Macbeth is a short play written by William Shakespeare in the early 1600s. It is set in medieval Scotland and tells the story of Macbeth, a nobleman who is loyal to the King, but is misdirected by the witches’ prophecies and by his and Lady Macbeth’s ambition. The play depicts his bloody rise to power and tragic downfall. Blood is a symbol that appears throughout the play and is present during many important scenes. Shakespeare uses the image of blood to illustrate changes in Macbeth’s character throughout the play. At the beginning of the play, blood is used to represent Macbeth’s loyalty and honor as a soldier. As the play progresses, he becomes a treacherous person, betraying King Duncan and murdering him. The blood now is associated with murder and Macbeth’s treason. Towards the end of the play, the image of blood shows the unending guilt of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth.
Macbeth is first introduced to the audience by a wounded captain, who describes him as a heroic soldier, fighting without mercy to protect King Duncan. According to the captain,
â€¦ brave Macbeth â€¦
â€¦ with his brandished steel
Which smoked with bloody execution
Like valor’s minion, carved out his passage
Till he faced the slave. (1.2.18-22)
The audience is given quite a ghastly image of Macbeth splitting Macdonwald’s body in half and then decapitating him, showing Macbeth’s courage and mercilessness as a warrior. The fact that the “bloody man” (1.2.1) himself is badly wounded makes his telling of the story even more valiant, and his blood seems to elevate Macbeth’s image as a hero. King Duncan praises both of them for their heroism, referring to Macbeth as his “valiant cousin” and “worthy gentleman” (1.2.26). At this point of the play, blood symbolizes honor and loyalty as well as bravery, victory and the good.
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As the play goes on, Macbeth’s character changes and so does the image of blood. He decides to murder Duncan and usurp the throne. Just before committing the murder, he hallucinates and imagines “a dagger of the mind” (2.1.50) before him. He says to the knife, “I see thee still, / And, on thy blade and dudgeon, gouts of blood, / Which was not so before” (2.1.57-59). He also tries to reassure himself, saying that “There’s no such thing: / It is the bloody business which informs / Thus to mine eyes” (2.1.59-61). The bloody business refers to the murder he is about to commit. This scene is the turning point of the play, which shows the beginning of Macbeth’s character transformation from a courageous and honorable man to a treacherous, evil and merciless tyrant. The image of blood symbolizes treason, ambition and murder, contrasting what it meant earlier in the play. It is now associated with evil.
After Macbeth murders Duncan, he begins to realize the magnitude of his crime. He says, “This is a sorry sight” (2.2.28), looking at Duncan’s blood on his hands. He tries to wash Duncan’s blood, and his own guilt, off his hands:
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. (2.2.78-81)
This illustrates how the act of murder has changed Macbeth’s character, turning him into a man full of guilt and remorse. However, he does not stop at one murder but, out of paranoia, tries to solidify his position as a king and get rid of anyone standing in his way. The image of blood continues to haunt Macbeth as the ghost of murdered Banquo shows up at his feast. Shocked by the appearance of the ghost, he exclaims, “I am in blood / Stepped in so far that, should I wade no more, / Returning were as tedious as go o’er” (3.4.168-170). This shows how dramatically Macbeth’s character has changed – he has stepped so far into the world of evil that it is impossible for him to redeem himself and return to righteousness, regardless of how guilty he might feel.
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It is clear that Shakespeare uses the image of blood to enhance the audience’s understanding of Macbeth and his character transformation. He starts off as a noble and just person, turns ambitious and treacherous and, finally, becomes a man full of guilt and remorse for his crime. On the other hand, blood imagery is also used by Shakespeare to evoke a visceral reaction from the audience. Blood represents birth, injury, death and the cycle of life. It is an essential part of life without which one cannot survive. Some people fear blood because it makes them recall their own injuries (for example, a cut in one’s flesh), war memories or the death of someone they know. One may try to avoid blood but that is impossible as it runs in everyone. By bringing the image of blood on stage and making it virtually omnipresent, from the bleeding Captain to the beheaded Macbeth at the end, Shakespeare succeeds in making his play easier to relate to and for the audience to feel like part of the action, rather than just observers.
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