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Hands


The Sergeant, with grim humor, tells how Macbeth did not offer the hand of friendship to the rebel Macdonwald. Macbeth, the Sergeant says, "ne'er shook hands, nor bade farewell to him, / Till he unseam'd [split] him from the nave [bellybutton] to the chops [jaws], / And fix'd his head upon our battlements" (1.2.21-23). [Scene Summary]


Just before they appear to Macbeth the witches dance and sing, "The weird sisters, hand in hand, / Posters of the sea and land, / Thus do go about, about" (1.3.32-34). "Posters" are those who travel rapidly. The witches, as they hold hands, are celebrating their own powers. [Scene Summary]


When King Duncan announces that his son Malcolm will be heir to the throne, Macbeth says himself:

              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.  (1.4.50-53)
Macbeth wants impossibilities. He wants the stars to go out, so that no one can see what it is he wants, not even himself. His own eye should "wink," that is, blind itself to what his own hand wants to do. "Let that be" he says, because he wants the thing done, even if afterwards, "when it is done," his own eye would be afraid to look at what his hand had done. [Scene Summary]


The first time we see Macbeth and Lady Macbeth together, she advises him to "Look like the time; bear welcome in your eye, / Your hand, your tongue: look like the innocent flower, / But be the serpent under't" (1.5.63-66). Lady Macbeth's advice to "look like the time" means "act appropriately to the occasion." King Duncan is about to arrive at their castle, which is an honor to them, and Macbeth should offer his hand in fellowship before he kills him. [Scene Summary]


When King Duncan arrives at Macbeth's castle, Lady Macbeth comes out to greet him. She welcomes him warmly and he graciously begs pardon for giving them the trouble of accommodating him. At the end of the scene, he says, "Give me your hand; / Conduct me to mine host: we love him highly, / And shall continue our graces towards him. / By your leave, hostess" (1.6.28-31). So we see King Duncan walking hand-in-hand with the woman who has just planned his murder. [Scene Summary]


Alone, waiting for his wife to give him the signal to go kill King Duncan, Macbeth starts to hallucinate. He says, "Is this a dagger which I see before me, / The handle toward my hand? (2.1.33-34), and he reaches for it. Thus we see his hand clutching at air, maybe with the same motion as when it holds the dagger that kills the king. [Scene Summary]


When Macbeth returns from killing the king, he's extremely shaken. He asks her if she heard anything and he asks who is in room next to the king's. His wife answers that she heard nothing and that Donalbain has that room Then Macbeth says "This is a sorry sight" (2.2.18), which shows how his mind is jumping around. After worrying about this noise and that, Macbeth suddenly says something is a "sorry sight." Editors always explain it by inserting a stage direction, "Looking on his hands," and that's almost certainly right, because his hands are certainly covered with blood.

His wife tells him he's a fool, but his mind has already jumped to something else. As he was leaving the King's bedchamber, Macbeth heard someone in another room laugh in his sleep, and someone else call out "Murder!" These two sleepers then awoke, and prayed, and settled down to sleep again. Meanwhile, Macbeth was frozen in his tracks outside their door, and as the two settled down to sleep, "One cried "God bless us!" and "Amen" the other; / As they had seen me with these hangman's hands" (2.2.24-25). "As" means "as if" and the idea is that Macbeth felt that the two sleepers could see his bloody hands -- and his guilt -- right through their door. Now Macbeth wonders why he couldn't say "amen" to the "God bless us" that he heard.

Lady Macbeth tells her husband that he'll drive them both crazy if he keeps thinking like that, and tells him to "Go get some water, / And wash this filthy witness from your hand" (2.2.43-44). The "filthy witness" is the blood of Duncan, which acts as a witness to Macbeth's crime, but as Lady Macbeth is saying this, she sees another "witness": Macbeth is still carrying the grooms' daggers! She tells him he must take the daggers back, put them with the grooms, and smear the grooms with blood, so it will look like the grooms killed the King.

