It’s quite odd that, despite seeing at least three murders onstage, the deaths of the female characters – Lady Macduff’s murder in Act 4 and the death of Lady Macbeth in Act 5 –take place offstage and are referred to by other actors. Consequently we are told by Malcolm that she has committed suicide (we are earlier told by Seyton only that the Queen is dead) but he declines to say how.
Act 5, Scene 1 is a very telling scene if we are exploring the question of how Lady Macbeth meets her demise. The scene is, essentially, written through the eyes of her attendant and the doctor, who observe Lady Macbeth as she “sleepwalks” – although allowing for Shakespeare’s need for dramatic tension, a combination of sleepwalking, talking and obsessive compulsive disorder is what actually happens. It is apparent to the audience that Lady Macbeth is deeply worried about something. Of course, the audience already know of her complicity in the deaths of Duncan and Banquo and the exile of Malcolm, Donalwain and Fleance. It seems she also knows of the plot against Macduff, and the deaths of his wife and children. So she has a good half a dozen murders on her conscience. For a contemporary audience, that would be enough to grant a sleepless night – fears for one’s mortal soul were a very real concern for the average Tudor or Stuart. And this is before we account for the treasonous intentions behind the first murder and possibly very real concerns for her military husband.
The attendant reports to the doctor that Lady Macbeth is now afraid of the dark and insists on retaining the light. The audience will recall that the murder of Duncan back in Act 2 was committed in pitch darkness; Macbeth himself complained that he couldn’t see where he was going. Is it that she fears that someone will murder her in her bed while she sleeps in the dark?
Meanwhile, she goes through the motions of washing her hands; her speech explains that she believes they are coated with blood and this blood will not wash off. Many students are asked to compare this with her comment to Macbeth after Duncan’s murder that “a little water clears us of this deed”. The doctor correctly guesses that Lady Macbeth is guilt ridden and states that she has more need of “the divine than the physician” – the sickness is not to her body, which he can cure, but to her soul, which he cannot. Interestingly, in ordering the attendant to remove “means of all annoyance” from the presence of Lady Macbeth, he seems to be anticipating that she may harm herself, either intentionally or not, and is effectively putting her on suicide watch.
As we are later told, Lady Macbeth does indeed take her own life, itself a mortal sin, although I doubt very much by this time that any right-thinking audience member would hold out much sympathy for her hell-bound fate. But this does not address the question of how Lady Macbeth dies, and so we must speculate. I think there are two possibilities, both of which relate to Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking:
1. She wanders off in her sleep and falls off a battlement/down the stairs/out of a window;
2. Later in Act 5, Macbeth gives the doctor an instruction to give Lady Macbeth all possible peace, i.e. to help her sleep. Perhaps the doctor was a little careless with the tincture of poppy seed and gave her an overdose?
I’m inclined to plump for the latter theory, mainly because of the discovery of Lady Macbeth’s body; Macbeth is onstage, dressing for battle when there is a scream offstage. Servants go to investigate and Seyton returns with the news that Lady Macbeth is dead. This is two scenes after the doctor has been instructed to help Lady Macbeth get some sleep, and does indicate to me that the good doctor has taken the law into his own hands.
Of course, I have no idea if this is correct, and I would be interested to hear any other theories. Ultimately, though, we will never know how Lady Macbeth met her end.