Symbolism of hands in Macbeth

Symbolism of hands in Macbeth

The Making of Violence:

Motives, Means, and Masculinity1


Mary Jane Chaffee

           “By self and violent hands”

(Macbeth 5.9.36)

       With those words2 Malcom describes Lady Macbeth’s supposed suicide, which functions on the dramatic level as a satisfying if bleak end to her mayhem and Macbeth’s ambition. But I would argue that the phrase “self and violent hands”—conjoining the important elements of self and violence—rounds out an emphasis placed on choice throughout the play. Some feel that Macbeth expresses pre-determinism. I think without choice, the play loses much of its force. And we find this idea of volition in hand imagery and stage directions throughout, beginning in Act 1, scene 1. In addition, I think we need to appreciate this imagery as it recalls Judeo-Christian values familiar to the audience, then as now, and underscores the spiritual weight of such volition.3

       Macbeth exits Act 1, scene 4, using “hand” in an aside as a marker for action with the eye for knowledge and conscience: “The eye wink at the hand; yet let that be / Which the eye fears, when it is done, to see” (52-53).4 Clearly he understands that his conscience, his “eye,” must not acknowledge his intention or its resulting action, his “hand.” Without this Christian sense of accountability and choice, the characters’ tragedy would horrify and move us much less. The emblematic use of hands underpins these ideas of choice and accountability.5

       The notion that we must account for our thoughts, words, and actions—the “work of our hands,” subscribes to a foundational ideal in both the traditional and reformed Christianity6 of Shakespeare’s day. The Bible speaks of our efforts in terms of hands. If, alternatively, nature and divine will ineluctably determine our choices, less dramatic tension derives from vacillating about the evil we may or may not do, and less potential pity and recognition results for a hero such as Macbeth. I think the strength of this play depends on layered Christianity, as John D. Cox calls it, an admixture of canonical traditions that hold that choices matter because they lead to actions that harm or help others and us. We find this sense of choice illustrated by some of the hand references in the play while other hand imagery refers to such things as chaos, magic, justice and kingship.

       How do we understand Macbeth’s decision to oppose rightful kingship? The fact that the Thane of Cawdor and his lady choose evil with such alacrity may demonstrate their ignorance of or unwillingness to accept the importance of their choices as well as their lack or denial of how “way leads on to way” and “bad company corrupts good character.”7 Though predestination might explain Macbeth’s swift decline, according to traditional Christian thinking all humans exist in a fallen state: “there is none that doeth good, no, not one” (Ps 53.3b)8 and “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” (Jer 17.9). In this scenario each individual is capable of selfish and reckless acts, each one accountable. Jeremiah continues (verse 10) “I the Lord search the heart, I try the reins, even to give every man according to his ways and according to the fruit of his doings.” That the Macbeths pursue violence so recklessly can be taken to support free will and responsibility for our lives as we consider the wrong or right use of hands.

       Religion in early modern studies enjoys a resurgence, according to Cox, Ken Jackson, and Arthur F. Maotti. As evidence of this shift, they cite Stephen Greenblatt’s book on Purgatory “as well as an essay and two book chapters on the Eucharist,” writing that “perhaps it is safer to say that interpretation of religious material and contexts never really ceased in early modern literary study but rather that they had just been pushed somewhat to the side by most New Historicists and cultural materialists” (167).9 It follows an arch we may trace from the turn of the Twentieth Century till now, currently most as regards Shakespeare’s faith or influences. Summing up A.C. Bradley’s ideal that “Christian theology is essentially irrelevant to Shakespeare’s writing” while G. Wilson Knight and his followers “hold that Shakespeare’s plays are essentially and pervasively—even blatantly—Christian” (4), Roland M. Frye argues that “Shakespeare’s concerns are essentially secular, temporal, nontheological” (7) but that his plays “do contain more theological allusions than have sometimes been recognized” (9), that he “was quite literate in Christian theology” (11) and that demonstrates “extensive use of the Geneva Bible” (12).10

       Macbeth inspires even Bradley to concede, however, that:


. . . not only is the feeling of a supreme power or destiny peculiarly marked, but it has also at times a peculiar tone, which may be called, in a sense, religious. I cannot make my meaning clear without using language too definite to describe truly the imaginative impression produced; but it is roughly true that, while we do not imagine the supreme power as a divine being who avenges crime, or as a providence which supernaturally interferes, our sense of it is influenced by the fact that Shakespeare uses current religious ideas here . . . The horror in Macbeth’s soul is more than once represented as desperation at the thought that he is eternally “lost” . . . . (145)11


And, emphasizing the cultural background for the Scottish play, Jane H. Jack similarly observes in her 1955 article, “Macbeth, King James, and the Bible,” that “The works of [King] James are part of the ‘background’ of the tragedy of Macbeth. Their uniformly Hebraic and Christian quality serves to illuminate that part of the common Jacobean stock of knowledge and ideas, which is most relevant to the interpretation of Macbeth” (174).12

       Not only does Macbeth invite religious annotations but its hand imagery strikes us immediately. As Kathryn L. Lynch observes in her 1988 article about this symbology, “’What Hands Are Here?’ The Hand as Generative Symbol in Macbeth.,” there are “no fewer than thirty-two major references in the course of the play. This centrality escapes no audience’s or reader’s notice” (29).13 Lynch’s discussion explores especially the “conventional meanings and associations of hands in antiquity and the Middle Ages,” and notes that Kenneth Muir “showed that the opposition between the hand and the other senses, particularly the eye, reinforces the Porter’s contrast between desire and act.” (29)14 Desire and act reinforce the role of free will and—among other things–-violence final corruption. One of the ways Shakespeare telegraphs this deterioration through acts of will and choice is through hands–-often gestural imagery in lines and direct references in stage directions. Hands and the hand of God form such a common thread in the Bible that hands would have had, as they do now, powerful resonances with the audience.