Macbeth, however, is paralyzed with the horror of what he has done, and he won't stir, so his wife takes the daggers from him and goes to do the job. As soon as Lady Macbeth has exited, we hear a knocking. Macbeth hears it, too, and it frightens him, but he can do nothing except stare at his hands. He looks at them as though he had never seen them before, and he feels that looking at them is like getting his eyes gouged out. It is the blood on his hands that causes this horrible fascination, and he feels that the blood can never be washed away. Before his hands are clean, they will make all the seas of the world turn red: "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" (2.2.57-60).

As she returns, Lady Macbeth hears what Macbeth is saying to himself, and she comments, "My hands are of your colour; but I shame / To wear a heart so white" (2.2.61-62). She means that her hands are red, too (because she has been busy smearing the King's blood on the grooms), but that she would be ashamed to have a heart as white as Macbeth's. A white heart is white because it has no blood, and the person with a white heart is a coward. As she delivers this insult, we hear the knocking again, and Lady Macbeth takes her husband away so that they can wash up. In her opinion, it will only take a little water to wash the guilt from their hands. [Scene Summary]


After the murder of King Duncan, Lennox says that it appears that the king's grooms were the guilty parties because "Their hands and faces were all badged [marked] with blood" (2.3.102).

A little later in the scene, Banquo proposes that they hold a meeting to discuss the murder, because they have all been shaken by "Fears and scruples" (2.3.129). "Scruples" are doubts and suspicions. Apparently, Banquo will not just accept the idea that the murder was the work of two drunken grooms, and he assumes that no one else will, either. He says, "In the great hand of God I stand; and thence / Against the undivulged pretence I fight / Of treasonous malice" (2.3.130-132). An "undivulged pretence . . . of treasonous malice" is a secret conspiracy by the evil forces of treason. Banquo is saying that standing in the hand of God will give him the strength to fight against these evil forces. [Scene Summary]


In a soliloquy, as he is justifying his planned murder of Banquo, Macbeth says that the witches' prophecies "put a barren sceptre in my gripe, / Thence to be wrench'd with an unlineal hand, / No son of mine succeeding." (3.1.60-62). "Gripe" means "grip" or "grasp," and an "unlineal hand" is one from outside of his family. Macbeth speaks as though he can feel the sceptre being snatched out of his hand.

Later in the same scene, when Macbeth is giving the first two murderers a pep talk, he tells them to think of how they were "borne in hand," (3.1.80) by Banquo. To "bear" someone "in hand" is to lead that person along in order to deceive him/her. In saying that Banquo is the cause of these men's problems, Macbeth is lying in order to get them into a murderous state of mind. He goes on to ask them, ironically, if they can forgive Banquo, "Whose heavy hand hath bow'd you to the grave / And beggar'd yours for ever?" (3.1.89-90). "Beggar'd yours for ever" means "made beggars of you and all of your family to the end of time," which is what Macbeth himself thinks that Banquo (or Fleance) will do to him. [Scene Summary]


Just before the murder of Banquo, Macbeth reminds his wife that Banquo and Fleance present a danger. She asks what's to done about that, and he tells her that she doesn't need to know until the deed is done. Then he goes into a kind of reverie and speaks to the night, saying, "with thy bloody and invisible hand / Cancel and tear to pieces that great bond [Banquo's lease on life] / Which keeps me pale!" (3.2.49-50). Though Macbeth has carefully planned the murder of Banquo, he wants the help of a greater force, the "bloody and invisible hand" of night. [Scene Summary]


After Banquo's ghost ruins his banquet, Macbeth talks to his wife about his suspicions of Macduff, and then says that he will return to the witches. He wants to know the worst they might have to say, and he believes that he will probably have to shed more blood. He finishes by saying, "Strange things I have in head, that will to hand; / Which must be acted ere they may be scann'd" (3.4.138-139). In other words, he's bothered by "strange things" in his head, and he wants to do them before he has to think about them. He would rather use his hands than his head. As it turns out, one of the "strange things" that he brings "to hand" is the horrifying murder of Macduff's innocent wife and children. [Scene Summary]


