Shakespeare is a writer known for his use of metaphor. A variety of metaphors are used to express key themes in his play Macbeth. However I would argue that the metaphor of sickness and healing is one of the most prevalent metaphors that is present in this play. Shakespeare was so focused on the idea of sickness and medicine that is his only play to feature two doctors. Shakespeare addresses sickness and healing not only through the characters of his play, the sickness of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth and the healing of Edward the Confessor but also through countries as a whole, the sickness of Scotland versus the healing power of England.
The main focus on sickness and health is in the later part of the play, where it is extensively used. Macbeth can be seen to represent the disease which is plaguing Scotland, his tyrannical behaviour is having an effect on the whole country. As Malcolm refers to Scotland in Act IV, he says ‘It weeps, it bleeds, and each new day a gash Is added to her wounds,’ Shakespeare cleverly uses the idea of war and battle that has been used throughout this play but now uses it to represent Scotland as a country. The audience imagine a bloody soldier who is being stabbed, quite a violent image. This represents the violence that Scotland is experiencing. Shakespeare presents a strong case of the diseasing tyrant, Macbeth versus the doctor, Edward the confessor.
It is through Shakespeare’s metaphor of sickness and disease that not only does he manage to support his plot but he also complements the king of the time. The Kings of this time had a belief in a ‘divine right to rule’, the idea that the royal family are ordained by God. Some members of the royal family even claimed that they had healing powers, as can be seen in Macbeth. Shakespeare says that ‘such sanctity hath heaven given his hand’, referring to the king and his powers. This image of Edward the Confessor which Shakespeare portrays, one of being a holy king who can heal his subjects, would come across to a contemporary audience as an indirect tribute to James himself. Shakespeare also refers to the kings as being ‘full of grace’ and having the ‘miraculous’ ‘healing’ powers of ‘benediction’, all which can be seen to be further complements to the king. The doctor speaks of the King of Scotland who can cure the ‘evil’ (this is not only a plague like disease but also Macbeth).
Ironically at the beginning of the play Lady Macbeth, in a soliloquy of her own, points out that Macbeth’s only “illness” (at that point) is his lack of ambition. Despite the fact that he covets the throne dearly, he does not want to usurp Duncan. Her disease, affecting his mind thus eventually ruins the whole of Scotland and both of these two characters lives, as they become more corrupt. The characters in Shakespeare’s play Macbeth are shown to disintegrate as the play continues, in other words becoming more diseased. For example, by Act 2, scene 1, Macbeths “heat oppressed mind” sees apparitions of the violent dagger which is to be used on Duncan. Lennox describes the earth as ‘feverous’, after the murder takes place. Not only does this comment show that the natural world (macrocosm) also reflect what is happening in the moral world (microcosm). It is also this murder which can be argued as the starting point of Scotland’s downfall under the rule of Macbeth as king. After the murder of Duncan Lady Macbeth tries to convince her husband that “what’s done, is done.’ However Macbeth had realised that this murder would not be the ‘be-all and the end-all’, evil was going to continue. By satisfying his ambitions Macbeth has corrupted himself. He experiences life now as a ‘fitful fever’, he is constantly ill. Only the dead are truly at peace; the living always have a disease.
There are further advances in Macbeth’s downfall at the banquet that he organises for his subjects, after the murder of Banquo. Lady Macbeth explains Macbeth’s reaction to Banquo by saying that he is plagued by a common infirmity that causes him to hallucinate. This is ironic as it suggests that Macbeth is ill with the disease of corruption and evil. As the play progresses, the imagery of the diseased Macbeth becomes more evident. In Act four Malcolm and Macduff, lament the fact that Scotland is as ill as its ruler. Malcolm describes the bleeding country, as I have mentioned. This metaphor of a diseased country is extended as Macduff introduces the idea of healing Scotland, upon learning that his family has been killed.
Macduff vows to murder Macbeth, thus curing his homeland with the medicine of revenge. Even Lady Macbeth has been affected by the spread of the corruption. On a literal basis she has actually suffered a mental breakdown, primarily due to the heavy load on her conscience. As is said ‘unnatural deeds (the murder of the King)/do breed unnatural troubles’. In the sleepwalking scene the doctor describes Lady Macbeth’s disease as being ‘beyond my practice’ and he mentions ‘infected minds’. A doctor can not cure the hideous crimes that are affecting her. Religion is her only hope; her disease of guilt cannot just be cured. Lady Macbeth is not just suffering from a sick body, but a sick soul. It is for this reason that the doctor’s diagnosis is that her only hope rests on divine healing rather than physical recuperation.
Macbeth asks ‘Canst thou not minister to a mind diseas’d, Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow, Raze out the written troubles of the brain, And with some sweet oblivious antidote Cleanse the stuff’d bosom of that perilous stuff Which weighs upon the heart’. He wants an easy way to get rid of Lady Macbeth’s sorrows however this is not possible, her evil has corrupted her mind. Some critiques argue that over three centuries before Sigmund Freud, Shakespeare is touching upon psychoanalysis. The description of Lady Macbeth in this state captures the sorrow that Freud tried to cure through psychoanalysis. The doctor almost states exactly what Freud’s methods were ‘therein the patient/must minister to himself’, this states the heart of psychoanalytic practice: the patient, by talking though his or her problems with an analysis, effectively finds his or her own cure.
Both Macbeth and the nobles in opposition to Macbeth use the imagery of Sickness and Medicine. For example the Scottish noble Caithness says that Macbeth has a ‘distemper’d cause’ and urges Menteith to march to meet “the medicine of the sickly weal And with him pour we, in our country’s purge, Each drop of us;’ they want to purge the evil disease through the medicine of war. Macbeth is also suggested to be ‘sick at heart’, because of his pure evil nature. Macbeth asks the doctor to ‘find (Scotland’s) disease, and purge it to a sound and pristine health’. Macbeth puts on his armour and put the sword to his enemies, treating them as if they were his disease, and as if routing them were the cure for his guilt. Shakespeare is creating irony here; Macbeth does not recognise that it is he who is Scotland’s disease. Macbeth uses these metaphors from medicine, to turn the ‘disease’ in Scotland to ‘health’. Caithness, also uses these terms “medicine” and “purge” to enforce the idea that it is in fact Malcolm and his supporters who will ‘cure’ Scotland of its illness. The killing of Macbeth is just, but also necessary – to purge Scotland of its moral sickness and restore its health. Shakespeare shows the completely sick nature of the country that Macbeth has created through the mention of ‘blood’ over a hundred times in Macbeth. Macbeth has created a violent, bloody world, one of destruction.
Overall I would say that Shakespeare’s imagery of disease as a metaphor for evil and corruption is appropriate for several reasons. Firstly, Macbeth’s slow descent down the moral ladder is similar to a disease slowly spreading through an organism. Secondly, just as Macbeth is unable to rid himself of the thought of killing Duncan, a disease is often uncontrollable. Finally, the metaphor is extended, as Malcolm (and to a lesser extent Macduff) is seen as medicine or a healer who cures Scotland of its infirmity.