On liquids within Macbeth

The text of Shakespeare’s infamous Macbeth, filled to the brim with symbolic imagery, is rife with the mention of liquids. One notices them most everywhere – staining the clothes of worthy warriors, tainting the hands of the guilty, running through the veins of the naturally good, and constituting staples of evil brews. Of all those liquids mentioned within the play’s text, blood, milk, and gall are discussed most often; this is primarily because their implementations serve so many functions. To explain, all three are utilized to objectify and emphasize the values of the play’s characters, detail the unnatural world within which the play is set, and describe the nature of humanity.

To begin, it is imperative to note that whilst interpreting the symbolic meanings of all three of the aforementioned liquids is vital to understanding the play, it is blood to which most attention must be paid. The values that blood represents change with the progression of the play – at first, it embodies and accompanies courage, suggesting nobility of character, as exemplified in I.ii.1., when “brave Macbeth” (I.ii.18) is described as slaying the villainous rebel Macdonwald with a sword “which smoked with bloody execution” (I.ii.20). This meaning of blood is also demonstrated by the bloody man (I.ii.1) who is, presumably, a “brave friend” (I.ii.6).

Soon afterwards, however, blood takes on a more sinister meaning, accompanying guilt and murder. Whenever Macbeth kills, the presence of blood is apparent; when he experiences guilt or plans a death, the blood is also emphasized. In I.vi.86, for example, it is mentioned that Macbeth will have “marked with blood” Duncan’s two officers after he kills them; in II.i.58, during a bout of guilt, Macbeth sees his dagger and, “on [its] blade and dudgeon, gouts of blood”. After he has murdered, in II.ii.78, he laments that not even all of the ocean may wash the blood, the guilt, from his hands. Such instances of guilt and accompanying blood imagery follow him throughout the play; for example, Banquo, the prime subject of Macbeth’s guilt, is described in IV.i.138 as being “blood-bolter’d” (as having, in other words, blood matting his hair).

Blood is also utilized to define the characters’ true natures. In I.v.50, Lady Macbeth bids the spirits, “Make thick my blood. / Stop up th’ access and passage to remorse, / That no compunctious visitings of nature / Shake my fell purpose…” When one’s blood thickens significantly, it may not successfully travel through the body; Lady Macbeth is, therefore, asking to be prevented from functioning as she normally would, to be, specifically, spared from feeling remorse. This suggests, of course, that she must have been capable of feeling remorse to begin with; thus, this passage establishes her as an inherently good character. In Macbeth’s case, too, there is blood imagery that supports his not being evil – in III.ii.54, Macbeth calls upon the night to, with its “bloody and invisible hand”, sever his ties with his morality, to “tear to pieces that great bond / Which keeps [him] pale” (III.ii.55). This, of course, indicates that he is a moral man to begin with. It is also mentioned that, just as the death he called for is about to be dealt, “Light thickens…” (III.ii.56). It is quite possible that this transition had to occur in order for him to remain at rest about the deed being done, just as Lady Macbeth’s blood had to thicken to allow her evildoing. This instance of distant parallelism reminds us of Lady Macbeth, who has already been established as good; it therefore supports Macbeth’s being so, as well. Lastly, there is Duncan – his blood is described in II.iii.131 as being “golden”, which indicates that he was both royal and good.

Milk appears to emphasize Macbeth’s nature. In I.v.17, Lady Macbeth states that Macbeth’s nature is “too full o’ the milk of human kindness” to permit him to do evil deeds. This liquid is also utilized to remark upon and perhaps even defend the nature of the doings of the Macbeths when, in IV.iii.113, Malcolm says, “Nay, had I power, I should, / Pour the sweet milk of concord into hell, / Uproar the universal peace, confound / All unity on earth.” He, a good man, is predicting the outcomes of exposure to power and ambition; we are thus given to see that these are products of any logical mind presented with the opportunity to gain from evil, not the thoughts of one deluded, fundamentally bad couple.

On another note entirely, blood is the first liquid used to notify the reader of a change from the natural to the unnatural. This occurs when Lady Macbeth specifically mentions that the thickening of her blood would prevent a natural reaction, would “Stop up th’ access and passage to remorse” (I.v.50).