       I also am indebted to the Ohio Shakespeare Conference panel on Macbeth and David Bevington’s insightful comments about how Calvinism might underlie the play and explain the conundrum of Macbeth’s character. Similarly, in Frye’s 1963 commentary, Macbeth appears in the Calvinist role of reprobate, unable to repent and easily tempted into extreme evil (152, 213, 238). The fact that Macbeth immediately begins to fantasize about regicide (1.2) does not mean he cannot turn away from that course, however. As Judeo-Christian, cross-denominational viewpoints tell us and might have suggested to the original audience, the protagonist does have a choice throughout the play, part of the reason his tragedy moves us so; in fact, the imagery of hands underscores the centrality of choice, concomitant consequences, and the pride of self-determinate will.

       Just as Gabriel Reiger’s paper at the Ohio Shakespeare Conference shows us how Iago’s speech, in jest to Desdemona, reveals deep psychological cues in terms of class resentment, misogyny, motive for revenge, and his own gendered self-perception as a whore, so Macbeth’s and Lady Macbeth’s references to hands reveal deep psychological cues in terms of their insistent repudiation of class hierarchy and the servant role, denial of conscience, and upending of an assumed moral code. Like Iago, they proceed with disregard for any spiritual repercussions. But in Macbeth, as in Richard III, spiritual and emotional consequences arise based on free will. In Macbeth, for the protagonists’ crises before and after regicide to impact us fully, I believe we must acknowledge the Christian tenet of self-will. In neither Othello nor Macbeth do we encounter predestined malignancy. Rather, we watch individuals consciously, of their own volition, choose violence in response to impulses and desires. They control their reactions and choices in calculated denoument, whether from Iago’s revenge or the Macbeths’ ambition.15 

       In considering this ambition, we keep with the spirit of early modern readers by using the King James translation here as more closely assimilative to what author and audience would have known.16 Using King James verses potentially leads to more nuanced understanding17 and to some possible insights with cultural historicity.18 Some scholars hold that Shakespeare believed an amalgam of Roman Catholic and Protestant tenets in what James Shapiro and others refer to as “the layered nature of what Elizabethans, from the queen on down, actually believed” (qtd in Cox 551) but of course we cannot establish with any degree of certainty or accuracy which tenets he followed.19 Despite the lively debate sparked specifically by Macbeth in this regard—in Maurice Hunt,20 for example—I adjure the argument about Shakespeare’s personal faith and focus here on his use of allusions to the Bible and Judeo-Christian tropes. With these patterns and phrases—as Naseeb Shaheen and others comment—Shakespeare certainly demonstrates familiarity.

       Shakespeare’s use of biblical associations connected with hands shifts from works to thought and will, and then back to works. Macbeth’s initial, vividly-described gorey success in battle begins the works of his hands. We might consider his prowess in terms of Davidic associations, at least inasmuch as Macbeth splits his foe from top to bottom and David beheads Goliath, and inasmuch as both fearlessly defend their country and king. In Psalms, David prays that God will strengthen his hands in battle, so that right warfare may be condoned; the fierceness ascribed initially to Macbeth would not necessarily carry ominous implications. He moves from Macbeth’s ennobled violence as a defending warrior and leader in battle, to unity, duplicity and the supernatural with the witches, to being double-handed in betrayal and the murder, guilt, madness and self-definition that ensue.

       Duplicity functions on dizzying levels. Macbeth rails against the witches as “these juggling fiends” (5.8.19).21 Jack writes that King James’s “hatred of secrecy and hypocrisy, of things which are other than they seem, is particularly evident throughout his works” (177) and that doubling and double-handedness harkens back to Medea as well as Thomas Preston’s play Cambises. Lynch writes in her article of bloody hands in association with secret murder: “they do in Preston’s play seem significantly linked to the drama of deception, where pairs of killers—like Macbeth and Lady Macbeth or Banquo’s two murderers—conceal their dirty hands with gestures of loyalty and affiliation” (31). Christian taxonomy suggests that our will shapes thoughts and beliefs, leading to words and deeds, to works—the fruit mentioned in Matthew, work of the hands noted in Proverbs and 1 Thessalonians. Jesus states in Matthew 7.16 that you can judge the tree by its fruit and people by their actions. Macbeth upends the appearance of loyalty and service, underscoring the perversion or inversion of other relationships: night/day, husband/wife, vassal/king, parent/child, and so on.22

