It is a truth universally acknowledged that things are often not what they seem. William Shakespeare’s Macbeth is recognized as one of the earliest literary examples utilizing the theme of reversal of reality. In Macbeth, appearances and symbols are deceptive, alluding to the characters they describe. One of the ways many character flaws and plot progressions are realized is through the use of blood imagery, which is plentiful yet significant throughout the play. The existence of literal blood, though mentioned in a plethora of scenes, is outweighed by the presence of figurative blood, which arguably makes the greater impact as a symbol upon the characters.
Blood, and the imagery associated with it, appears over forty times in Macbeth. Blood imagery, which is initially presented as a badge of honor, morphs through the play to represent guilt, then evil, and finally honor once more. The symbolism associated with blood is rooted in Macbeth’s introduction in the play, in which he accepts the credit for his bravery in war. Macbeth’s skill with killing is illuminated by the Captain’s description of his sword, which is “smoked with bloody execution” (1.2.19). The detailed retelling of Macbeth’s heroics glorifies his bloodshed as valiance. In the beginning of the play, Macbeth spilled blood due to his soldierly duty. The acclaim that the bloody sword brings Macbeth, including his initiation as Thane of Cawdor, indirectly gives birth to the attention he will continue to gain for future ‘bloody’ events. Noted Shakespeare critic Charles Haines describes Macbeth as “a relentless spectacle in red and black” (Haines, 108), noting the coexistence of blood and evil, and suggesting that neither can exist without the other in its presence. Macbeth’s killing morphs from the dutiful job of a soldier to the selfish deed of a man, emphasizing the exchange of honor for evil and guilt. Immediately after his crowning as Thane of Cawdor, Macbeth encounters the three witches in the forest. The prophecy they make in front of him drives him into a psychotic scheme that ultimately results in the murder of King Duncan. Macbeth’s brave nobility quickly becomes crazed guilt, tainted by inner evil desires, as can be illustrated by his hallucination in Act 2: Is this a dagger which I see before me,
The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee.
I have thee not, and yet I see thee still.
Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible
To feeling as to sight? Or art thou but
A dagger of the mind, a false creation,
Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain? (2.1.41-47)
Amidst his preparations for Duncan’s murder, Macbeth sees a “dagger of the mind” (2.1.46) floating in the air, pointed in the direction of the sleeping king. The timing and placement of the dagger’s appearance foreshadow Duncan’s murder, which Macbeth is very close to committing. However, the “dudgeon gouts of blood” (2.1.54) on the imaginary dagger anticipates the gruesome reality of the execution Macbeth has planned. This description creates the image of a knife, bloodied from its wound to its tip, foretelling the exact horrors that will spill King Duncan’s blood. However, following the actual murder, it is evident that Duncan’s body is not the only deeply wounded entity. It is from this scene forward that the previous honor that bloodshed brought Macbeth is now tainted by guilt, evil, and corruption. While plotting the murder of King Duncan with Macbeth, Lady Macbeth asks to “make thick my blood” (1.5.50), in order to be left remorseless and able to live with the inhumane deeds she and her husband are planning. She presents a hardened exterior, unaffected by even the most gruesome of events, asserting that “a little water clears us of this deed” (2.2.86) after her husband kills a man. Throughout the murders themselves, Lady Macbeth displays a confidence and remorselessness that is necessary to keep her husband focused and sane. The guilt of Duncan’s murder affects him much more than it does her. He inquires Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood
Clean from my hand? No, this my hand will rather
The multitudinous seas in incarnadine,
Making the green one red. (2.2.81-84)
Macbeth is so overcome by what he has done that he believes not even all the water in the ocean could wipe away the blood from his hands. Macbeth, though unable to explicitly admit it, is deeply affected by the acts he commits that he is unable to fully address what he has done. Both the bloodied dagger and Macbeth’s own bloodied hands signify the lasting effects of bloodshed; though remnants of a misdeed might be washed into the ocean or blanketed with false blame, the guilt of the crime never truly leaves the minds of those at fault.
Though bloodshed magnifies Macbeth’s inner guilt, Lady Macbeth’s reaction to the murders is what ultimately leads to her demise. Though she is consistently presented as a callous and aggressive character, Lady Macbeth exemplifies in Act 5 that all of the murders she plotted and oversaw had more than a lasting effect to her subconscious. Attempting to stifle her emotions, which are essentially her only evidence of humanity, simply covers the greater problem for Lady Macbeth, allowing her inner demons to build and tear apart at her sanity. By the end of the play, Lady Macbeth, the same woman who encouraged her husband to wash up after murdering a man is consumed by the same guilt her husband felt immediately after the murder. Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking scene is arguably the most blatant example of the effects of blood imagery on a character’s guilty conscience. This scene makes it evident that the effects of Duncan’s murder never were truly erasable, with or without water. In the scene, a distraught Lady Macbeth sleepwalks and compulsively washes the nonexistent blood from her hands, murmuring “Yet here is a spot” (5.1.42). Though her hands never were tainted with any blood, Lady Macbeth’s guilt consumes her completely, and she finds it impossible to wash away her guilt.
Macbeth’s first instance of bloodshed brought him fame and recognition, and by the end of the play, it is through Macbeth’s death that this theme comes full-circle. By bringing down King Duncan’s murderer, Macduff affirms similar status and glory to that initially bestowed upon Macbeth by Duncan. The similarities between Macduff’s victory and Macbeth’s are numerous, yet their different personalities indicate that Macduff might not have the same ending as did his unfortunate predecessor. Much like Macbeth’s “bloody” sword in Act 1 (1.2.19), Macduff’s tainted weapon serves as a badge of honor for him. The two bloodied swords are able to be compared as parallels, allowing for the discernible power struggle Macbeth battles with to be noticed. William Shakespeare, through few words (Macbeth is heralded by Charles Haines as “one of Shakespeare's shortest plays, containing just 2,108 lines” (Haines, 105)) and repeated symbols, highlights the emotional and mental effects of bloodshed upon the main characters in Macbeth. He illuminates the cyclical nature of people’s reactions toward murder, from the bestowing of glory to the domination of grief, only to end the tale with the play’s hero being exterminated as the enemy, and the shedding of his blood gaining honor for his enemy. Staying true to the utterances by the three witches in Act 1, Shakespeare accurately depicts that “Fair is foul and foul is fair” (1.1.12). A hero might turn out to be a villain, and the death of a man might turn out to be for the better good. Through his extensive use of blood imagery, Shakespeare leaves one underlying message: don’t judge a book by its cover.