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In “Macbeth”, the images and themes of blood and sleep are constantly mentioned throughout the play, particularly in Act 2 Scene 2 and in Act 5 Scene 1. The reason for which Shakespeare decided to write the play in this manner was in order to create a symbolic importance of these two motifs.
Blood is generally used to represent death, injury and guilt in the play. An effective instance of this is when Lady Macbeth says “I’ll gild the faces of the grooms.” To gild means to paint with gold, and in heraldry, red and gold are often regarded as equal colours, and so in this case, Lady Macbeth says that she will cover the grooms’ faces with blood. This is intended to be a play on words, associating the word “gild” with “guilt”, which then causes the theme of blood to represent guilt.
The image of sleep is employed to symbolise conscience. Sleep is known to rest the mind and allow it to function properly.
“Sleep that knits up the ravelled sleave of care,
Will All Great Neptune’s Ocean Wash This Blood Analysis
The death of each day’s life, sore labour’s bath,
Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course,
Chief nourisher in life’s feast.
This is indicating that nobody can survive without sleep, demonstrated clearly in the character of Lady Macbeth. Lady Macbeth is unable to sleep again, because when Macbeth kills Duncan, “Macbeth does murder sleep!” Lady Macbeth is constantly kept awake by her conscience, which is the primary plot of Act 5 Scene 1, in which she is sleep-walking.
Also in Act 5 Scene 1, there are continuous references to the evil deeds that Lady Macbeth has committed, many of which include the theme of blood. When she goes through the motion of rubbing and washing her hands, she says, “Out damned spot! Out I say!” which tells the audience that she is unable to remove the blood (which she is imagining) from her hands just by washing them. A further idea is put across, that whatever Lady Macbeth does, she cannot eradicate her guilt of murdering the king. Once again, the themes of blood and guilt are associated with each other.
During the aftermath of Duncan’s murder, Macbeth feels extremely guilty about his crime, believing that nothing can be done to undo his deed.
“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.”
Lady Macbeth differs quite a lot from her husband in this way, as she believes that she will be mentally free of guilt as soon as her hands are physically free of blood. Ironically, it is she who is driven to madness at the end of the play, as this is precisely the way that Lady Macbeth feels in Act 5 Scene 1. She tries to wash her hands to remove the blood from them, and to remove her guilt. Macbeth says that no matter how much he washes his hands, the blood will remain on them, and make the water red instead. This is a sign of Macbeth’s thought that no amount of repentance can clear him from committing such a ghastly crime.
The theme of sleep plays an important role in the play, as it represents Macbeth’s and Lady Macbeth’s loss of innocence. In Act 2 Scene 2, Macbeth labels sleep as “The innocent sleep”. Macbeth has however, murdered Duncan, and in doing so, he has lost his innocence, and therefore his sleep is interrupted with nightmares and disturbances, created by his guilty conscience. Before killing Duncan, Macbeth sees the imaginary image of the dagger in front of him. When he is in Duncan’s chamber, he hears his conscience warning him of his evil act.
“Still it cried ‘Sleep no more!’ to all the house.
Glamis hath murdered sleep, and therefore Cawdor
Shall sleep no more, Macbeth shall sleep no more.
Lady Macbeth is also warned of the trouble to arise as a result of the murder. She goes to kill him, but she loses her nerve at the sight of Duncan, who apparently resembles her father as he sleeps. Because of this, she withdraws and sends Macbeth to do her evil act instead. However, the murder is still on her conscience, and so Lady Macbeth’s sleep is not natural, but forced.
In Act 5 Scene 1, while Lady Macbeth is sleepwalking, she highlights the fact that her hands smell like blood. This is most likely in her imagination, as she is unable to rid herself of the shame of Duncan’s assassination.
“Here’s the smell of the blood still; all the
perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand.”
Lady Macbeth doubts that she is able to do anything which will allow her to stop feeling guilty and to rest properly.
The motif of sleep is not only referred to by Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. In Act 2 Scene 3, Macduff discovers the dead body of Duncan, covered in blood. When Macduff sees the body, he says, “Shake off this downy sleep, death’s counterfeit,
and look on death itself!” This quote is designed to tell the audience that sleep and death appear to be very similar, however, true sleep is “downy” and soothing, but death is an extreme terror.
In Act 5 Scene 1, when Lady Macbeth is sleepwalking, she makes many direct references to the image of blood, and in doing so, indirectly refers to the guilt of both herself, and Macbeth. When she says, “Who would have thought the old man to have so much blood in him?” she is telling the audience about the great amount of blood contained in Duncan’s body. She has imagined the he bled when he was stabbed, and continued to bleed ever since. This relates to her guilt very effectively, as she believes that because Duncan has continued to bleed, her guilt has continued to affect her. She asks why Duncan had so much blood in him, because Duncan’s unlimited amount of blood is causing an unlimited amount of guilt for her, by which she is troubled greatly She strives to wash and scent her hands as thoroughly as possible in order to get rid of the evidence and to get rid of her guilt, but her conscience always tells her that her hands are drenched with blood.
Before Macbeth murders Duncan, Act 1 Scene 2 also subtly forecasts the vicious acts which will later be performed by Macbeth. Duncan shouts, “What bloody man is that?” He is actually referring to Macbeth as the soldier emerging victorious from battle, but Shakespeare is hinting murders that will be later committed, with use of the word “bloody.”
“For brave Macbeth – well he deserves that name-
Disdaining fortune, with his brandished steel,
Which smoked with bloody execution,”
This quote extremely successfully illustrates Macbeth’s brutality, and ties him in with the idea of killing, which then foretells the audience of the assassination which he is soon going to carry out. The audience, at the time that the play was written, would have been very sensitive to subtle hints of this sort. They would have realised that Macbeth had some evil in him.
Act 5 Scene 8 shows very clearly that Macbeth is feeling guilty about his murders. Before fighting Macduff, Macbeth expresses his guilt, but also expresses the fact that he is not afraid of Macduff, at the same time. Macbeth tells Macduff not to fight, because Macbeth does not wish to murder yet another Macduff.
“Of all men else I have avoided thee.
But get thee back; my soul is too much charg’d
With blood of thine already.”
When Macbeth openly admits that he has had Macduff’s family brutally murdered, he is showing the audience that he has remorse for what he has done, making another reference to the image of blood, in order to add in a metaphor, which communicates his guilt with great effect.