The Guilt of Bloodshed
It is impossible to wash away the guilt of bloodshed from your hands; not even the water of an entire ocean can make your hands clean again. Macbeth says, “It will have blood, they say: blood will have blood” (III:iv:144). This means that if the act of murder was committed, even more blood will be shed, which will result in more guilt. In William Shakespeare’s atrocious tragedy of Macbeth, the symbolism and imagery of blood serve as a constant expression of the Macbeths’ perpetual guilt.
Initially, Macbeth was a highly honoured and respected man as seen in Act I. However, his downfall began when decided to kill King Duncan in the desire for the crown and for power. The night of Duncan’s murder, Macbeth already experiences guilt and resentment when he sees a vision of the bloodied dagger. He expresses, “And on thy blade and dudgeon gouts of blood,” (II:i:54). According to the Oxford Dictionary, the word “dudgeon” refers to “a feeling of offence or deep resentment.” This evidently depicts Macbeth’s condition. Even before he kills Duncan, the agony of guilt begins to establish itself into Macbeth’s own conscience, causing him to hallucinate and see the vision of the dagger. After Macbeth murders Duncan, guilt overwhelms him even more. He says, “Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood/ Clean from my hand? No, this my hand will rather/ The multitudinous seas of incarnadine,/ Making the green one red.” (II:ii:74-76). Macbeth was not able to wash away the guilt of the crime he had just committed because even all the water of an entire ocean could not free him of his wrongdoing.
Aside from the murder of Duncan, Macbeth caused the murder of multiple other people, including the one of his good friend Banquo. To Macbeth, after hearing the witches’ prophesy in the beginning of the play, saying that the descendants of Banquo would become kings, Banquo became a threat to him. This greatly bothered Macbeth because this meant that his position would be overthrown. In hopes of securing his position of being king for as long as possible, he decides to kill Banquo and his son Fleance, but this time, hiring assassins to do the job for him. Macbeth thought that if someone else did the killing for him, he would be free from the guilt associated with the bloodshed, but consequently, his conscience became more stained with guilt. In Act III scene iv, Macbeth addresses the first murderer, “…There’s/ blood upon thy face” (III:iv:13-14). This implies that Macbeth specifically points out that the guilt was not on him, but on the murderers that he hired. Ironically, the use of assassins did not help Macbeth deal with his guilt. During the banquet, the ghost of Banquo appears to Macbeth, sitting at the table, only able to be seen by Macbeth. Fearful Macbeth responds to gory Banquo saying, “Thou canst not say I did it. Never shake/ Thy gory locks at me.” (III:iv:59-60). Macbeth thinks that Banquo came back to accuse him of his murder, but Macbeth tries to justify that he wasn’t the one who killed him, attempting to rid himself of his guilt. In a desperate attempt to cover up the outlandish behaviour of Macbeth to his guests, Lady Macbeth gives the excuse that Macbeth is getting sick. Mentally sick or physically sick, the guests did not know, but it is clearly shown that Macbeth had become mentally unstable, to the point of insomnia.
The guilt of his actions had really gotten into Macbeth when he was no longer able to sleep due to the thoughts of his crime. Macbeth says that he will “go no more” and that he is even afraid to think about what he had done (II:ii:61-62). He also hears this voice saying, “…Sleep no more!…/ ‘Glamis hath murdered sleep…/ Macbeth shall sleep no more.” (II:ii:51-53). Macbeth had killed Duncan while Duncan was sleeping, so Macbeth feels that it is unsafe for him to sleep. His guilty conscience would not let go of him and continues to torment him to the point of going insane. The word “sleep” denotes “peace” or “tranquility”. So, when it said that Macbeth hath murdered sleep, it meant that he took away not only his own inner peace, but the peace of his entire country. King Duncan was an exceptional king, keeping peace and order in the country. But however, when tyrannical Macbeth killed the king, the country fell into disorder and chaos. Macbeth is no longer peaceful and he has to deal with the bedlam he had caused due to his own selfish ambitions.
Finally, guilt also took its toll on Lady Macbeth as well. Even though Lady Macbeth mostly did not physically take part in any of the murders, she played a big role in the actions of Macbeth. It was Lady Macbeth who persuaded Macbeth to kill Duncan with the motive of obtaining power and authority. Knowingly taking part of all the action was enough to fill her mind with guilt. For example, Lady Macbeth had no part in killing Banquo, but she is seen to be constantly thinking about his death, saying, “Banquo’s buried. He cannot/ come out on’s grave.” (V:i:53-54). And like Macbeth, Lady Macbeth ultimately went crazy. In Act V when Lady Macbeth sleepwalks, she says, “Here’s the smell of blood still. All the perfumes of/ Arabia will not sweeten this little hand. O, O, O!” (V:i:42-43). Her sleepwalking symbolizes her sleeplessness and mental state of uneasiness and of unrest. Similarly to Macbeth, Lady Macbeth also envisioned spots of blood on her hands that she is not able to wash away on the night of her sleepwalking. She says, “Out, damned spot! OUt I say!…” (V:i:30). This is very ironic because, in Act II she tells Macbeth, “A little water clears us of this deed:” (II:ii:80), and now she herself cannot deal with the same problem of being unable to rid herself of the blood or the guilt from her own hands. After all that she had experienced, Macbeth’s servant Seyton, tells of Lady Macbeth’s death. Lady Macbeth ultimately took her own life because she was unable to cope with her own guilt anymore (V:v:18).
All in all, throughout this tragedy, the guilt of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are portrayed by the perpetual imagery of the blood of all those they had killed throughout their reign in Scotland. In the final scene where Macbeth meets Macduff, Macbeth finally faces his guilt and gets killed. All of the blood from the people killed by Macbeth, is finally avenged for by Macduff. Back to “It will have blood they say: blood will have blood.” (III:iv:144), because Macbeth started to kill, he too, was eventually killed.
Shakespeare, William. Macbeth. Perfection Learning Corporation, 2004.
Shmoop Editorial Team. “Blood in Macbeth.” Shmoop, Shmoop University, 11 Nov.
Waite, Maurice, and Sara Hawker. Compact Oxford Dictionary and Thesaurus. Oxford
University Press, 2009.
The Guilt of Bloodshed