Milk and gall then appear to craft further artificiality when Lady Macbeth, in I.v.55, demands that evil spirits “…take [her] milk for gall”. She yearns to have her capacity to raise young taken away, and thus, to be deprived of her nature. She is asking that her femininity, in this sense, be traded for gall, which would be analogous to poison when consumed. This indicates that she wishes to exude poison, a death-dealing substance, from the very part of her that should be supporting life – an extremely unnatural wish, indeed.

The unnatural state of the main characters’ world is further emphasized by the fact that these liquids, all of which have thoroughly permeated Macbeth’s and Lady Macbeth’s lives, are thrown into the witches’ brew. The two drink, therefore, a poison crafted by their actions, as Macbeth suggested that they would when he states in I.vii.10 that “even-handed justice / Commends th’ ingredience of our poisoned chalice / To our own lips.” This is evidenced by the addition of poisoned entrails (Lady Macbeth’s internal organs, in other words) to the brew (IV.i.5), alongside gall (IV.i.27), and blood (IV.i.37) which ensures that “the charm is firm and good” (IV.i.38), just as the blood that Macbeth spilt established that he could carry on killing. Sometime later, in IV.i.70, the blood of a sow “that hath eaten / Her nine farrow” is added; a mother of any mammalian species consuming her children is counter-natural.  This, of course, parallels Lady Macbeth, and thus adds to the aberration that is Macbeth’s world.

Lastly, the aforementioned three liquids seek to discuss human nature. To begin, milk is brought up, symbolizing all things natural; the reader is told that it flows through humans in I.v.17, and, perhaps, if one observes an instance of wordplay, then that it is the essence of “human kindness”. Lady Macbeth, in I.v.29, wishes to pour spirits in Macbeth’s ear to persuade him; this cultivates the belief that thoughts and words, too, traverse the human body as liquids. Where blood is concerned, Macbeth remarks, upon telling Duncan’s sons in II.iii.115 that their father has been killed, that “the fountain of [their] blood / Is stopped”. This seems to suggest that blood, symbolizing either positive or negative attributes, is passed onwards through the generations; this would have the reader think that it is an essential constituent of humans in both the physical and metaphorical sense. In III.iv.157, Macbeth maintains that even “the secret’st man of blood” may be found out – in other words, that even the most successful plan of deception may fail. “Man of blood”, however, is slightly ambiguous – all humans are of blood. Is it therefore being indirectly suggested that anyone can become a murderer? Our liquid nature of being is further emphasized when Caithness, in V.ii.33, says, “And with him pour we in our country’s purge / Each drop of us.”

Liquids, as has been shown, illustrate the multifaceted nature of Macbeth, with blood, milk, and gall providing allusions that are particularly captivating. These liquids are useful in the statements that they make regarding the Macbeths, their actions, the unnatural world in which they live, and human nature. The instances of liquid-related metaphor and imagery within the text are, then, nearly as powerful as the ideals, flaws, and aspects of nature that they portray.

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2 Responses to On liquids within Macbeth

  1. Alyssa says:

    A very interesting perspective. I like how you’ve emphasized the uses of blood as both a positive and negative image. It is very easy to see blood as a negative image, and the idea of bloodlines (including royal ones) also comes to mind, but few readers would notice the embodiment of blood as nobility of character. It is clear that blood is associated with nobility, both in terms of royalty and in terms of character.
    I do have one question about one of your later points. Can you elaborate on this:
    “Man of blood”, however, is slightly ambiguous – all humans are of blood. Is it therefore being indirectly suggested that anyone can become a murderer?
    I read the passage from which it is taken, and I don’t agree with your speculation here. I’m willing to be convinced though.

    • Sophia says:

      This was just an interesting little attempt at extracting a pun – I removed it later in the revision process, as it was a major point of speculation. However, by dint of the fact that Shakespeare’s works have abounded with this form of subtle wordplay, and in view of the notion that Macbeth’s being a human (a “man of blood”) and pursuing human desires was that which drove him to take a stab at murder (my apologies, I’m having a bit of fun), I’m thinking it’s a minor possibility. Certainly, there wasn’t overwhelming evidence of it, you are entirely correct. I’ve yet to revisit the text and attempt to dig some up, haha!

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