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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 Duncan .  Macbeth hallucinates a dagger floating before him, guiding him towards Duncan ’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 Duncan , 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 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 (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.

This page was last updated on 10/10/05.

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