Shakespeare’s tragedy Macbeth and The Telltale Heart, a madman’s confession by Edgar Allen Poe demonstrate the debilitating effects of guilt plagued upon Macbeth, Lady Macbeth and the narrator, induced by a series of murders to resolve their own tensions. Both texts manage to portray guilt as an encroaching hallucination, though what defines Shakespeare’s play from Edgar Allen Poe’s short story is the effect guilt has on characters: Macbeth and Lady Macbeth gradually become paranoid tyrants, slaughtering whoever were deemed as a threat to their high rankings while the narrator suffers from a recurring sensation in his head as he attempts to regain composure, eventually leading to his spontaneous confession. Despite these precisely conducted and sinister murders, however, it can be argued that some of these are not evil, but in fact troubled, unstable individuals looking for a more favourable position in their life, as they themselves suffer the insanity inducing remorse brought by murder of those closest to them.
Even the rigorous plotting of assassinations by intelligent, stable minds cannot handle the bloodthirsty seed of guilt, which eventually engulfs characters in anxiety and suffering. This is the case for characters Macbeth, Lady Macbeth and the narrator of the Telltale Heart, who after murdering King Duncan and the old man respectively, slowly begin to lose their minds as their victims haunt them from the afterlife. Parallels can be drawn between the presence of Banquo’s Ghost during Act 3 Scene 4, a literal manifestation of Macbeth’s guilt from the murder of his best friend, to the ever-so-loudly beating heart that the narrator only seemed to notice before and after the death of the old man. These hallucinations frightened Macbeth and the old man, leading toward the collapse of a banquet designed to dismiss Banquo’s absence and the narrator’s shrill revelation. Furthermore, Lady Macbeth’s hallucination of bloodstained hands symbolise a recurring, indomitable guilt which she tries to literally and figuratively wash away, ultimately leading to her committing suicide. Even with a competent plan and lucid mind, guilt still manages to drive fear into characters who believe their actions conflict with their own morals.
The insurmountable level of guilt brought by murder had irreversibly altered Macbeth, Lady Macbeth and the narrator’s personalities; their new characters reflecting their mental anguish rather than their previous lives. After the assassination of King Duncan, Macbeth was no longer a proud nobleman fighting under his command but became a spiteful, control-obsessed and desperate king. Allured by the witches’ convincing prophecies, he murders his closest companion Banquo, attempts to kill his son Fleance who the witches deemed as “The father to Kings.”, and believes he will be unstoppable against the Thane of Fife, Macduff, as he was not of woman born. Meanwhile, the narrator’s exclamations of: “Can you see that I have full control of my mind?” and “Listen… you will see, you will hear how healthy my mind is.” Represent the psychotic nature of his character and actions, as he deluded by the fact that he is in full control of his mind when really the opposite is true. An example of his volatile behaviour is expressed on the night of the murder, when the old man is woken to the narrator’s presence. His rapidly beating heart emanates a fear of his own life, which the narrator achingly wants to end. At this moment, the narrator is arrogantly confident; he even compares himself to Death at the old man’s door, and after the murder easily convinces the three officers of the reason behind the old man’s absence. However, this grasp of emotion abruptly slips, sending him through a cascade of thoughts centered around the old man’s impossibly persisting heart. This leads to the narrator exploding into an outrage, questioning the ceaseless heartbeat that has driven him to the brink of insanity. From these two texts, guilt is portrayed not only as a ‘divine punishment’, but also the level of influence it has on people to a point where people are forever changed by it.
Although Macbeth, Lady Macbeth and the narrator have participated in murder of those closest to them, the question remains: are these characters truly evil? Their actions are unspeakable themselves, though when the context behind why these victims were murdered and their severe experiences of guilt are considered, everything does not seem so black and white anymore. When Lady Macbeth proposed her plans to assassinate King Duncan to steal the throne, Macbeth is deeply conflicted. In his soliloquy ‘To Kill or not to Kill’ (Act 1 Scene 7), Macbeth believes that Duncan’s powers as king would be in better hands if he himself were to rule Scotland, though this notion is conflicted by the risk of him ‘jumping the life to come’ (facing heaven’s punishment) and the fact he was the King’s loyal subject who had recently been promoted to. It was his poor, ego-driven response to Lady Macbeth’s emasculation that eventually drove him to assassinate King Duncan, which forced him to further murder Banquo and Macduff’s families as they posed a threat to his position. Meanwhile, the narrator’s scenario bears many differences to Macbeth’s struggle. Unlike him, he is solely convinced murdering the old man, someone he did not despise but in fact love, was the only way to shut his piercing, vulture eye. Without worrying about the consequences, the narrator, as if he were a predator, lies in wait for the perfect opportunity to kill the old man. This reckless behaviour implies overconfidence and a lack of remorse as he does not even take the time to think of the consequences affecting others, let alone himself. Additionally, the flawless hiding of the old man’s body continues to signify his evil determination and remorselessness as he is focused, not fazed at all by the atrocity he had committed. The ability to feel guilt and inhibit morally conflicting situations is what separates troubled individuals from evil.
In conclusion, both texts elaborate on guilt as more than a mere emotion. The idea pervades the entire plot, demonstrating not only the forms guilt can manifest into but also the effect it has on individuals’ mental health, including Macbeth, Lady Macbeth and the narrator of the Telltale Heart. This representation of guilt serves as a grim moral that those who strive power through evil deeds will inevitably suffer an equally agonizing downfall.