       Hands first appear in an informal but also somewhat courtly reference to leave-taking. The Sergeant describes Macbeth’s initial persistence and audacity in battle against “the merciless Macdonwald / (Worthy to be a rebel, for to that / the multiplying villainies of nature / Do swarm upon him)” (1.1.9-12). Not only does our hero not shake hands and so part from the enemy, he splits him as he will soon split the kingdom and divides head from body as he soon will divide Duncan, the head, from the body of Scotland. Much has been written already about how these lines foreshadow Macbeth’s own decapitation, but the informal diction that uses hands also recalls the medieval and gentlemanly gesture of honor and courtesy, as Lynch notes (30), however violent its context with the rebel Macdonwald. Aurally and eerily, the lines perhaps also point to church and state by playing with the homonym “knave” for church and “battlements” for king and castle. But the main emphasis occurs in what Macbeth does in place of shaking hands in farewell. “For brave Macbeth . . . nev’r shook hands, nor bade farewell to him, / Till he unseam’d him from the nave to th’chops, / And fix’d his head upon our battlements” (1.1.21-23).

       Dismembered digits go hand in glove with the witches.23 One brags of having a pilot’s thumb (1.3.28-29), another senses evil by ‘the pricking of her thumbs,’ while another tosses the “Finger of birth-strangled babe” into their cauldron (4.1.30). In the first scene, for example, carrying a pilot’s thumb signals false guidance along with cruelty and chaos in its grisly allusion, as others have observed, to Paul’s classical encomium on the body of believers (1 Cor 12.12-31). It denotes pulling apart the kingdoms of God and man as well as the participation in necromancy remarked by Maurice Hunt (383). Banquo depicts a gesture—what we traditionally think of as using the index finger—that suggests hushed silence as well as the precursor to commentary. Continuing the dismemberment theme, he describes their fingers as “choppy.” He says, “You seem to understand me, / By each at once her choppy finger laying / Upon her skinny lips” (1.3.43-45).

       Yet disembodied parts of the hand also recall the book of Daniel and the emblematic writing on the wall. At King Belshazzar’s banquet, fingers write God’s judgment: “[i]n the same hour came forth fingers of a man’s hand, and wrote over against the candlestick upon the plaister of the wall of the king’s palace, and the king saw the part of the hand that wrote” (5.5, see Dan 5. 1-31 for the entire narrative). Similar to Belshazzar, however, Macbeth pushes past the ominous subtext of the witch’s prophesy or his vision before killing Duncan, as he also does not comment on Lady Macbeth’s mania. Will merges with flesh, the visual with the spiritual, as when the witches’ chant their gestural: “The weird sisters, hand in hand, / Posters of the sea and land, / Thus do go, about, about” (1.3.32-34). So hands may partner in sorcery as in complicit plots. Hand symbology reflects the duplicitous or double-handed nature of evil, of “Ambidextrous” taken from Cambises, as explained earlier by Kathryn Lynch.

       Lady Macbeth encapsulates this duplicity as she does Macbeth’s ambition in her role as gendered catalyst, with her self-perception as merciless, masculine warrior. Bearded witches aside, I will not directly address the issue of gendered violence, which Iglesias examines in her study, or of Macbeth’s changing and altered masculinity, a topic Lexi Stucky elucidates in her examination of Macbeth, Duncan, and Macduff.24 Instead, here we consider Lady Macbeth’s gendered role as it relates to Judeo-Christian models by looking at her as two symbols: a recognizable inversion of the wife in Proverbs 31 and an avatar for Eve. Like Lady Macbeth, the wife of Proverbs 31 uses her hands with force, power, and effectiveness. The proverbial wife “seeketh wool, and flax, and worketh willingly with her hands” (13), manages her household fairly (15), expands the scope of her domestic abundance for “with the fruit of her hands she planteth a vineyard” (16). Just as Lady Macbeth needs a candle beside her at all times, so does the wife of Proverbs, but in order to do good works: “perceiveth that her merchandise is good: her candle goeth not out by night” (18). This woman of Jewish tradition understands that her ‘merchandise’ is sound, representing the results of good choices. Both women demonstrate activity and control through their hands, specifically: “She layeth her hands to the spindle, and her hands hold the distaff” (19).25

       Where Lady Macbeth spins treachery, the godly woman spins provision and kindness, but both demonstrate influence, power, and energy. Indeed, the wife in Proverbs 31.10-31 “openeth her mouth with wisdom: and in her tongue is the law of kindness” (26) while Lady Macbeth muses of her husband: “Yet I do fear thy nature, / It is too full o’ th’ milk of human kindness / To catch the nearest way” (1.5.16-18). Ambition needs “an illness” to “attend it” (19-20), she says. She correctly understands that she can persuade Macbeth to act, considering her tongue courageous and prays to absent Macbeth, “Hie thee hither, / That I may pour my spirits in thine ear, / And chastise with the valor of my tongue” (1.5.25-27). Corrupting the traditional roles of femininity to make a gendered plea for harshness, she adjures the “spirits that tend on mortal thoughts” to “unsex me here, / And fill me from the crown to the toe topful / Of direst cruelty!” (1.5.41-43). Both the wife of Proverbs 31 and Lady Macbeth rise to serve the household in night, but from opposite ambitions. Proverbs 31.15 states, “She riseth also while it is yet night, and giveth meat to her household, and a portion to her maidens,” another important juxtaposition when we think of the meat Lady Macbeth gives to her household and the portion she leaves for Duncan’s pages.