Learning that Macduff has gone to England to plead with the king for help against Macbeth, Lennox wishes that an angel would fly before Macduff with his message, so that "a swift blessing / May soon return to this our suffering country / Under a hand accursed!" (3.6.49). The "hand accursed" is Macbeth's. [Scene Summary]


When Macbeth is told that Macduff has fled to England, he curses himself for not acting quickly enough and says, "from this moment / The very firstlings of my heart shall be / The firstlings of my hand" (4.1.146-148). Then, to prove that he means what he has just said, he says that he will immediately kill Macduff's wife and children. [Scene Summary]


When Macduff tries to persuade Malcolm to lead the fight against Macbeth, Malcolm is very cautious at first, thinking that it might be possible that Macduff is an agent of Macbeth, intent on luring Malcolm to his destruction. However, Malcolm does say that he knows that Scotland is suffering, and that were he to invade Scotland, "There would be hands uplifted in my right" (4.3.42). This means that men would raise their hands (and swords) to support his right to the throne of Scotland.

Later in the same scene, we are reminded of what a good king should be. A doctor enters and tells Macduff and Malcolm that a crowd of sick people are waiting to be cured by the English king. Their sickness can't be cured by doctors, but only by the king: "at his touch-- / Such sanctity hath heaven given his hand-- / They presently amend" (4.3.143-145). [Scene Summary]


In her sleepwalking scene, Lady Macbeth relives the crimes that she has helped Macbeth to commit. First she rubs her hands as though washing them. Her gentlewoman explains to the doctor that she has seen the lady do this for as much as fifteen minutes at a time. Now, after rubbing her hands, Lady Macbeth says, "Yet here's a spot" (5.1.31). What she is seeing in her trance-like state is a spot of blood that she cannot wash off her hand. We can see the irony, because just after the murder of Duncan, the lady scorned her husband for staring at his own bloody hands, and she told him that a little water would fix everything.

She continues to "wash" her hands until she is interrupted by the memory of the bell that she herself rang to summon her husband to the murder of King Duncan:

Out, damned spot! out, I say!--One: two: why,
then, 'tis time to do't.--Hell is murky!--Fie, my
lord, fie! a soldier, and afeard? What need we
fear who knows it, when none can call our power to
account?--Yet who would have thought the old man
to have had so much blood in him?    (5.1.35-40)
Lady Macbeth had thought that once her husband was king, it wouldn't matter who knew that they murdered King Duncan, because no one would be able to challenge Macbeth's power as king, to "call our power to account." Yet the old man had a lot of blood, and she can still see it on her hands, reminding her of her guilt.

Lady Macbeth's mind wanders to other horrors, and back to the blood on her hands. She asks, "The thane of Fife [Macduff] had a wife: where is she now?" (5.1.42-43), and then she wonders if her hands will ever be clean. She tells her husband to be calm, and then she smells blood on her hands and says, "Here's the smell of the blood still: all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand. O, O, O! (5.1.50-52).

Moments later, Lady Macbeth confuses the aftermath of the murder of King Duncan with the aftermath of the murder of Banquo. Speaking to Macbeth as though he were there, she says, "Wash your hands, put on your nightgown; look not so pale.--I tell you yet again, Banquo's buried; he cannot come out on's grave"(5.1.62-64). Then she imagines that she hears the knocking at the gate and reaches out for Macbeth's hand, saying, "come, come, come, come, give me your hand. What's done cannot be undone.--To bed, to bed, to bed!" (5.1.67-68). With this, she leaves the room, and her gentlewoman tells the doctor that Lady Macbeth will now go directly to bed. [Scene Summary]


As the Scottish noblemen prepare to attack Dunsinane, one of them asks what news there is of Macbeth. Someone says that Macbeth's fury is out of control, to such an extent that some say he's mad. Angus comments, "Now does he feel / His secret murders sticking on his hands" (5.2.16-17). [Scene Summary]


In the last speech of the play, as Malcolm is giving orders for the punishment of those who assisted Macbeth, he mentions Lady Macbeth, "Who, as 'tis thought, by self and violent hands / Took off her life" (5.8.71-72). [Scene Summary]

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