I dream of Oedipus: Freud’s interpretation of Macbeth

Heather Timberman

Macbeth is the ultimate story of betrayal, ambition and greed. The play is written in a dreamlike state, sometimes considered a dream itself, and the two leading characters have been analyzed by more psychologists and scholars alike than almost any other character in literature. However, few can agree on how to interpret them. Even the great Sigmund Freud didn’t have much to say on the matter. He claimed it was “impossible to come to any decision” as the play progresses far too quickly for any singular character to develop fully (Freud E-2). Yet this has not stopped his students from coming up with a sufficient analysis of Lord and Lady Macbeth, and the analysis have attempting to discover a motive for the couple to jump to the conclusion of murder.

There are a few approaches one can take when psychoanalyzing the Lord and Lady Macbeth. First off, one has to decide to read the characters as such or as real people. For the purposes of psychoanalysis, it makes the most sense to assume the latter of the two. Once that is decided, it can then either be assumed that Lord and Lady Macbeth are two separate entities or that they are two parts of one being.

Taken as herself, Lady Macbeth originates the stronger of the two conspirators. There is no hesitation in her will for Duncan to die. According to Norman Holland’s book Psychoanalysis and Shakespeare, Lady Macbeth is discouraged by her husband’s impotence. She therefore decides to focus all of her energies on her husband’s ambitious plans (Holland p 65). She even goes so far as to give up all that is womanly and dedicate herself to cruelty, in order to gain status (Davis p 213).

Come to my woman’s breasts and take my milk for gall, you murdering ministers (Act 1, Scene 5, lines 47-48).

Derek Davis goes to claim that it could be due to losing so many children in infancy (p 213). Though the text never states verbatim that Lady Macbeth ever lost a child, it can be reasonably assumed that this is the case. In Act One, the lady makes a reference to having suckled a child before:

I have given suck, and know how tender ‘tis to love the babe that milks me (Act1, Scene 7, lines 55-56.)

However, Macduff pointedly states in reference to Macbeth, “He has no children (Act 4, Scene 3, line 216)!” Taking this into consideration, it is easy to understand how distraught the Lady Macbeth is in the beginning of the play. It therefore makes sense for her to desire to fill the void in her life left from losing countless children.

As the play progresses, it seems obvious that Lady Macbeth is the stronger than her husband. This is most apparent in the banquet scene of Act three. Macbeth begins to images of Banquo’s ghost everywhere. It is Lady Macbeth who maintains a sense of order in the situation. She admonishes her husband’s behavior, goes on to excuse her husband’s apparent illness and then sends the guest away:

You have displaced the mirth, broke the good meeting with most admired disorder…
He grows worse and worse; Question enrages him. At once, good night. Stand not upon the order of your going, But go at once. (Act 3, Scene 4, lines 109-110, 118-121).

She is able to do this by stifling her conscience (Waith p 66).

However, this proves to be her demise. As her defenses being to fail, she has no way to release the intense feelings of guilt, as her husband has become more and more distraught (Davis p 219). Eventually these nagging feelings of guilt overtake her and reduce her to the sleep walking figure that is seen in Act 5. The constant washing of her hands is her mind’s way of ridding herself of that guilt. Her agitation, tendency to aggression, desire for death and feeling as if there was no road back, lead to the assumption that she has developed a form of psychosis (p 227). Washing her hands did nothing to relieve her grief. Therefore she feels that suicide is the only adequate course of action to appease her dissatisfied conscience.

Macbeth is driven to murder through similar motives of inadequacy. Davis claims that even though Macbeth has received various acclaims to fame due to his battle prowess, he is unable to acclimate himself back into society (p 210). Davis compares this to the state of Generals returning from the Second World War. Many who rose to higher ranks ran into a demobilisation crisis, trying to assert themselves in their civilian lives as they had on the battle field, often finding that this was not possible. Because of this, he is more susceptible to the witches’ prophesy (p 213).

