Jan 12 2018
Honor, Malice, Guilt, and Horror: Blood Imagery in Macbeth
Blood is vital for all human but is often associated with violence as many powerful figures in the past shed blood to attain power. Because blood represents life, sometimes the more people kill the more burdensome they feel. The imagery of blood appears many times in Shakespeare’s Macbeth to cause dramatic changes in the characters that eventually lead to their downfall. In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the recurring imagery of blood develops and foreshadows a tragic hero’s physical and psychological downfall from experiencing honor to guilt, and ultimately, to inescapable horror.
Indirectly characterized by the captain covered in blood, Macbeth is now a hero and claims Thane of Cawdor; the blood from the war though represents Macbeth’s honor and bravery, it also foreshadows his downfall. While King Duncan waits for the news of the war, a captain covered with blood enters and tells Duncan about Macbeth’s bravery in killing MacDonald. Before he enters, Duncan asks “Who is this bloody man?” (1.2.1) The imagery of blood represents Macbeth’s bravery. While loyal to Duncan, Macbeth kills enemies and sheds their blood in order to achieve his great ambitions, and he does get crowned the Thane of Cawdor; Macbeth is a man of honor. This important scene establishes Macbeth as a tragic hero whose brave actions will later be compared to his evil actions. Though the blood distinguishes Macbeth as a man of valor and integrity, at the same time, it also foreshadows his downfall. Covered in blood, the captain is almost unrecognizable like a monster, just like the one Macbeth eventually becomes who does whatever it takes to accomplish his goals. Macbeth will take many lives and turn into a monster to achieve his ambitions, similar to his actions in the war; Macbeth will “split them open from his navel to his jawbone and stuck his head on our castle walls” (1.2.17-19). The question about the bloody captain from Duncan also foreshadows his own downfall as Macbeth’s violence later on in the story not only is toward enemies, but also toward his own people with blood connections, like Duncan and MacDuff. While the imagery of blood now represents the honor and bravery of Macbeth in the war, it also unveils the evil side of Macbeth that gradually leads him to his downfall.
Seeing the imaginary dagger soaked with blood, Macbeth murders Duncan maliciously but is unable to remove the blood from his hands; Macbeth’s downfall starts to develop as he transforms from an honorary man to a man filled with guilt and horror. As Macbeth contemplates about murdering Duncan in the chamber, he sees the dagger covered in blood; though starting to feel treacherous, he convinces himself that “there’s no such thing” and “it is the bloody business which informs” (Shakespeare 2.1.59-60). Macbeth turns to his kinsmen and starts shedding their blood to achieve his ambitions. The imagery of blood in this scene clearly contrasts the earlier one about his bravery, which signifies the beginning of Macbeth’s transformation. Every time the imagery of blood appears, Macbeth experiences a change in his character as he is now no longer an honorary man. In the beginning of the story, Duncan’s words “Who is this bloody man?” ironically foreshadows his own death; the imagery of blood that used to symbolize heroism in war now symbolizes treachery. Shakespeare’s choice of Duncan saying “bloody man” and later having him die a bloody man further intensifies Macbeth’s cruelty of acts. As a tragic hero, his heroic actions are compared with the cruel killing of the ones whom he has a blood relationship with. After killing Duncan, Macbeth runs away from the chamber with great fear and looks down on his bloody hands with great fear, unable to put the dagger back in the chamber. Macbeth transforms to a man filled with guilt as he asks “will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood clean from my hand?” (2.2.60-62) As Macbeth realizes his evil actions, he wants to clear his conscience by “washing this blood clean from his hand”. Though Lady Macbeth later tells him that even little water can clean his hands, Macbeth insists to use “Neptune’s ocean”, showing the intense horror and guilt he experiences. The word choice “Neptune’s Ocean” demonstrates that nothing can clear his burdensome guilt. The blood no longer represents honor, bravery, and ambition, but guilt and horror; as Macbeth enters a point of no return from his evil deeds and nothing can clear his conscience, both his physical and psychological downfall will continue to develop.
Continually bothered by the tremendous mental burden, Macbeth experiences several psychological breakdowns where the imagery of blood appears and traumatizes him, such as the one during the banquet, that eventually lead to his physical downfall. Destroyed by his fatal flaw – the inability to control his great ambition — the tragic hero develops a paranoia which he suspects others of finding out about the murder — and that person is most likely Banquo. During the banquet after killing Banquo, Banquo’s ghost, covered in blood, appears in Macbeth’s hallucination and causes Macbeth to publicly freak out in front of all the noblemen. As the ghost haunts him, Macbeth cries “it will have blood they say; blood will have blood” (3.4.122). Macbeth is now filled with horror and guilt, and from his mental burden, he experiences hallucinations that destroys him psychologically. He is no longer a hero of honor, but a tragic hero who is gradually destroyed by his tragic flaw. After the banquet, he even needs to be escorted to sleep by Lady Macbeth as he mentally breaks down and is no longer capable of controlling himself. The bloody ghost of Banquo exposes Macbeth’s guilt toward the other noblemen and foreshadows Macbeth’s physically downfall by the phrase “they say; blood will have blood”. The blood imagery transforms Macbeth once again and hints the audience that revenge will be served. As Macbeth grows more suspicious of others, he is forced by his instinct to kill more, including MacDuff’s son and wife. He is no longer capable of handling the tremendous mental burden as he exposes his guilt more and more, and his psychological downfall, precedes and leads to his physical downfall. After MacDuff, along with other noblemen, defeats Macbeth and has him in front of a sword, Macbeth psychologically breaks down again and says “my soul is too much charged with blood of thine” (5.8.5-6). Macbeth explicitly expresses that the “blood of thine”, or the lives of MacDuff’s wife and son, are too burdensome for him to handle. This blood imagery in this scene unveils Macbeth’s inescapable horror – the lives he took and MacDuff getting his revenge. Although Macbeth remains confident when he talks back to MacDuff by claiming he will not have any more Fife blood on his hands, he is eventually killed by MacDuff. The imagery of blood transforms Macbeth one last time from a broken man to a dead man. Ironically, blood brings power to Macbeth in the beginning, but now, it brings a tragic downfall to Macbeth. He eventually turns into a bloody man whose head is carried away by MacDuff. As the downfall of a tragic hero is complete, the imagery of blood no longer appears in the story any more but does restore to its original state – signifying honor – as MacDuff kills Macbeth and becomes king.
Macbeth, a tragic hero with uncontrollable ambition being his tragic flaw, transforms into a broken man after being an honorable and brave hero. The recurring imagery of blood foreshadows Macbeth’s downfall and transforms Macbeth’s character gradually. At the end, he is first psychologically defeated then physically defeated. Once people use violence to achieve their goals while leaving blood on their hands, they are unable to clear their conscience, and they gradually turn into evil monsters just like Macbeth, who is haunted by his evil deeds till his death.
Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Macbeth. Edited by Barbara A Mowat and Paul
Werstine, Folger Shakespeare Library, 2015.