realizes that life is so incredibly brief and so often amounts to nothing. He struggled and deceived and committed horrible crimes simply to advance his standing in this world only to realize that in the grand scheme of things none of it really mattered. He’s lost his wife, he’s lost his whole reason for being and improving. He has fulfilled the witches’ prophesy but for what? He will die and he will die alone after much drama and nothing of real true worth will have been accomplished. He gives us a glimpse into what kinds of thoughts have been haunting him.
I think it is so interesting how these characters exhibit this sense of remorse at the end of the play. We have seen evil and conniving characters in other tragedies by Shakespeare. But how often do we see them overtaken with guilt for their actions. How often do we see them wish for things to have turned out differently?
I was reminded of the fate of Henry IV towards the end of his life. Covered in lesions, succumbing to disease; thus is the fate of a usurper, Shakespeare seems to show us. He is warning us against the danger of trying to seize power that does not rightfully ours. This guilt, these pitiful ends we see the characters of MacBeth come to are not meant to cast usurpation or rebellion in anything but a negative light. It’s meant to show us that no good can come of an overthrow. We are meant to pity them yes, but only in the way one pities a criminal being sent to his death. We wish things could have been different for them but we take heed and learn not to follow the same path as them. Shakespeare is using their remorse to teach us what is acceptable and unacceptable in our world. The overthrow of a King can never and will never be acceptable. At the very least, not for a playwright who has just been made one of the “King’s Men” to deem acceptable.