       Like the wife described in Proverbs, Lady Macbeth “girdeth her loins with strength, and strengtheneth her arms” (verse 17 in the Bible passage) but to diabolical ends. Lady Macbeth returns to the courtly, gestural symbology of hands as greeters and givers of hospitality in 1.5 of the tragedy when she first welcomes Duncan and his retinue to their home. The wife described in Proverbs shows compassion with her hands: “She stretcheth out her hand to the poor; yea, she reacheth forth her hands to the needy” (verse 20 in the Bible passage). Shakespeare reminds us of Lady Macbeth’s perversion of the courtly and  Judeo-Christian roles when Duncan says, “Fair and noble hostess / We are your guest to-night” (1.6.23-24). And Lady Macbeth counsels her husband, “To beguile the time, / Look like the time; bear welcome in your eye, / Your hand, your tongue; look like the innocent flower, / But be the serpent under’t” (63-66).

       In pairing “innocent” with “serpent”, I think this language recalls both Jesus’s advice to the disciples, to be innocent as lambs but subtle as serpents, and Genesis’s story of the fall of man. When we remember Eve’s part in the fall (as told in Genesis), we encounter the prototypical wife who persuades her husband to join in a forbidden action that promises success and leads to horrific consequences for the actors involved. Proverbs 31.12 tells us a virtuous woman “will do [her husband] good and not evil all the days of her life.” Literally and figuratively, she shelters and protects those around her: Verse 21 says that she “is not afraid of the snow for her household; for all her household are clothed in scarlet,” pointing to warmth and protection. Through such love and action she covers herself in sustenance and nobility “She maketh herself coverings of tapestry; her clothing is silk and purple” (22). Lady Macbeth also reaches tirelessly for sustenance and nobility through murder, and therefore also “is not afraid . . . for her household” insomuch as she feels neither concern for them nor fear of them. She clothes her household in a different sort of scarlet when she dismisses her own conscience, repudiates her Christian responsibility as helpmeet, and belittle consequences for their choices.26

       But as Act 1, scene 7 opens, Macbeth apparently understands the possibility of retribution. He broods that regicide will “return to plague th’inventor” and cautions that “This even-handed justice / Commends the ingredience of our poison’d chalice to our own lips” (1.7.10-12). But although this image of poetic justice does not deflect their original plan, it may suggest other chalice and hand emblems involving divine judgment. Psalms 75.8 states that “. . . in the hand of the Lord there is a cup, and the wine is red . . . but the dregs thereof, all the wicked of the earth shall wring them out, and drink them.” In The Revelation of John the wicked become drunk on their own evil-doings. As Jack states, before the composition of Macbeth, King James had published a commentary on Revelation, believing it to be the most important book of the Bible.27 Revelation describes a woman “arrayed in purple and scarlet colour” who represents a “great city which reigneth over the kings of the earth” (17.4a, 18). Lady Macbeth arrays herself in purple through the scarlet blood bathes her hands in and reigns through this bloodshed. In Revelation the woman holds a “golden cup in her hand, filled with abominations . . . drunken with the blood of the saints,” (17.4b, 6). The reference to a woman “drunken with the blood of the saints” reverberates in our imaginations when Lady Macbeth exults at the thought of murder, having drugged the pages, “That which hath made them drunk hath made me bold; / What hath quench’d them hath given me fire.” (2.2.1-2).

       The wicked in the Old Testament also drink from the cup of ruination. The imagery of nations’ being drunk with their choices appears in Jeremiah 51.7: “Babylon hath been a golden cup in the Lord’s hand, that made all the earth drunken; the nations have drunken of her wine; therefore the nations are mad.” This suggests the outcomes that await the characters in Shakespeare’s tragedy, namely Scotland’s corruption under Macbeth and the madness of the two principals—Lady Macbeth as literally mad from guilt, Macbeth as figuratively mad from his own ambition. Ezekiel 23.31-33 states


Thou [Jerusalem] hast walked in the way of thy sister [Samaria]; therefore will I give her cup into thine hand. / Thus saith the Lord God; Thou shalt drink of thy sister’s cup deep and large: thou shalt be laughed to scorn and had in derision; it containeth much. / Thou shalt be filled with drunkenness and sorrow, with the cup of astonishment and desolation.


The protagonists drink from their own chalice, as Macbeth foretells in 1.7, and end in desolation.

       For the heroic Macbeth, hands symbolize the locus of self-will, of desire and execution. Internal rhyming and repetition reinforces the importance of hands in his lines. The thane famously muses “Is this a dagger which I see before me, / The handle toward my hand? / Come, let me clutch thee” (2.1.33-34). Desire’s concomitant action remains out of reach but he strains for it with his hand, that is, with his will. The dagger could be seen to embody his ambition as well as the planned assassination. His desires and plans offer themselves to his will, that is, to his hand.

