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Blood Symbolism in Macbeth
by Sean Lowe
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.
reveals Macbeth’s feelings about murder. For
example, blood symbolism exposes the apprehensiveness of Macbeth before he kills
from my hand? No; this my hand will rather
multitudinous seas incarnadine,
the green one red (IIii 24)
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.
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
This page was last updated on 10/10/05.