Macbeth by William Shakespeare: An Analysis of the Use of Blood

Last Updated: 30 Jun 2023
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William Shakespeare's tragic play Macbeth is the story of the title character and his ambitions to become King of Scotland. In the beginning of the play, three witches predict that Macbeth will become Thane of Cawdor and then King of Scotland, and finally that his friend Banquo's children will later become kings. Motivated by this prediction, he murders the current king and most of his acquaintances in order to gain and maintain rule. In this play, Shakespeare uses the word "blood" and its synonyms to represent betrayal and guilt, and thereby establishes Macbeth's action's consequences and their relentless haunting of him.

Throughout the play, Shakespeare references blood when preparing for or looking back upon acts of treason or betrayal. Blood is associated with violence from the very beginning when King Duncan exclaims "What bloody man is that?" (Macbeth 1.2.1) at the sight of a wounded captain who has just returned from the victorious battle with Ireland. It also directly precedes the news of the Thane of Cawdor's betrayal of Duncan, which title is then presented to Macbeth, validating the witches first prediction and motivating Macbeth to facilitate the second fortune: that he will become king of Scotland.

In a later soliloquy, Macbeth contemplates the assassination of Duncan and realizes that this act of betrayal will ultimately end with him being sent to hell upon his own death. He struggles with this prospect of murder because it will incite immense feelings of guilt, and it may result in others wanting to avenge Duncan's death if they learn who is guilty. He considers these "Bloody instructions, which, being taught, return / To plague th' inventor..." (Macbeth 1.7.9-10), but is then persuaded to go through with the murder. Both of these instances establish blood as a symbol of betrayal throughout the play and both foreshadow the numerous other betrayals to come.

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After he murders Duncan and becomes king, Macbeth is faced with the task of maintaining his new position. He worries about the witches' last prediction, which states he will only be king for a short while, and that Banquo's children will rule thereafter. In order to avoid this, he has Banquo murdered, but is then haunted by Banquo's ghost during a dinner party. He tells the specter to "Never shake / Thy gory locks at me!" (Macbeth 3.4.51-52). The blood that Banquo's hair is soaked with here represents not only Macbeth's betrayal, but also incites intense feelings of guilt in Macbeth for what he has done.

Shakespeare emphasizes Macbeth's feelings of guilt when Macbeth complains that murder is more complicated and difficult than it once was. Blood hath been shed ere now, i' th' olden time, / Ere humane statute purged the gentle weal; / Ay, and since too, murders have been performed / Too terrible for the ear. The times has been/That, when the brains were out, the man would die, / And there an end; but now they rise again, / With twenty mortal murders on their crowns, and push us from our stools. (Macbeth 3.4.76-83).

Macbeth is frustrated that the deaths of Duncan and Banquo were not simple or straightforward. He muses that in the time before law existed there were no bloody spirits to haunt the murderer after the crime, and that therefore murder was a guiltless and easy act. By beginning this line with the word "blood," Shakespeare contributes to the line all of the underlying meanings of that come along with it. Not only does blood here symbolize the physical fluid associated with murder, but it also represents the Macbeth's betrayal and his overwhelming guilt. It is a term also associated with family and nationalistic ties, and this amplifies his guilt because he has killed two of his "kinsman." In both of these instances, blood is the result of a betrayal and it makes Macbeth feel even more guilty.

Throughout Macbeth the word "blood" and its synonyms appear at times of betrayal and guilt, particularly for Macbeth himself. They emphasize these feelings and actions and often times foreshadow betrayal, as well. Shakespeare liberally layers this word with meanings and uses it to ultimately establish the guilt associated with murder and betrayal.

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Macbeth by William Shakespeare: An Analysis of the Use of Blood. (2023, Jun 24). Retrieved from

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