Intro: Welcome to the Imagery Menagerie! Imagery is a technique in literature and film where ideas, themes and concepts are illustrated and symbolized by means of physical objects and/or their attributes. Imagery Menagerie is the segment on my blog where all of the coolest and most interesting images in literature and film are dissected and discussed. I hope you enjoy my first exhibit in the Menagerie; the image of Hands in Shakespeare’s Macbeth.
One of my very favorite works of Literature and my absolute favorite work of Shakespeare has got to be the tragic and haunting Scottish Play, Macbeth. For those who don’t know, this dark and terrifying masterpiece tells the story of a great general, who, urged by a prophecy and his twisted wife, betrays his friend, his country and his own self by violently murdering King Duncan and seizing the Scottish throne.
One of the many reasons I love this play so much is because of its masterful and vivid use of imagery. There are many images in Macbeth, the most obvious being Blood and the Supernatural. The image I am discussing, Hands, is often lumped in with Blood. But I think this is a mistake, as Hands are a separate image with a different, though related meaning.
Hands are mentioned quite frequently in the text and are included in many of the most important moments. Particularly Macbeth’s post-murder soliloquy (Will all great Neptune’s ocean/Wash this blood clean from my hand?) and Lady Macbeth’s hand-washing mad scene (…all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand). At first glance, it seems pretty clear that the hands are meant to symbolize guilt, which is why they are usually simply thrown into the same category with Blood. But simple guilt is not exactly it. The image goes deeper than that.
Blood is the true symbol of guilt in the play, this is obvious. Blood’s sticky texture, lingering odor and viscerally shocking sight is perfect to symbolize the guilt of violence. It is the physical manifestation of the murder, as the person’s life is both literally and figuratively on the perpetrator’s hands. But the Hands? If blood is the guilt image, and the blood is on the hands, then what the heck do the hands represent? To understand this, we have the unique literary experience of having to understand a Theme before we can understand an image (gosh, this play is so cool).
Possibly the most character defining trait of Macbeth is his inability to take responsibility for his own actions. He hears a prophecy proclaiming that he will be king, and proceeds to take the life of another person to achieve this. And who does he blame? Himself? No! The prophecy is at fault. It was his destiny. He had no control over it. Fate decreed it should be so. And his wife forced him to do it, too! Or, at least, that’s what he wants to believe. Rather than look inside himself and see the hideous evil he allowed to fester, he prefers to shift the blame for his actions onto other external forces. And yet, it eventually becomes clear, even to him. No one made him do anything. It was he, and he alone. He murdered his king and his friend, and he did it with his own Hands.
And here we see the Hand imagery finally explained. Our hands are our tools. With them, we do practically everything. There is hardly a single action we perform without them. They are the instruments of our desires and our wills. And so they are in Macbeth. Macbeth uses his hands to plunge the daggers into Duncan, and by doing so shows the deepest, most wicked desires of his heart and reveals his Free Will. His Hands don’t only symbolize guilt, they symbolize personal, irrefutable responsibility for his bloody deeds.
So when we see blood on Macbeth’s hands, we aren’t simply seeing his guilt manifested in a physical form. We are seeing that he and he alone is to blame. No Supernatural Power forced his actions. The Witches did not hypnotize him. He had an idea planted in his head, and instead of pulling the weed of dark ambition, allowed it to grow and choke everything good about him to death.
Many other great tragedies include the Supernatural. Oedipus for example, was driven by Fate to self destruction. But Macbeth is unique. The Supernatural is present in the play, just as it is in Oedipus Rex. Macbeth is given a destiny. But unlike Oedipus, who found his fate by running from it, Macbeth runs to it, taking the reins from destiny and creating a dark and bloody fulfillment of the prophecy. And so, in the terrible tradition of the great tragedies, Macbeth crafts his own destruction. And he crafts it with his own Hands.