The Shakespearean tragedy Macbeth is filled with references to blood and gore. Three of the many functions which this blood imagery serves are to set the tone in the various scenes, to pace the wave of action throughout the play, and to characterize the nature of the death and killing in the play.
Frequently, blood sets the mood or tone in the play. When Duncan’s body is found, “his silver skin laced with his golden blood” sets a tone of horror for the rest of the scene. (II,ii,102) Although this particular imagery also sets a tone of reverence for the assassinated ruler, its main purpose is to fill one with disgust for the vile deed. This objective holds true throughout the play. When the witches recite the gory ingredients of their stew, the putridness of it is horrifying and disgusting. The witches’ bloody apparitions top off this feeling for the scene in which they appear. Blood, therefore, often sets the tone in the various scenes; and the tone most often established is one of horror and disgust.
A pattern established in Macbeth is that after each murder there is an abundance of blood imagery. The play, which had before a murder been moderately paced and subdued, is swept away in a flood of blood and gore after a murder occurs. For example, before Duncan’s murder there was very little mention of blood (except for the imagery in Act I, Scene II, which serves to foreshadow the action and killing to come); but afterwards, blood imagery literally flows wild. Donalbain is told “the fountain of [his] blood is stopped”; Lennox reports of Duncan’s guards being “badged with blood”; all “question this bloody piece of work”; and Donalbain warns his brother Malcolm, “the near in blood,/ The nearer bloody.” (II,iii,88,91,118,130) All of these images occur in but one scene. After Banquo’s murder there is a cluster of references to his blood and to his mangled body. Macbeth and the murderer speak of Banquo’s blood being better outside of the murderer’s body than inside of Banquo’s. Also, the murderer tells Macbeth of Banquo’s body lying in a ditch “with twenty trenched gashes on his head.” (III,iv,27) Then Banquo’s ghost appears, shaking its “gory locks” at Macbeth. (III,iii,51) Last, the play peaks with Lady Macbeth’s imagined blood and with the battlefield’s literal blood. These blood images form a sort of crescendo which conglomerates all of the murders. Thus, because the blood imagery is so prevalent during and directly after each murder, and because it then tapers off before the next murder, it paces the wave of action in the play.
Third, blood imagery characterizes the nature of the death and killing that occurs within the play. Macbeth is called “brave Macbeth” when he is unseaming the traitorous Macdonwald “from the nave to the chaps”; yet he is described by Macduff as “an untitled tyrant bloody sceptered” after killing Duncan, the rightful monarch. (I,ii,22;IV,iii,104) Also, Banquo’s murder is negatively characterized when Macbeth remarks to the murderer about Banquo’s blood: “‘Tis better thee without than he within.” (III,iv,14) Macbeth is no longer brave and honorable when saying this to the murderer; he has become the deceitful traitor that Macdonwald was. The killings are good when it is the enemy being dispatched; but when it is Macbeth’s liege, friends, and relatives being murdered, the killings are wrong, evil, and treacherous.
Blood imagery, by setting the tone, pacing the wave of action, and characterizing the nature of the death and killing, works to unify the action within the play. The blood begins to flow and a wave of action builds as murder occurs. Then, the images of blood and reeking gore set a tone of horror over the horrible killing of a friend and relation. This unification is constant throughout Macbeth. Blood images build up and become more frequent as Duncan is murdered, and the images instigate feelings of horror and disgust about this deceitful assassination. The same pattern holds true for both Banquo’s killing and the murder of Macduff’s family. When the blood flows quickly, so does the action.