Blood and Water In William Shakespeare’s masterpiece Macbeth, he uses many motifs. Two of these motifs are blood and water. The play is full of images of blood and water, to show the characters’ attitudes toward their own guilt at each stage. Both motifs mature and change in their meaning along with the setting and mood of the play. The functions of both are important if the subtleties of the play are to be understood.
Blood symbolizes honor, treachery, and guilt. Water symbolizes cleanliness of the soul, as though all it takes is water to wash guilt away. While reading the play, it is noticed that blood comes up repeatedly. This is important to the overall effect of the different usages in the play. The word “blood,” or different forms of it, is found forty-two times in the play, along with several other passages dealing with the symbol.
The symbolism of blood strangely follows the change in the character Macbeth. Macbeth is first a soldier, very highly revered by the King Duncan. As the play progresses, Macbeth’s demeanor and personality declines, as does the meaning of blood. Blood is then viewed as a symbol for treachery and bloodshed, along with the various forms of guilt. The first reference of blood is one of honor, and occurs when Duncan sees the injured captain and says “What bloody man is that?”(I, 2, ln.1).
This mention of blood is symbolic of honor, for the brave fighter has been injured in a glorious and ardent battle for his country. In the next passage the captain says that Macbeth’s sword “. . .smoked with bloody execution”(I, 1, ln.20), with this he is referring to Macbeth’s braveness in which his sword is steaming because it is covered in the hot blood! of the enemy on the cold morning of the battle. This function is important because it shows that at this point in the play the word blood is used as a sign of fighting valiantly. It is a sort of pride to have a bloodied sword, or have bled in battle for your king.
After blood has been referred to a few times with reference to honor, the symbol of blood now changes to show a theme of treachery and treason. Lady Macbeth begins the change when she asks the spirits to “make thick my blood, “(1, 5, ln.50). What Lady Macbeth is saying is that she wishes to be remorseless and insensitive about the murders she and Macbeth will soon commit. Also in this area the symbol of blood is changes to one of guilt. Lady Macbeth knows that the evidence of blood is a treacherous symbol, and knows that if they are found with bloody daggers they will be hanged for their betrayal of the king, so she tells Macbeth to “smear the sleepy grooms with blood.”(II, 2, ln.64), and Macbeth replies “If he do bleed, I’ll gild the faces of the grooms withal /for it must seem their guilt.”(II, 2, ln.72-3).
When Banquo states “and question this most bloody piece of work,”(II, 3, ln.150) and Ross says “is’t known who did this more than bloody deed?”(II, 4, ln.31), they a! re both inquiring as to whom performed the treacherous acts upon Duncan. Once again, blood is used as a sign of guilt. Both use blood as a mark upon a person which would point them out as a sure suspect for the killing of Duncan. Whoever has the blood of Duncan on them is guilty of treason, and more importantly, they are guilty of the murder. It is also here where the theme of water is first brought in.
Macbeth is fretting about the fact that it was he who killed the king, and he was beginning to regret the choice he made, saying “Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood /clean from my hand?”(II, 2, ln.78) Lady Macbeth, still sure that they will never be caught, says “A little water clears us of this deed.”(II, 2, ln.86) This shows that the function of water is to be used as a symbol for an element which can absolve a person of all guilt. This is important because it seems to be the counter, or the antithesis of blood, where one is a sign of guilt, and the other is an absolution of it. The third, and perhaps the most often use of the symbol blood, is of the theme of guilt. This was hinted upon earlier when Lady Macbeth mad sure that no blood was found on either her or Macbeth. Macbeth firsts hints at his guilt when he says “Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood clean from my hand?”, meaning that he wondered if he would ever be able to forget the dastardly deed that he had committed. Then the ghost of Banquo, all gory and bloody, comes to haunt Macbeth at the banquet. The sight of apparitions represents Macbeth’s guilt for the murder of Banquo which he planned.
Macbeth shows a bit of his guilt when he says “It is the bloody business which informs thus,” he could not get the courage to say murder after he had killed Duncan, so he says this instead. The function of blood as guilt is very important because it is what eventually brings the downfall of Macbeth and drives Lady Macbeth to suicide. Water also makes another appearance, again relating to cleanliness and the washing away of something. The forces of Macduff talk of this when thy say “. .
. pour we in our country’s purge /Each drop of us. /Or so much as it needs /To dew our sovergn flower and drown the weeds.” (V, 2, ln.33-6) Here the theme of water takes along with the theme of cleanliness, also a them of a strengthening agent. They talk of how water composed of a little of each of them would “dew the sovergn flower,” Macduff, and “drown the weeds,” Macbeth. Lady Macbeth shows the most outright and blatant example of guilt using the symbol of blood in the scene in which she walks in her sleep.
She says “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 knows it, when none can call out power to /account? Yet who would have thought the old man /to have had so much blood in him?”(V, 1, ln.37-42) This speech represents the fact that she cannot wipe the blood stains of Duncan off of her hands.
This is ironic that she says this, because of the comment she made right after the murder, when Macbeth was feeling guilty, she said “A little water clears us of this deed.”(II, 2, ln.86) Obviously, she now feels differently, even if this is only shown through her subconscious. This last is shown just before the ending of the play, when Macbeth has Macduff at his mercy, and lets him go, because of his guilt. He shows that he is guilty, when he says “But get thee back, my soul is too much charged /With blood of thine already.”(V, 8, ln.6-7) Macduff replies, “I have no words; /My voice is in my sword, thou bloodier villain /Than terms can give thee out.”(V, 8, ln.8-10) In Macduff’s last remark we see that he believes Macbeth to have committed a crime that is so horrible that there are no words for it, and Macduff therefore calls him a “Blood[y] villain,” again showing that blood is used as a sign of treachery, or loathing. After Macduff manages to kill Macbeth, the symbolic theme of blood swings back to what it was at the beginning of the play. It is the symbol of honor to Malcolm this time.
The death of Macbeth is an honored feat that Macduff is congratulated for. It can also be speculated that maybe the cycle will continue around again, with Mal! com obtaining the same demeanor and ambitions as Macbeth did, and have his character go through the same changes. We have seen meaning of the symbol of blood change from honor to treachery, to guilt, and then we have seen it revert back to the meaning of honor once again after the villain that changed the meaning from honor to tyranny is killed. Water is present throughout the play, and is used as a cure for guilt, a strengthening agent, and means to wipe out a common enemy . Both of these symbols were present throughout the play, and showed how many of the characters felt a certain times during the play.