Macbeth in Medical Terms


For much of Act I, Macbeth is torn between evil—his Wife’s wishes to kill King Duncan (which is partly his own wish)—and justness, not killing the King/being pleased with his lot in life so far. Yet, the witches and Lady Macbeth act as anxiety triggers, which are not pleasant for a man who was presumably neurotic prior to the witches’ prophecies. The reader first encounters this anxiety in Act one, Scene three, right after Macbeth discovers he’s been appointed Thane of Cawdor:


“Why hath it given me earnest of success

Commencing in a truth? I am Thane of Cawdor.

If good, why do I yield to that suggestion

Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair

And make my seated heart knock at my ribs” (1.3.131-135)


In the passage above, the reader receives physical descriptors of Macbeth’s anxiety as he cognitively processes the prophecies’ validity. Macbeth’s hair becomes “unfixed,” which I took as a physical indicator of hair loss. Hair loss can be a physiological response to a lifestyle change, and Macbeth is certainly undergoing serious lifestyle change. Secondly, Macbeth states that the prophecies “make my seated hear knock at my ribs,” which I read as a physical description of heart palpations or Tachycardia (rapid heart beat). Doctors, as I brush up on my cardiovascular history via WebMd, consider heart-rate issues to be symptoms of general anxiety disorder.


Prior to the regicide, Macbeth opens up Act one, Scene Seven, by mulling over the assassination:


“He’s here in double trust:

First, as I am his kinsman and his subject,

Strong both against the deed; then, as his host,

Who should against his murderer shut the door,

Not bear the knife myself. Besides, this Duncan

Hath borne his faculties so meek, hath been

So clear in his great office, that his virtues

Will plead like angels” (1.7.13-18)


In this monologue, Macbeth is taking a moment to relax and use some reason. I believe this monologue acts as a brief meditation in the mind of Macbeth. When one’s mind is calm and relaxed, they have the ability to see reason. Macbeth is conscious of how wrong this act will be, especially since they are kinsman and Macbeth is King Duncan’s host. Additionally, King Duncan has been nothing but kind and just to not only Macbeth, but also the citizens of the kingdom. Unfortunately, Lady Macbeth thwarts Macbeth’s rationale by questioning his manhood, and ultimately leads him to the murder. Because of Macbeth’s anxieties, I believe he’s easily impressionable. Lady Macbeth acts as a poor psychiatrist; she recognizes his medical symptoms, and ultimately prescribes him with medication that heightens his condition, rather than easing it.


Upon the murder, Macbeth becomes hypersensitive to sound, and begins to hear voices:

“Methought I hear a voice cry ‘sleep no more,

Macbeth does murder sleep’ (2.2. 33-35)


Continuing with the medical rhetoric, could these voices possibly be symptoms of schizophrenia? When one has untreated schizophrenia, they are often plagued with the inability to perceive what is real and what isn’t. Moreover, hearing voices can mark the unreal. Macbeth is completely undone by this crying voice, proclaiming, “sleep no more,” and it is ubiquitous throughout the house.


Was Shakespeare thinking in terms of anxiety and schizophrenia when he was writing? Probably not—with that said, Shakespeare must have come across people plagued with mental illness, and thus used their symptoms when creating characters, most notably Macbeth.


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