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Guilt and The Symbolism of Hands in Macbeth

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Titus Maccius Plautus once said, “Nothing is more wretched than the mind of a man conscious of guilt.’ This speaks to how a man will probably be tortured with guilt and regret when he is fully aware of his wrong doings. Shakespeare’s Macbeth employs “hands” as a powerful symbol to signify the magnitude and horror of characters’ actions. Throughout the play, the meaning changes from respect and justice to fear and secrecy. Shakespeare’s repetition of the element “hand” illuminates the guilt and true intentions embodied by Macbeth and Lady Macbeth while creating suspense to foreshadow future events.

The usage of “hand” at the start of the play serves to present Macbeth as a character of dignity and respectfulness. Throughout the development of the plot, the element is portrayed as a symbol of hesitation and secrecy. Although the characters live in a world of betrayment, exemplified by the thane of Cawdor, Macbeth is first depicted as a loyal servant to the King Duncan and all of Scotland. However, the captain assets that,

“For brave Macbeth (well he deserves that name)

Disdaining fortune, with his brandished steel,

Which smoked with bloody execution…

Which ne’er shook hand, nor bade farewell to him,

And fixed his head upon our battlements”.

The captain admires Macbeth’s dedication to defend Scotland. However, he implies that Macbeth is “disdaining fortune” and affecting the future of Scotland by killing Duncan with “bloody execution.” The captain notably foreshadows that Macbeth’s virtuous character will lead to his downfall as a tragic hero. When Macbeth speaks with Duncan about the heir to the king’s throne, Macbeth notes that,

“Stars, hide your fires;

Let not light see my black and deep desires.

The eye wink at the hand, yet let that be

Which the eye fears, when it is done, to see”.

Macbeth fears that he will have to carry out a horrible deed and kill a man in the future. The “eye wink at the hand” suggests that he is hesitant and lacks courage to follow through his plans. Macbeth also suggests that he isn’t ready for what’s to come when he says, “the eye fears, when it is done, to see”; the only factor that motivates him to commit such a crime is his ambition to become king. Here, Macbeth begins to lose his virtuous qualities because he declares his loyalty to the king while secretly viewing Malcolm as an obstacle to reaching his desires.

As the storyline continues, the word “hand” becomes a symbol for fear. When Macbeth is left alone in the hallway, he envisions a “dagger which I see before me [Macbeth], / The handle toward my hand? Come let me clutch / thee”. His imagination is merely a manifestation of uneasiness and his guilt for thinking to kill Duncan. The use of the element “hand” emphasizes how Macbeth is imagining the horror that comes with ending someone’s life. The handle facing Macbeth’s hand symbolizes his determination to carry out the murder to achieve his desires. Nonetheless, Macbeth visualizes, “On thy blade and dudgeon, gouts of blood, / Which was not so before. There’s no such thing”. The imagination of the blood-stained weapon confirms and foreshadows Duncan’s murder. Macbeth no longer thinks about whether he should kill the king or not. His imagination of the murder shows that he has no fear and that he is in certainty of his decisions.

The final moments of Macbeth after the murder concludes all the meanings of the word “hand” as it symbolizes guiltiness and the consequences of committing an unforgivable act. After Macbeth kills Duncan, he contemplates his actions and worries,

“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” .

Macbeth realizes that he cannot escape from the guilt of killing King Duncan; the blood and the guilt both can’t be washed away. Here, he is aware that he is guilty and must face the reality of the consequences of the murder. When Lady Macbeth visits the doctor to observe her repeated attempts to wash her blood-stained hands, she exclaims,

“The Thane of Fife had a wife. Where is

she now? What, will these hands ne’er be clean? No

more o’ that, my lord, no more o’ that. You mar all

with this starting”.

By questioning, “where is she now,” Lady Macbeth refers to her old self and how she has changed for the worse. Her true intentions are revealed as she feels cursed with her hands. Lady Macbeth reminisces the times when she and Macbeth didn’t have to deal with their loss of sanity. Here, Lady Macbeth implies that she didn’t know it would be so difficult to overcome the guiltiness and what she had terribly done.

It was only a matter of true intentions. The repetition of the element “hand” symbolizes how Macbeth and Lady Macbeth embody characteristics from respect and fear to guiltiness. Shakespeare portrays that when the characters look at their hands, they will come to a realization of the truth and the consequences of their bad deeds. Your life and destiny lie in your own hands. Running away from your problems doesn’t solve anything, because you can’t run away from yourself.  

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Guilt And The Symbolism Of Hands In Macbeth. (2022, January 12). GradesFixer. Retrieved January 30, 2023, from
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