Macbeth Blood Guilt Essay

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.

What is the role and function of bloody imagery in ‘Macbeth’? 

  • Representation of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s conscience
  • Imagery of blood constantly haunts their minds
  • Reflects changes in Macbeth’s and Lady Macbeth’s characters


Thesis statement

Throughout Shakespeare’s play ‘Macbeth’, the recurring imagery of blood is used as a symbol to demonstrate the constant feelings of guilt felt by the characters, ultimately leading to their endless feelings of fear and horror.


Quote 1

‘What hands are here! Ha! They pluck out mine eyes.
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.’
Act 2 Scene 2 lines 60-64


Context and meaning

The strong imagery of blood in this scene demonstrates his inability to remove the blood from his hands.
‘All of Neptune’s ocean’ represents the degree of guilt within Macbeth.
Guilt will always remain to haunt Macbeth as the image of the crime will always remain in his consciousness, causing him to experience greater remorse and fear.
The permanent change in colour from green to red in the seas, indicates that the guilt within Macbeth is everlasting.


Back to the thesis:

Blood symbolises the guilt within Macbeth after murdering King Duncan, causing him to experience eternal fear for the crime he has committed.



Quote 2

‘And with thy bloody and invisible hand
Cancel and tear to pieces that great bond
Which keeps me pale!’
Act 3 Scene 2 lines 48-50


Context and meaning

Macbeth is obligated to conceal his thoughts and feelings of guilt to prevent further suspicion among other characters.
Oxymoron of ‘bloody and invisible hand’ also demonstrates a contrast between appearance versus reality by comparing guilt and innocence.
Strong imagery of blood on Macbeth’s hand symbolises guilt by showing level of cruelty.
‘Invisible hand’ is a representation of hiding the thoughts and feelings of guilt.


Back to the thesis:

Blood imagery is used to emphasise guilt due to the cruelty of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s crimes as they attempt to hide their constant fear and remorse from their sinful crimes.



Quote 3

‘Mine eyes are made the fools o’ the other senses,
Or else worth all the rest: I see thee still;
And on thy blade and dudgeon the gouts of blood,
Which was not so before. There’s no such thing’
Act 2 Scene 1 lines 44-47


Context and meaning

His obsession with thoughts of murder causes his hallucination.
The ‘gouts of blood’ represent his guilt.
It foreshadows ‘bloodier’ visions.


Back to the thesis:

More blood, more guilt.
He is haunted by an unforgiveable sin which will lead to endless fear and horror.



Quote 4

‘Here’s the smell of the blood still: all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand. Oh! Oh! Oh!’
Act 5 Scene 1 lines 46-47


Context and meaning

Lady Macbeth is incapable of washing away her ‘bloody guilt’.
She is full of remorse and resentment.
The ‘smell’ of the guilty and shameful blood will never be ‘sweetened’.


Back to the thesis:

She is forever cursed by the ‘smell of the blood’.
She is drowned in immense guilt due to being haunted by fear and horror.



Quote 5

‘Out damned spot! Out, I say! One; two: why, then, ‘tis time to do’t. Hell is murky! Fie, my lord, fie! A soldier, and afeard? What need we fear who know 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?’
Act 5 Scene 1 lines 32-37


Context and meaning

Lady Macbeth is sleepwalking in Macbeth’s castle.
She sees blood that isn’t there.
She senses her own guilt and realises the mistakes she has made but is incapable of rubbing the blood off her hands.


Back to the thesis:

She made herself out to be a soldier, sexless, but now she is afraid.
She is in a dark place, alone.



Quote 6

‘This is a sorry sight.’ [Looking at his hands.]
Act 2 Scene 2 line 22


Context and meaning

Guilt overwhelms Macbeth immediately after the murder of Duncan.
The blood on his hands represents the severity of the murder and indicates his guilt.


Back to the thesis:

Macbeth’s guilt and realisation cause him to fear the consequences that he may face and other negative things that may come due to his actions.



Quote 7

‘Why did you bring these daggers from the place?
They must lie there: go carry them, and smear
The sleepy grooms with blood.’
Act 2 Scene 2 lines 49-51


Context and meaning

Macbeth brings back evidence of the murder – he can’t think straight.
Fear of suspicion.
Lady Macbeth plans to frame the guards.


Back to the thesis:

Lady Macbeth and Macbeth no longer share the same thoughts or actions. This denotes the beginning of the end of their relationship.



Quote 8

‘Blood hath been shed ere now, i’ the olden time,
Ere human statute purg’d the gentle weal;
Ay, and since too, murders have been perform’d
Too terrible for the ear: the times have been,
That, when the brains were out, the man would die,
And there an end; but now they rise again,
With twenty mortal murders on their crowns,
And push us from our stools: this is more strange
Than such a murder.’
Act 3 Scene 4 lines 75-83


Context and meaning

Macbeth loses composure during his first formal banquet as King.
He tries to rationalise his actions.


Back to thesis:

Banquo’s bloody wounds make Macbeth feel guilty.
His loss of composure shows his fear and guilt in a public forum.




Other bloody quotes


‘If he do bleed,
I’ll gild the faces of the grooms withal;
For it must seem their guilt.’
Act 2 Scene 2 lines 56-58


‘Be bloody, bold and resolute’
Act 4 Scene 1 line 79


‘For brace Macbeth – well he deserves that name –
Disdaining fortune, with his brandish’d steel,
Which smok’d with bloody execution’
Act 1 Scene 2 lines 16-18


‘It will have blood, they say; blood will have blood;
Stones have been known to move and trees to speak;
Augurs and understood relations have
By maggot-pies and choughs and rooks brought forth
The secret’st man of blood.’
Act 3 Scene 4 lines 123-127


‘I am in blood
Stepp’d in so far, that, should I wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as go o’er.’
Act 3 Scene 4 line 136-138


‘I think our country sinks beneath the yoke;
It weeps, it bleeds, and each new day a gash
Is added to her wounds.’
Act 4 Scene 3 lines 39-41




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