       After the murder, Macbeth sees his hands as symbolic of desire and betrayal. He also describes the sleeping pages as if they saw his new identity of executioner with his “hangman’s hands.” While the protagonist says, “This is a sorry sight,” the text directs, looking on his hands, presaging the language to follow: “One cried ‘God bless us!’ and ‘Amen!’ the other, / As they had seen me with these hangman’s hands” (2.2.24-25). In scene 2 of Act 2 hands appear as polluted declarative—‘filthy witness’—coupled with eyes and blood. They transfer action to the actor, the effective representation for the irrevocable deed, so that Macbeth asks “what have I done?” and “how could I have chosen such a reckless and horrible act?” in the economy of the question “what hands are here?”

       In lines 43-44, Lady Macbeth remarks only the practicable consequence while her husband imagines his hands turning oceans red with their blood-guilt. In Act 2 Macbeth cannot imagine cleansing his hands while of course Lady Macbeth feels it is “easily done.” “Eyes” continue to signify knowledge and, in this case, staggered conscience. She directs, “Go get some water / And wash this filthy witness from your hand” (43-44) but he laments “What hands are here? Hah! They pluck out mine eyes” (56). Will Neptune’s ocean “wash this blood clean from my hand?” (57-58). He says not, to which Lady Macbeth famously replies that they both have bloody hands—husband and wife are one flesh in appearance as in action here—only that she feels no misgivings: “My hands are of your color; but I shame / To wear a heart so white” (61-62).

       Yet by Act 3, scene 4, Macbeth’s hands enact murder without reflection. Having seen Banquo’s ghost, he tries to dispatch Macduff instantly, saying that what he thinks will be acted upon. Hands now represent heedless will, where the character moves from head or heart to hand: “Strange things I have in head, that will to hand, / Which must be acted ere they may be scann’d” (3.4.138-39). By Act 4, scene 2, he asserts, “From this moment / The very firstlings of my heart shall be / The firstlings of my hand” (4.2.146-48). Now he chooses “the firstlings.” The language continues to emphasize choice. “From this moment” indicates decision. Macbeth foregoes conscience by an act of will, not from predestined patterns. Things “must be acted ere they may be scanned.” He refuses either to stop or reflect. He chooses wrecklessness. Jesus proscribes, “And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell” (Matt. 5.30). We may interpret Christianity as saying to stop a thought or action that leads us away from God. Macbeth illustrates this Christian concept in how he deteriorates. Choice matters in part because one choice may lead to many others—whether in thought, word, or deed. Macbeth’s determination to act on first impulses and to think about what he’s done later contrasts tragically with his earlier self-awareness. We empathize with his progression because he brings it on himself. In the Old Testament, Psalm 90 concludes with “and establish thou the work of our hands upon us; yes, the work of our hands establish thou it” (17b). “Work” here may encompass not only our worldly efforts but our legacy, our life’s work, the very things Macbeth laments not having before he dies such as honor and troops of friends. The Psalm’s repeated possessive, “the work of our hands,” highlights our responsibility. It culminates with the meditation about the brevity and fragility of life: “Thou hast set our iniquities before thee, our secret sins in the light of thy countenance. / For all our days are passed away in thy wrath: we spend our years as a tale that is told. . . ” (8-9). In the Christian view, I would suggest, for our lives not to be a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing, God must bless the “work of our hands:” “establish thou it.” In a different context, the apostle Paul points to selfhood and self-sufficiency when he advises the Thessalonians to: “study to be quiet, and to do your own business, and to work with your own hands” (1 Thess. 4.11) So from a Christian standpoint, it might be argued, hands align both with the self-functioning in a healthy way in society and with the work and legacy of an individual’s life.

       Lady Macbeth’s life unravels by Act 5, scene 1, where she “rubs her hands” (26), asks, “What, will these hands ne’er be clean?” (43), declares “All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand” and directs someone unseen to “Wash your hands” and “come, come, come, come, give me your hand” (62, 67). If we view her as suffering from guilt, these hand references retain power, but guilt implies choice. On the contrary, if we assume she acts from resistless predetermined evil, her madness appears somewhat formulaic. I would argue that we understand the impact of choices and their resulting moral and spiritual reverberations from Shakespeare’s use of hand-imagery here just as we do through the playwright’s having Angus comment Act 5, scene 2, that now Macbeth feels “his secret murders sticking on his hands” (17). Hands function in layered meaning because of so many meanings found in Christianity.

       Banquo more directly references Christianity when he acknowledges God and speaks of providence, control, authorship, and protection in combatting violent overthrow. Banquo reacts to Duncan’s murder in double and triple internal rhymes that underscore the Christian reading of hands. “In the great hand of God I stand, and thence / Against the undivulg’d pretense I fight / Of treasonous malice” (2.3.130-32). Banquo’s language of standing in the great hand of God centers him in a Judeo-Christian world that begins with the identifier “great,” then moves to “hand” and then gives authorship its due: “of God.”

