Blood Symbolism in Macbeth
by Sean Lowe
Symbolism is the practice of representing peoples, places, objects, and ideas by means of symbols or of attributing symbolic meanings or significance to objects, events, or relationships. Most great works of literature seem to include some degree of symbolism. Accordingly, Shakespeare’s Macbeth exhibits a great deal of symbolism. One heavily used symbol is that of blood. In Macbeth, blood symbolizes murder and guilt, and Shakespeare uses this symbol to characterize Macbeth and Lady Macbeth.
Blood reveals Macbeth’s feelings about murder. For example, blood symbolism exposes the apprehensiveness of Macbeth before he kills . Macbeth hallucinates a dagger floating before him, guiding him towards ’s room. “And on thy blade and dudgeon gouts of blood, / Which was not so before.—There's no such thing: / It is the bloody business which informs / Thus to mine eyes” (IIi 21). Macbeth’s brain is so “heat-oppressed” (IIi 20), or feverish, about the murder that it projects a symbol of murder, the bloody dagger. After killing , Shakespeare uses the blood symbol to express Macbeth’s horror and guilt over his crime. Macbeth says, “What hands are here! Ha! they pluck out mine eyes” (IIii 24). Macbeth says that the sight of the blood, the idea of murder, is so awful it metaphorically rips his eyes out, indicating the magnitude of his shock. Macbeth not only is horrified by the murder, but also feels extreme guilt:
Will all great 's ocean wash this blood
Clean from my hand? No; this my hand will rather
The multitudinous seas incarnadine,
Making the green one red (IIii 24)
Macbeth also suffers guilt for murdering Banquo. When Macbeth meets with the Thanes at a banquet, Banquo’s ghost appears. Macbeth indicates that the ghost haunts him in accusation. Macbeth protests “Thou canst not say I did it: never shake / Thy gory locks at me” (IIIiv 45). Gory locks indicate that Banquo is bloody. Banquo’s appearance, then, is a projection of Macbeth’s guilt. His conscience is self-accusatory. Shakespeare also uses the blood symbol to illustrate Macbeth’s acceptance of his guilt. He tells Lady Macbeth, “I am in blood / Step't in so far that, should I wade no more, / Returning were as tedious as go o'er” (IIIiv 48). In this metaphor comparing guilt to a pool or marshland, Macbeth says he has waded so far into this pool that it would be as difficult to turn back as it would be to “go o’er,” to continue. This metaphor elucidates Macbeth’s “no turning back now” attitude towards murder and evil. Macbeth seems to feel that he is already so guilty that he might as well accept it. The blood metaphor reveals a fundamental attitude change in Macbeth. He goes from remorseful guilt to dry acceptance.
Blood symbolism also reveals much about Lady Macbeth’s attitude towards murder changes. Initially, she is a beguiling instigator of murder, and her first reaction to blood displays this nonchalant attitude. She tells Macbeth, “My hands are of your colour, but I shame / To wear a heart so white” (IIii 24). Lady Macbeth effortlessly washes off this blood with water, disregarding the guilt. Lady Macbeth’s second reaction to blood, however, exhibits shock over her husband’s free acts of cruelty. She sees the guards her husband has slain and faints. Covered in blood, the murdered guards underline Macbeth’s malice and cruelty. Therefore, when Lady Macbeth faints at the sight of these symbols, she makes obvious her change from plotting instigator to shocked observer. Blood continues to symbolize guilt, and eventually, just as Macbeth wants to remove blood from his hands, Lady Macbeth wants to cleanse her hands of blood and guilt. She visualizes a spot of blood on her hands and perpetually tries to wash it off. “Out, damned spot! out, I say!” (Vi 72). The stigma of guilt, however, cannot be removed, which reveals Lady Macbeth’s haunting, incurable guilt over the murders during Macbeth’s reign. Lady Macbeth continues in woeful guilt, saying “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” (Vi 72). She says her hands will never be clean, indicating that this guilt will remain indefinitely. Comparing Lady Macbeth’s reactions to blood in the beginning of the play to her final reactions reveals her metamorphosis from guilt-free to guilt-ridden.
Blood symbolism serves as a continuous indicator of characters’ emotional progression. Macbeth’s and Lady Macbeth’s reactions to blood underline their inverse attitude changes. Macbeth moves from immeasurable guilt to callous killer, while Lady Macbeth starts as the callous killer and falls to a state of despair. Thus, the blood symbol allows the reader to not only see the character changes of Macbeth’s two main characters, but also compare and contrast these changes.
Get out the hydrogen peroxide, because this play needs it: there's blood all over. From the bleeding Captain in the beginning to Macbeth's bleeding head at the end, literal blood drips from every page. But in our view, it's the imagined blood that really counts.
When Macbeth considers murdering Duncan, he sees a floating "dagger of the mind" that points him in the direction of the sleeping king's room (2.1.50). As Macbeth wonders if his mind is playing tricks on him, the dagger becomes covered in imaginary blood, which anticipates the way that very real daggers will be soiled when Macbeth murders King Duncan.
But where does this dagger come from? Did the witches conjure it up? Is it a product of Macbeth's imagination? Is Macbeth being tempted to follow or warned not to pursue the hallucination? Given what happens later, we're tempted to say that it's Macbeth's own vision, an externalization of his guilt.
Out, Out, Damned Spot
Eventually, imagined blood comes to symbolize guilt for both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. After he murders Duncan, Macbeth supposes that even "Great Neptune's ocean" could not wash away his stain of guilt (2.2.78) after Lady Macbeth' tells him to "go get some water / And wash this filthy witness" from his hands (2.2.60-61).
Obviously, water isn't going to get these two clean. Lady Macbeth spends most of the play's last acts seeing the imaginary "spot" of blood she can't seem to wash from her guilty hands (5.1.33). But it's Macbeth who really spells it out for us. Once he kills his friend Banquo, who returns as a ghost, Macbeth tells that "blood will have blood" (3.4.151). His image of wading in a river of blood sums up the lesson: you might just as well keep on going once you start, because that stuff is never going to wash out.