picture of William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare (1564-1616)

In the play Macbeth, Shakespeare used compulsive washing as a literary device to reveal the guilt pangs that Lady Macbeth felt at having goaded her husband, Macbeth, to kill the King. The psychology is not accurate−Lady Macbeth is shown mimicking compulsive washing while sleepwalking−but it does reveal that Shakespeare was familiar with compulsive washing, perhaps from material he had read.

[Lady Macbeth, who is sleepwalking, enters with a candle]

Gentlewoman Lo you, here she comes! This is her very guise, and upon my life fast asleep. Observe her, stand close.

Doctor How came she by that light?

Gentlewoman Why, it stood by her: she has light by her continually, 'tis her command.

Doctor You see, her eyes are open.

Gentlewoman Ay, but their sense are shut.

Doctor What is it she does now? Look, how she rubs her hands.

Gentlewoman It is an accustomed action with her, to seem thus washing her hands: I have known her continue in this a quarter of an hour.

Lady Macbeth Yet here's a spot.

Doctor Hark, she speaks! I will set down what comes from her, to satisfy my remembrance the more strongly.

Lady Macbeth Out, damned spot! out, I say....[etc.]

Doctor Do you mark that?

Lady Macbeth The Thane of Fife had a wife; where is she now? What, will these hands ne'er be clean? No more o'that, my lord, no more o'that: you mar all with this starting.

From Macbeth, fifth act, scene one.


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