       Macbeth, conversely, appeals to his henchmen in scene 1 of Act 3 to do away with Banquo using homey, homiletic Christian markers. Like Richard III’s swearing by St. Paul, Macbeth twists pietistic references to invoke revenge, not provision:


             Are you so gospell’d

       To pray for this good man, and for his issue,

       Whose heavy hand hath bow’d you to the grave,

       And beggar’d yours for ever? (3.1.87-90)


He thus also invokes the Old Testament idea of the sins of the fathers being visited upon the sons. Macbeth moves from this supernatural inference to the supranatural, anthromorphicizing nature. He envisions day as having pity and tenderness and longs for night’s hand literally to blind the day:


Come, seeling night,

Scarf up the tender eye of pitiful day,

And with thy bloody and invisible hand

Cancel and tear to pieces that great bond

Which keeps me pale! (3.2.46-50)


So we progress from the great hand of God, through Banquo’s heavy hand of oppression, to a natural world where the hand of night blinds and tears to pieces the day.

       If Macbeth suggests the right uses of kingship by portraying a tyrant, so it speaks to the right uses of will and action-–embodied in the imagery of hands—by contrasting England’s monarch Edward’s healing with Macbeth’s and Lady Macbeth’s bloody hands. The “most pious Edward” heals with a touch. Macbeth rules Scotland with an “accursed hand.” Lennox alludes the Christian deity in Act 3, scene 6 before speaking of Macbeth’s oppression when he notes that Macduff has sued the “holy king” Edward to “wake Northumberland and warlike Siward, / That by the help of these (with Him above / to ratify the work)” (3.6.31-33) the Scots may again enjoy a peaceful, restored state. He then prays that an angel fly ahead of Macduff so that his suit will bring a blessing:


             Some holy angel

Fly to the court of England, and unfold

His message ere he come, that a swift blessing

May soon return to this our suffering country

Under a hand accurs’d! (3.6.45-49)


If the country suffers under Macbeth’s hand accurs’d, England’s medically incurable subjects are cured by the royal touch. Heaven itself works through the king’s hand to amend literal sickness rather than engender it. A doctor reports to Malcolm in Act 4, scene 3, that—referring to King Edward—


             there are a crew of wretched souls

That stay his cure. Their malady convinces

The great assay of art; but at his touch,

Such sanctity hath heaven given his hand,

They presently amend. (4.3. 141-45)


       The play depicts a cataclysm of twisted faith, twisted volition, and twisted work through its varied use of hand imagery. Malcolm—and Shakespeare perhaps addressing the play to James I—regards regal qualities as “the king-becoming graces” of such things as “justice, verity, temp’rance, stableness” in Act 4, scene 3. The audience may draw similar counterpoints between the right uses of will and the mangled will, as they acknowledge the seminal role of choice in determining outcome. In almost the last breath of the tragedy, Malcolm brings the hand imagery full circle. In Christian terms, hands turned to evil eventually destroy the individual. They may create a hangman of a thane and corpses of his guests, but the play’s outcome bespeaks ultimate punishment for wrong choices. Thus we feel the justice of Lady Macbeth’s bloody demise when Malcolm talks of “this dead butcher and his fiend-like queen / Who (as ‘tis thought) by self and violent hands / Took off her life” (5.9. 35-37).




1  This article was presented as a paper at the Ohio Shakespeare Conference on November 6, 2006.

2  Quotations throughout use The Riverside Shakespeare, 2nd edition, edited by G. Blakemore Evans and J.J.M. Tobin (Boston: Houghton, 1997).

3  In essence, the Macbeths pay consequences for choices freely made. Far from persuading us of Macbeth’s predetermined role as Calvinistic reprobate, frequent references to ‘hand’ and other phrases with possible Christian overtones might persuade us of the drama and pathos inherent in their choices. We might feel that they must account for their choices and therefore that Macbeth represents universal struggles.

4  Quotations come from The Authorized King James Version (Charlotte, NC: Bible House, 1976) to approximate more closely the words familiar to Early Modern people in discussing general ideas.

5  In other orthodox references, hands denote guidance, often the right hand in particular (Ps 73. 23-24: “Nevertheless I am continually with thee: thou hast holden me by my right hand. / Thou shalt guide me with thy counsel, and afterward receive me to glory.”). They signify fellowship, favor and inheritance (the Son sitteth at the right hand of God), and God’s power (Ps. 74.11: “Why withdrawest thou not thy hand, even thy right hand?  Pluck it out of thy bosom.”). They connote our deepest desires and the actions that flow from them.

6  See John D. Cox’s terms for the Catholic and Anglican faiths during the Early Modern era, as noted in his review: “Was Shakespeare a Christian, and If So, What Kind of Christian Was He?” Christianity and Literature 55, No. 4 (Summer 2006): 559n. He writes that ‘Throughout the essay, I follow the example of Eamon Duffy in using the phrase ‘traditional faith’ to refer to pre-Reformation faith. Similarly, I use ‘reformed faith’ or the ‘English Church,’ on one hand, and ‘Counter-Reformation faith,’ ‘the Roman Church,’ or ‘recusant’ (referring to believers) on the other, to describe the differences after the Reformation, in order to avoid the anachronistic and ambiguous terms, “Catholic” and “Anglican.” See Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England 1400-1580 (New Haven: Yale UP, 1992). I find “Catholic” and “Protestant” or its variants useful in this discussion of Macbeth, however.

