Macbeth – Literary Heritage Course work essay (20% of Lit GCSE)

Discuss the imagery of Sickness and Health in Macbeth.

Important Advice on the essay:

Edexcel specifies that the essays should be marked according to the following Assessment Objectives:

AO1 Demonstrate a close knowledge and understanding of texts, maintaining a critical style and presenting an informed personal engagement (10 marks)

AO2 Analyse the language, form and structure used by a writer to create meanings and effects (10 marks)

AO4 Show understanding of the relationships between texts and the contexts in which they were written (10 marks)

AO2 means that you do need to analyse the way in which the play is written and not just explain what it is about.

AO4 means that you need a lot of detail referring to the historical background of the play.  I have set titles which give you plenty of opportunity to do this. 

For a top grade, you would be expected to write at least 1500 words, or about 3-4 sides.

Style Guide Reminders:

  • Name, date and candidate number in a header
  • Times New Roman 12 pt
  • block paragraphs
  • 1.5 line spacing
  • Act, Scene, line references in brackets after quotations (IV.iii.6-11)
  • Quotations of less than one line can be incorporated into a paragraph.  Longer than one line and they should be an indented paragraph with no quotation marks.  Use Shakespeare’s line divisions.
  • When referring to Macbeth as the title of the play use italics, but not when referring to Macbeth the character. Do not use italics for quotations.

Discuss the imagery of Sickness and Health in Macbeth.

Images of sickness in the play symbolise a moral and spiritual sickness in Macbeth and also in the country of Scotland under Macbeth’s rule.  You may draw a distinction between physical and mental sickness.  There are many images of physical sickness, but it is also apparent that Macbeth and his wife are suffering from mental illness caused by their feelings of guilt.  Inability to sleep, nightmares, hallucinations, sleepwalking, paranoia are all symptoms of mental illness. 

Edward the Confessor is important as he has a god-given healing power in contrast with the sickness associated with Macbeth and Scotland.

Wear sev’n-nights nine times nine,

Shall he dwindle, peak and pine.  (I.i.23-24)

He’ll get sicker and sicker from lack of sleep, which is also what happens to the Macbeths.

                        Thou wouldst be great –

Art not without ambition, but without

The illness should attend it. (I.v.17-19)

Lady Macbeth can see that her husband wants to be king, but is not nasty enough to do what is needed to become king. 

                        Was the hope drunk,

Wherein you dressed yourself? Hath it slept since?

And wakes it now to look so green and pale

At what it did so freely?  (I.vii.35-38)

Lady Macbeth uses a metaphor to compare Macbeth’s change of mind about killing Duncan to a man sick with a hangover, who regrets what he said the night before.

balm of hurt minds (II.11.36)

Macbeth describes sleep as a medicine that cures a damaged mind.  After killing Duncan neither he nor his wife can sleep properly.

The labour we delight in physics pain.  (II.iii.46)

Macbeth means that if we enjoy labour, it cures the pain of the labour.  This is ironic, because what he is doing is guiding MacDuff to the room in which he will find the murdered Duncan.

                                    Some say the Earth

Was feverous and did shake.  (II.iii.58-59)

The murder of the king is such a serious crime, that everything in the universe is affected.  It is as if the whole world is ill.

For Banquo’s issue have I filed my mind. (III.i.64)

“defiled” has a strong sense of mental illness.

                                    Nought’s had, all’s spent,

Where our desire is got without content.  (III.ii.4-5)

Lady M is admitting she is unhappy, and this is a sign of mental illness

…the affliction of these terrible dreams

That shake us nightly.  Better be with the dead

Whom, we, to gain our peace, have sent to peace,

Than on the torture of the mind to lie

In restless ecstasy.  Duncan is in his grave.

After life’s fitful fever he sleeps well.” (III.ii.19-25)

Similarly Macbeth uses strong language to describe his mental state.  The broken rhythm, the contorted syntax, the caesuras combine to show Macbeth’s anguished mind.  For him life itself has become a “fever” without the restorative power of sleep

O, full of scorpions is my mind, dear wife! (III.ii.36)

A brilliantly graphic image of mental illness.

            There are a crew of wretched souls

That stay his cure. Their malady convinces

The great assay of art – but, at his touch.

Such sanctity hath heaven given his hand,

They presently amend.  (IV.iii 141-145)

Edward II’s healing gift comes from God, in contrast to Macbeth’s satanic power.

                                    How he solicits heaven

Himself best knows; but strangely-visited people,

All swoll’n and ulcerous, pitiful to the eye,

The mere despair of surgery, he cures –

Hanging a golden stamp upon their necks,

Put on with holy prayers. And ’tis spoken,

To the succeeding royalty he leaves

The healing benediction.  With this strange virtue

He hath a heavenly gift of prophecy;

And sundry blessings hang about his throne

That speak him full of grace. (IV.iii.149-159)

Again Edward is contrasted with Macbeth.  James was first king of Scotland and England, so perhaps Shakespeare is emphasising Edward’s holiness and piety as a way of approving of the England’s role in overthrowing Macbeth and the later union of the two kingdoms.

Let’s make us medicines of our great revenge,

To cure this deadly grief. (IV.iii.214-215)

Malcolm offers Macduff a healing image.  Their revenge on Macbeth will be “medicine”

A great perturbation in nature, to receive at once the benefit of sleep, and do the effects of watching! (V.i.8-9)

The doctor understands that her sleepwalking is a symptom of illness.  This ties in with all the other imagery associated with sleep, which is seen as a healing force in the play.

                                                infected minds

To their deaf pillows will discharge their secrets.

More needs she the divine than the physician, – (V.i.65-66)

The doctor realises that the cause of Lady M’s illness is guilt.  The image of the infected mind like a lanced boil “discharging” her secret is rather horrible! The fact that she can only tell her secret to her “deaf pillow” shows that it is her inability to confess her crime that is really troubling her. “Divine” refers to a priest who would be able to hear her confession. 

He cannot buckle his distempered cause

Within the belt of rule.  (V.ii.15-16)

Macbeth’s reign is seen as diseased in this metaphor.  Distemper caused the belly to swell, hence Macbeth’s inability to properly rule over Scotland.

Meet we the medicine of the sickly weal –

And with him pour we, in our country’s purge,

Each drop of us.  (V.ii.27-29)

Like Malcolm, Caithness sees himself as the cure for the sickness that is infecting Scotland. A purge is a medicine which causes the body to rid itself of toxins or impurities.

Doctor:                                    Not so sick, my lord,

As she is troubled with thick-coming fancies,

That keep her from her rest.

Macbeth:                                 Cure her of that, –

Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased,

Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow,

Raze out the written troubles of the brain,

And with some sweet oblivious antidote

Cleanse the stuffed bosom of that perilous stuff

Which weighs upon the heart?  (V.iii.37-45)

Macbeth also understands the real cause of his wife’s illness and by the use of “oblivious” suggests the only way to ease her pain would be for her to forget what she has done.

                        If thou couldst, Doctor, cast

The water of my land, find her disease,

And purge it to a sound and pristine health,


What rhubarb, senna, or what purgative drug

Would scour these English hence? (V.iii.50-56)

Macbeth also sees his country as ill, but to him it is the English who are the infection.  He also uses images of “purging”.  Rhubarb and senna are laxatives.  “Cast the water” – he is metaphorically asking the doctor to test the urine of his land, which was one of the main diagnostic methods of doctors in Shakespeare’s time. 

                                    Here let them lie,

Till famine and the ague eat them up!  (V.v.3-4)

Ague is a fever, probably malaria, which was still endemic in Britain in Shakespeare’s time.

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