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The Use of Hands as a Motif in Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” Essay

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Updated: Oct 9th, 2021

The play presents readers with the world of royalty and the well-knit state; the world of Duncan, his two sons, Banquo, Macbeth and the whole of Scotland and England. This world must have been recreated on Shakespeare’s stage. It is seen; it is always present, and even when some parts of it are repudiated it is there by implication. In Macbeth, “hands” are used a symbol of wrong actions and justice: also, they have direct and indirect meaning depicting inner feelings of characters and real world.

The motif of hands in Macbeth reveals friendship and warm relations between men. The sergeant’s extravagant account of the battle has its special point. In addition to his picture of two exhausted swimmers dragging each other down, the two contestants are described in almost similar terms. Macdonwald is aided by Fortune, an unreliable mistress; Macbeth is the minion or darling of Valour. Fortune, like the whore she is, deceives Macdonwald, while Macbeth rages like a spoilt child, for he behaves most ruthlessly and unceremoniously towards his foe.

Which neu’r shooke hands, nor bad farwell to him,
Till he vnseam’d him from the Naue toth’ Chops,
And fix’d his Head vpon our Battlement (Shakespeare).

The reference seems to stress the difference between noble courtesy, such as is expected of a host, and Macbeth’s actual treatment of the person he met. Of course, it describes the logical code of conduct in war, but the violent image and the praise of Macbeth by Duncan which immediately follows should be noted.

Before the crime, which is not represented directly on the stage, is committed, the dramatist carefully builds up the atmosphere of darkness and the heavy sense of the presence of evil, contrasting with it touches from the world of light and graciousness. If anything could have recalled Macbeth to the world of order to which he should have belonged, the gift of the diamond from the king should. It was peerless among stones, and it protected its possessor. We should remember that he has this on him when he goes to kill the kinsman and king who sent it to him. Macbeth’s ambiguous words about the Weird Sisters are met by Banquo’s frank statement that so long as his mind is ‘free’ and his loyalty without stain, he is ready to discuss any suggestion made by his friend. These words cannot recall Macbeth to reality. His duty to the king, the honours done him, his position as host, have to give way to what he has willed — the murder to which he is to be summoned by the bell. The scene when Lady Macbeth cannot clean her hands from the blood depicts that “hands” have a symbolic meaning connected with personality and destiny of the main character. Macbeth trying to bolster up his confidence by remembering the words of the spirits who know the future and immediately after, upset by the pale and frightened face of the servant, plunging into despair. When he asks the doctor about his wife, in a moment his attention shifts from her to himself.

The motif of “hands” has a special meaning during the murder scene. Macbeth is again contemplating himself from outside himself. Lady Macbeth and himself develop what resembles a musical figure: the one, Macbeth, descanting on the fantastical or imagined world which evil has brought into being; the other, with a ground bass of practical, commonsense short lines trying to recall him to the world of reality. In every case each of these ‘sensible’ remarks has ironic overtones which she cannot at this stage realize: “a little water clears us of this deed’; ‘how easy is it then”. (Shakespeare) Lady Macbeth exclaims:

What will these hands ne’re be cleane? No more o’that
my Lord, no more o’that: you marre all with this starting (Shakespeare).

To some extend, “hands” are connected with order and peace. It is interesting that the man who has deliberately placed himself outside the world of men and order, should yet be dependent on the order he has rejected. It is not just a man whom he needs for his task. The murderers may be men in the ‘catalogue’ (the mere list which distinguishes men from vegetables). He requires a man of spirit from the ‘valued file’ (the list which makes distinctions between men and places them in an order). The difference between the reality as Macbeth understands it and the world of human reality is clear.

In sum, the motif of “hands” symbolizes guilt and responsibility for crimes both Lady Macbeth and Macbeth planned and committed. Macbeth is much more than the straight record of the defeat of the agents of the evil one by the instruments of the ‘powers’. In Macbeth’s sensitiveness to the evil in which he is caught, in Lady Macbeth’s process of education, in which she learned that a little water does not clear her of this deed, is to be found the play’s real significance. Macbeth may illustrate a moral principle or lend support our observations of human beings, but these, as we set them down, do not seem to be as meaningful as the living experience of the play.

Works Cited

Shakespeare, W. Macbeth. 1999. Web.

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IvyPanda. "The Use of Hands as a Motif in Shakespeare's "Macbeth"." October 9, 2021. https://ivypanda.com/essays/the-use-of-hands-as-a-motif-in-shakespeares-macbeth/.

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IvyPanda. 2021. "The Use of Hands as a Motif in Shakespeare's "Macbeth"." October 9, 2021. https://ivypanda.com/essays/the-use-of-hands-as-a-motif-in-shakespeares-macbeth/.

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