7  We find warnings about the finality and repercussions of choices in, for example, Paul’s warning in 1 Corinthians 15.33 that “bad company corrupts good character” and Hebrews 4.13 assertion that “Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.” Accountability remains a constant.

8  See also Psalm 14.1-3: “The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God. They are corrupt, they have done abominable works, there is none that doeth good. / The Lord looked down from heaven upon the children of men, to see if there were any that did understand, and seek God. / They are all gone aside, they are all together become filthy: there is none that doeth good, no, not one.”

9  See “The Turn to Religion in Early Modern English Studies” Criticism 46, No. 1 (Winter 2004): 167-90. They refer to Stephen Greenblatt’s book, Hamlet in Purgatory (Princeton: Princeton UP, 2001), idem,” Remnants of the Sacred in Early Modern England” Subject and Object in Renaissance Culture, ed. Margreta de Grazia et al (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 1996): 337-45, and Catherine Gallagher and Stephen Greenblatt, Practicing New Historicisim (Chicago: Chicago UP, 2000), 75-109. They offer a good overview, especially with respects to Shakespeare’s own possible belief system.

10  See such books as A.C. Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy (London: Macmillan, 1937); G. Wilson Knight, Principles of Shakespearian Production (New York: Macmillan, 1937); Paul N. Siegel, Shakespearean Tragedy and the Elizabethan Compromise (New York: New York UP, 1957); J.A. Bryant, Jr., Hippolyta’s View: Some Christian Aspects of Shakespeare’s Plays (Lexington: Kentucky UP, 1961); and Richmond Noble, Shakespeare’s Biblical Knowledge and Use of the Book of Common Prayer (London: SPCK, 1935); all referred to in Roland Mushat Frye, Shakespeare and Christian Doctrine (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1963).

11  The edition of Bradley used in my essay is Shakespearean Tragedy: Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth, with a preface dated 1904, 3rd printing (Greenwich, CN: Fawcett, 1967).

12  Jane H. Jack, “Macbeth, King James, and the Bible,” English Literary History, 22. 3 (September 1955):173-193.

13 The Review of English Studies, 39, 153 (1988): 29-38.

14  As Lynch continues, “and finally the play’s more general concern with equivocation and the discrepancy between appearance and reality.” Ibid. Frye and others also note this duality. See Kenneth Muir, as quoted in Lynch’s article, in Muir’s introductory notes to the Arden edition, 1951, reprinted 1962, New York, xxvi-xxvii and Muir’s “Image and Symbol in Macbeth,” Shakespeare Survey 19 (1966): 52-53.

15  See Gabriel A. Rieger, Case Western Reserve University, “Sympathy for the Devil: Re-evaluating Iago’s ‘shows of service’” and Marisa Iglesias, University of South Florida, “Raced and Gendered: The Violence in Shakespeare’s Othello and Macbeth” at Violently Shakespeare : The 2006 Ohio Shakespeare Conference, Sponsored by Marietta College--November 9-11, 2006. This follows from Gabriel Rieger’s insightful and careful rhetorical exploration in the 2006 conference of Iago’s pretense at service, with his personal animus and class aggression masked in violently sexual, performative “comic” dialogue. We note also Marisa Iglesia’s informative study at the same conference of gendered violence in both Othello and Macbeth. Hand imagery brings that duplicity and violence into focus in Macbeth, especially in reference to Judeo-Christian traditions.

16  Critics agree that Shakespeare ‘knew his Bible.’ See Naseeb Shaheen, “Shakespeare’s Knowledge of the Bible—How Acquired,” Shakespeare Studies 20 (1988): 201-16. Historically accurate sources include the Geneva Bible, those translations listed in the introduction to Shaheen’s Biblical References in Shakespeare’s Plays, King James’s monograms discussed in Jack, “Macbeth, King James, and the Bible,” 173-93, and Frye’s list of possible source materials, 10-12. For his study Frye chooses “three eminent, representative, and influential theologians who in different ways epitomize the major religious attitudes of Shakespeare’s culture: . . . Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Richard Hooker” (14).


17  I borrow this term from Cox. He suggests that recent cultural historical work can provide a better understanding as we look afresh at religion (and religious readings) in Shakespeare. Noting Jean-Christophe Mayer’s book, Shakespeare’s Hybrid Faith: History, Religion, and the Stage, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007) he writes:


It is a good sign, however, that an author might use ‘Shakespeare’ and ‘faith’ in a book’s title, and his book is a certain sign that the conversation summarized in this essay will continue. It is an important conversation and an important part of what Jackson and Marotti call ‘the turn to religion’ in recent studies of early modern literature. As Battenhouse’s book makes clear, Shakespeareans continued a vigorous conversation about religion throughout the heyday of materialist criticism, but it was perhaps quieter than it has been recently, as the rash of recent books considered here suggests. Besides, the conversation has now profited from materialist and other poststructuralist [sic] insights as Fernie’s collection makes clear, so we should hope that it will not only be more audible than before but richer and more nuanced as well (559).