In his essay, “Macbeth: Drama and Dream”, Simon O. Lesser goes even further to suggest that Macbeth is only able to kill due to his crippled ego (Lesser p 221). Lesser claims that Macbeth killed for a role that he knew he was unable to fulfill in the hopes that it would make himself feel better about his life (Lesser p224). When the play opens, on finds an unhappy Macbeth, middle-aged, childless, and loveless without any interest outside of war. Freud argued that the lack of children increased his sense of isolation and his lack of compassion (Davis p 214). He, like his wife, is trying to fill the void in his life by any means necessary.

Macbeth is also fulfilling the oedipal role of the bad son (Lesser p 224). He has no real hatred for Duncan before or after the murder. In fact all he has is praise for the old man:

This Duncan hath borne his faculties so meek, hath been so clear in his great office, that his virtues will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued, against the deep damnation of his taking –off (Act 1, Scene 7, Lines 16-20).

However, in order to prove himself as a man to both he and his wife, he needs to kill his surrogate father and marry his “mother”, or in this case, Scotland.

This causes Macbeth much grief. His ego becomes so crippled by his severe super ego that he begins to behave as one with an obsession or compulsion (Lesser p 221). This explains his ability to murder as his id and super ego are continuously in battle with no mediation from the ego (p 222). Thus, he is constantly punished before, during, and after each act he commits.

Macbeth continues to degrade as the murders progress. He begins hallucinating, seeing ghosts and hearing noises.  This shows most prominently than in the banquet scene. In the midst of a banquet of his subjects, Macbeth becomes so immersed in his dreamlike state that he begins to lash out at the visions he sees:

Avaunt, and quit my sight! Let the earth hide thee! Thy bones are marrowless, thy blood is cold; Thou hast no speculation in those eyes which thou dost glare with (Act 3, Scene 4, lines 94-97)!

Almost in an effort to reduce Macbeth’s frenzy and despair, the witches appear again. They offer Macbeth a sense of invulnerability. They prophesy that:

None of woman born shall harm Macbeth (Act 4, Scene 1, lines 80-81).

This almost becomes a phrase of power creating in Macbeth delusions of grandeur and omnipotence, symptoms of paranoia (Davis p222).

After the death of Lady Macbeth, he becomes even more disillusioned with life. The couple has become so distanced from each other that he barely even notices her death:

She should have died hereafter (Act 5, Scene 5, line 17).

He goes on to say that life is “a tale told by and idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing (Act 5, Scene 6, lines 26-28)”.  He welcomes death to him, and eventually it comes, ironically in the form of a man ripped from his mother’s womb.

Freud, in his book Some Character-types Met With In Psycho-analytical Work refuses to take this approach. He comes to the conclusion that the two characters are one in the same. Referencing the studies of Ludwig Jekels, he claims that Shakespeare would “often split a character into two personages (Freud E-4)”. The fear that was started upon the first murder, though they were indeed brewing in Macbeth, ultimately surface in the character of Lady Macbeth, while Macbeth himself takes on her position as a cold blooded killer.

However, most analysts agree that Macbeth’s main motivation towards murder is his lack of an heir. The ultimate isolation brought upon by knowing one’s legacy ends with one’s own life is enough to drive any man to despair. Add on top of that, insatiable aspirations and perfect opportunity and you have the perfect recipe to drive a man to murder a king.

Work Cited

Davis, Derek Russell. “Hurt Minds.” Focus on Macbeth, Ed. John Russell Brown. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd. 1982.

Freud, Sigmund. “Some Character-types Met With In Psycho-analytical Work”, Shakespeare:Macbeth-Freud on the Macbeths,

1916, Chao Mugger, October 21, 2004. <http://sunflower.signet.com.sg/~yisheng/notes/shakespeare/mbeth_f.htm>

Holland, Norman H. Psychoanalysis and Shakespeare, New York, NY: McGrow-Hill Book Company, 1966.

Lesser, Simon O. “Macbeth: Drama and Dream”, The Whispered Meanings, Ed. Robert Sprich and Richard Noland. Amherst,

MA: university of Massachusetts Press, 1977.

Shakespeare, William. Macbeth, The Necessary Shakespeare, Ed. David Bevington, New York, NY: Pearson Education Inc.


Waith, Eugene M. “Manhood and Valor in Macbeth”, Twentieth Century Interpretations of Macbeth, Ed. Terrence Hawkes.

Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-hall, Inc. 1977.