Frequent Hand-Washing: Macbeth vs. COVID-19

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The act of frequent hand-washing is supposed to ward off the virus of COVID-19 pandemic. They say the rubbing of hands with sanitizers further minimises the strength of the virus to infect. Naturally, then, the people have started nurturing those habits following the Govt's order or the doctors' advice throughout the world.

However, at the hindsight, one feels the habits, if practiced for long, may result in some behavioural disorders in a person or, for that matter, turn the indulgent into a psychopath in not-too-distant a future. Such disorders caused by an intensive and excessive desire for a particular person or a thing are called 'the obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)' in psychology.

The disorders referred to find a parallel, albeit with a difference, in Shakespeare's famous play called Macbeth written in 1610 AD. True, in the case of present COVID-19, the seemingly abnormal behaviours have been forced upon the people by way of prophylactic constraints in order to control the conflagratory spread of the virus. For this, persons of all ages are advised to wash their hands for at least 20 seconds every time they step into their houses from outside places.

As against these, the frequent hand-washing exercises by Macbeth and his wife as witnessed in the play are born out of their own sins. They have assassinated their most revered guest King Duncan of Denmark perfidiously.

Immediately thereafter, they start losing their sleep, peace of mind as well as suffer from sleep-walking (i.e. somnambulism) phenomena on end. All such psycho-somatic disorders go a long way in hinting obliquely at their guilts of assassination committed earlier.

However, when Macbeth visualises Duncan's gory murder, spots of blood flash suddenly upon his eyes. Then he finds (in imagination) that his blood-spattered hands are not yet clean. At this he gets disturbed and is therefore, exhorted by his wife to:

"... Go get some water,
And wash this filthy witness from your hand."

Here the reference to "filthy witness" stands for the blood on Macbeth's hands proving too hard to be washed off or removed by "some water or the water of great Neptune's ocean and other seas put together. Consequently, without any hope of redemption, he retorts to his wife thus:

"Will all great Neptune's ocean wash this blood,
Clean from my hand? No, this my hand will rather.
The multitudinous seas incarnadine,
Making the green one red. (ii, i, 125-128)"

The texts produced here delineate well the behavioural disorders of Macbeth in the form of his hand-washings, quite often. These futile exercises signify his lunacy that has rendered him too debilitated to see things in right perspectives. Had the matter been not so, incoherent utterances from Macbeth (e.g. Will... Neptune's ocean wash this blood...?) won't have ensued at all.

Bearing a horrifying resemblance with the above is the character of Lady Macbeth as well. Like her husband, she also tries to rub off all signs of blood from her hands. But the way she does bewilders even her royal doctor who is stunned at "how she rubs her hands." (v.i.24) He treats such rubbing a disease beyond his understanding. The doctor says:

''The disease is beyond my practice (v.i.54)''

Apart from rubbing, her frequent hand-washings, too, are no less a bizarre behavioural disorder. Her one hand-wash, at times, lasts for a quarter of an hour, at least. The texts relating to such facts read:

"It is an accustomed action of her, to seem thus washing her hands: I have known her to continue in this a quarter of an hour (v.i.26-28)"

Physically, there are no signs of blood on her hands, yet she finds they have indelibly stuck there. The question is—how is it so? Frankly speaking, the sense of guilts coupled with the fear of getting exposed as an assassin to the world has morphed into blood-spots pricking the conscience of Lady Macbeth intermittently. Seen thus, her habits (i.e. washing hands) look a mere externalization of what has remained firmly lodged as internal evils in her mind for long. That is why her habits in question recur involuntarily, forcing the lady to soliloquise, on more occasions than one, in such words as:

"What, will these hands never be clean?" (v.i.39)

OR

"Wash your hands, put on your nightgown" (v.i.57)

All the texts cited above aver that the blood-spots begotten of sins cannot be wiped out with ordinary water. Unlike that, a hand-wash with simple water/sanitizer can effectively keep at bay the virus of the Corona from a person. Looked at from this angle, the two kinds of washings may seem one in form but are diametrically opposite in meanings. Thus, in view of the COVID-19, one hand-wash stands for health and hygiene of the people. Contrary to that, the same wash denotes a psychic ailment manifesting itself through the character of Macbeth and his wife. Their behavioural disorders further provide a peep into how the criminality of the duo grows egregiously complex for the fulfilment of their vaulting ambitions at all costs. Added further to the theme is the fear that the hygienic wash, even though good for specific purposes, may gradually turn into a psychic abnormality if one continues to indulge in the habit of washing hands, every now and them, for long.


Dr. Md. A. Wahid, Associate Professor, Dept. of English
R.P.M College, Patna City, Patna

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