18  It should be noted that editions in the field such as Naseeb Shaheen’s Biblical References in Shakespeare’s Plays (Newark, NJ: Univ. of Delaware, 1999) already may explore this topic completely. Since such editions could not be obtained for reference before this paper was presented, however, the study goes forward without them. Jackson and Marotti point to the thorough cultural historical work, regarding religion, of Debora Shuger and others, in such places as the book cited below. They feel that she,


more than anyone else, has forced professionals in the field to take seriously religious beliefs, ideas, and history. In her most recent book, Political Theologies in Shakespeare’s England: The Sacred and the State in ‘Measure for Measure, (Houndsmill, Basingstoke, Hampshire; New York: Palgrave, 2001), she distinguishes between political theory as a secular vantage point and ‘political theology’ as a way of thinking about the relationship of the sacred to the political in human affairs: she respects the cultural otherness of a mind-set that may be uncongenial both to modern secular humanists and Marxist interpreters. . . . She has reminded the rest of the field not only that religion was central to early modern culture but also that to treat religion as ‘false consciousness’ or as an outdated vocabulary for individual or social experience is a form of scholarly and cultural myopia that distorts our understanding (168).


19  Cox notes that “he was a man whose precise faith commitment is impossible to determine” but that “Shakespeare’s written record suggests indeterminate faith” (556). He states earlier in the essay: “When [Gary] Taylor says ‘Shakespeare was a Christian,’ he means two things: first, Shakespeare was a believer, and second, he was a traditional believer . . . I think Taylor was right in the first claim, but the second is less certain, as the state of current debate indicates” (541) and then supports his stance through a series of careful questions on p. 550. He also contends that Greenblatt’s idea that Shakespeare “came to believe in the theater, rather than in religion of any sort” misses key evidence. He goes on: “Greenblatt is the most thought-provoking of Shakespeare’s most recent biographers, but his argument that Shakespeare was a lapsed Catholic—based on his reading of the plays as a secularization or ‘emptying out’ of traditional faith—is problematic in at least three ways” (549) and then discusses the interpretive problems with Greenblatt’s approach. Like Cox, Frye concurs that “even when we recognize that the evidence both positive and negative indicates that Shakespeare was a conforming member of the Church of England, we are still not able to prove anything very definite about his own personal religious orientation and motivation” (3-4).

20  For an engrossing argument that anti-Jesuitical references exist in this play and support the bard’s recusance, see Hunt’s “Reformation/Counter Reformation Macbeth,” English Studies, 86, No. 5 (October 2005): 379-98. Hunt discusses the representative ‘scourge of God’ in Macbeth as Macduff, not the tragic hero.

21  In considering Macbeth’s recognition of this duplicity, Frye likens Macbeth and Iago to being associated with the devil, so that “The relation of very wicked men to the devil is sooner or later displayed in their behavior, Calvin declares, so that they are ‘rightly recognized to be children of Satan from his image, into which they have degenerated.’ . . . The demonic agents eventually destroy themselves, of course, for the devil both uses and abuses his own adherents” (142-43). Banquo, unlike Macbeth, suspects this double-handedness on the part of the witches.

22  We are struck by the categories these ideas encompass. In the course of the play, spiritual values related to hands in the Judeo-Christian and folk traditions familiar to Shakespeare comprise such things as—under action: force, domination, possession; under faith: blessing, healing, friendship, kingship, favor, generosity; and under will, responsibility and volition: consequences, guilt, self-perception. In fact, Christian tradition makes plain the several possible spiritual associations with hand imagery, and I believe it would have resonated with the original auditors of this tragedy. As we track the use of hand imagery in the play, we may better identify the underlying spiritual corruption that occurs in the play’s main characters and their world.

23  And it may be no small coincidence that witches all consort with and are consulted by Saul the fallen king, Macbeth the fallen king, and Voldemort the fallen wizard—“whose name parses as wish for death” (17) according to Marina Warner, “Angels and Engines: The Culture of Apocalypse,” Raritan 25, No. 2 (Fall 2005): 12-41.

24  The fourth member of our panel—Lexi Stucky, University of Central Oklahoma, “What Makes a Man: Masculinity in Macbeth.”

25  As the British Columbia Folklore Society web page states, “The distaff is a stick or shaft around which wool, flax or some other raw material for making yarn or thread is loosely wound. Strands drawn from the larger mass of the material on the distaff are attached to a weighted drop-spindle. When the strands are fed by hand to the spinning spindle, they twist together to form a single thread. From the yarn knitted articles are made; from the thread cloth is woven.” British Columbia Folklore Society, “The Society Logo: The Distaff and Spindle,” Web. April 8, 2014.

26  It cannot be glossed over at this point what many have already noted, the play’s abundant references to babies, that Lady Macbeth vows she would have looked on her smiling baby boy and “would . . . Have pluck’d my nipple from his boneless gums / And dash’d the brains out,” (1.7.57-58) before she would recant their plan. This is akin to other baby and bloody-baby imagery in the play, in turn referencing a myriad of Christological allusions and also ominous Old Testament revelations of God’s wrath such as Psalm 106.37-39a, “Yea, they sacrificed their sons and their daughters unto devils / and shed innocent blood, even the blood of their sons and of their daughters, whom they sacrificed unto the idols of Canaan: and the land was polluted with blood. / Thus were they defiled with their own works.”

27  See especially Jack’s comments on source-work on Macbeth, “Macbeth, King James, and the Bible,” p. 174n3.