Blood and Guilt in Shakespeare’s Macbeth

In William Shakespeare’s Macbeth the idea of guilt and blood are closely connected. Blood imagery is used to illustrate the guilt felt by the two main characters of the play, and also the disdain felt towards them by third parties.

(Lot’s of pictures!)

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Guilt is a powerful and timeless emotion that all people experience as a natural part of life. Guilt is often felt in response to having committed a violent crime, such as murder. Someone else’s blood on a person’s hands is a strong trigger of guilt. In William Shakespeare’s Macbeth the idea of guilt and blood are closely connected. Blood imagery is used to illustrate the guilt felt by the two main characters of the play, and also the disdain felt towards them by third parties. Shakespeare uses images of blood to illustrate in a concrete fashion the heinous nature of human acts, evoking guilt from Macbeth and his wife, and condemnation of Macbeth and his villainous acts.

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Macbeth knows at every stage of the plot that his actions are loathsome, causing him to feel guilt, brought on by the sight of blood. Macbeth begins to experience the effects of guilt before he has even committed the crimes. While heading towards Duncan’s chamber to murder him Macbeth ponders to himself, “Is this a dagger which I see before me, / The handle toward my hand?… / 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” (2.1 p. 57). Macbeth’s guilt about what he is about to do brings him to hallucinate a dagger, identical to his own, covered in blood. A dagger that foreshadows how his will look after he murders Duncan. Having just killed Duncan, Macbeth exclaims, “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” (2.2 p. 59). The guilty Macbeth believes that his murder of Duncan is so horrendous that the resulting blood on his hands will stain the entire ocean red. Macbeth realizes that the crime he’s committed will follow him forever. During a dinner party Macbeth hosts, he is informed of Banquo’s murder and subsequently sees a guilt fueled hallucination of Banquo’s ghost. Once his guests have departed, Macbeth explains to his wife, “I am in blood / Stepped in so far that, should I wade no more, / Returning were as tedious as go o’er” (3.4 p. 109). Macbeth decides that he has reached the point of no return, that there is no turning back from the blood he’s drawn. Unlike his wife, Macbeth is at no point oblivious to the wicked nature of the violence he and his wife have orchestrated. Macbeth feels guilt every step of the way, triggered by images of blood, Lady Macbeth does not.

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Lady Macbeth suppresses her moral sense throughout the play, however, it eventually reveals itself through the nightmares she has of her victim’s blood. Lady Macbeth fears that her husband is too full of compassion to follow through with what she believes needs to be done to secure their position on the throne. A messenger announces to her that Duncan will arrive that night, and she immediately decides to take action and prepare for what must be done by asking the powers that be to, “Make thick my blood. / Stop up the access and passage to remorse” (1.5 p. 33). Lady Macbeth is asking supernatural powers to stifle her human emotions, and make her blood run cold enough to kill. She knows that her will alone will not suffice in overcoming the guilt impeding her from the task at hand.

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Long after the murder of Duncan, and Macbeth’s realization that he will never be free of the blood on his guilty conscience, Lady Macbeth is tormented by the everlasting blood that’s stained her hands. Sleepwalking, she mutters, “Here’s the smell of the blood still. All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand”  (5.1 p. 163). Lady Macbeth experiences again and again blood-filled nightmares, the product of her guilty conscience, in which she smells the blood of her victims and is unable to do anything about it. Lady Macbeth grows frantic as she repeatedly attempts to clean her hands of what she’s done to no avail; she yells out, “Out, damned spot! Out, I say!… Fie, my / lord, fie, a soldier and afeard? What need we fear / who knows it, when none can call our power to / account?… Yet who would have thought the old man / to have had so much blood in him?” (5.1 p. 163). Still unable to wash her hands of blood, Lady Macbeth mocks Macbeth for his hesitation to kill Duncan. Understanding she need fear no consequence while Queen, Lady Macbeth experiences her blood-filled nightmares as a result of guilt and not of fear. Lady Macbeth successfully quells her guilt long enough to complete the dastardly agenda she devised with Macbeth, but not without paying a price. She drives herself into a guilt-induced insanity, and gives multiple third-parties a reason to despise her husband and to take action against him.

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Many of the miscellaneous characters in “Macbeth” use blood imagery to describe the malice of Macbeth and his wrongdoings. Suspecting Macduff of being an agent of Macbeth, Malcolm wishes to test Macduff’s loyalties. In order to make himself seem like the greater of two evils, Malcolm recites all of Macbeth’s “lesser” flaws, “I grant him bloody, / Luxurious, avaricious, false, deceitful, / Sudden, malicious, smacking of every sin / That has a name” (4.3. p. 143). Malcolm calls Macbeth bloody, implicating that he has killed to obtain power. He describes each of the horrible traits that Macbeth, in the process of becoming bloody, has proven himself to possess. Unnatural recent events, the biggest being the murder of Duncan, inspire conversation between Ross and an Old Man. The Old Man recalls that, in all his years, he has never witnessed any event as atrocious as the murder of their King. Ross explains, “Thou seest the heavens, as troubled with man’s act, / Threatens his bloody stage” (2.4 p. 73). Ross is describing to the Old Man his theory that all of the strange happenings of late were messages sent to Macbeth from a displeased God. A Scottish force of rebels begins to march toward Birnam Wood to join Malcolm and his English army in their upcoming battle against Macbeth and his apathetic army. Angus begins to tell the rest of the men that Macbeth and his army are weakened. He describes, “Now does he feel / His secret murders sticking on his hands” (5.2 p. 167). Angus points out the burden Macbeth bears, carrying the accumulated guilt of every murder upon his hands. Just as his enemies predicted, Macbeth’s guilt is eating away at him, and, like the guilt of his wife, leads to his downfall.

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Shakespeare uses images of blood to conjure and intensify guilt within Macbeth and his wife; as a tangible representation of the dreadful crimes, that brought them the contempt of many. Macbeth and his wife are both lead into destruction by their guilt, not having heeded its warnings to venture no further. The blood of another person is a strong trigger of guilt for those who shed it. From a very young age, children know to associate blood with pain and death, and that the infliction of either is wrong. All but the most heartless sociopath will feel guilt upon seeing the blood of their victim. Guilt exists to inform a person of their wrong, and to prevent humanity from spilling its own blood.

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  1. Posted December 6, 2011 at 6:06 am

    An excellent read

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