Macbeth by William Shakespeare

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Somehow the glamour of blood and the play’s intense phantasmagorical elements leave us uninterested in the virtuous characters who are about to triumph, while we long to see the wicked Macbeth and his wife again. Although Shakespeare never explains logically why his protagonist acts as he does, few in the audience doubt Macbeth’s character or his deeds, perhaps because they too begin to feel the power of evil imaginings a little in themselves.

A further example in the play of how an image – something fundamentally unreal – can lead to a very real compulsion to act comes when Macbeth contemplates his bloody hands after Duncan’s murder and speaks the famous lines:

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. (II.ii.59-62)


In a moment, Lady Macbeth re-enters and pointedly mentions that her own hands are now the same colour as her husband’s. Macbeth’s image, of course, is impossible hyperbole, but its very resonance, the polysyllabic breadth of ‘multitudinous seas incarnadine,’ almost more than the meaning of the words themselves, gives the auditor a sense of blood forever spreading and expanding, and never to be expunged. The idea returns compulsively to the deranged mind of Lady Macbeth in Act V: the bloodstains on her hands can never be washed away, because they are not real . She sees them and smells them all the same, just as vividly now as her husband saw the dagger or Banquo’s ghost, and she is compelled, time and again, to try to wash them away: ‘Out damn’d spot! out, I say’; ‘Here’s the smell of the blood still: all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand’ (V.i.33, 47-8).

In contrast to Act II’s ‘dagger of the mind’, it can be assumed from the entrances and exits preserved in the Folio text of Act III, Scene iv, that Banquo’s Ghost was represented by a real actor on stage, despite the fact that only Macbeth sees this ghastly vision – indeed it is hard to imagine Shakespeare not wishing to make the most of such a powerful dramatic coup. The return of Banquo from the dead, however, is much more than simply a compelling piece of theatre, or the temporary cause of Macbeth’s discomfiture in front of his guests.

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William Shakespeare