Here’s the smell of the blood still. All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand. Oh, Oh, Oh!
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.
LADY MACBETHMacbeth, 5.1.37-50.
To bed, to bed. There’s knocking at the gate. Come, come, come, come. Give me your hand. What’s done cannot be undone.—To bed, to bed, to bed!
Hands are a recurring motif in Macbeth. Not a good one, either: wherever hands pop up, they nearly always signal something nasty.
When Macbeth sees the floating dagger en route to murdering the sleeping king, he is alarmed to see the “handle toward my hand”. After murdering Duncan, he stares at his own hands in fresh horror: “What hands are here? Ha? They pluck out mine eyes”. Most famously, when Lady Macbeth goes mad with guilt, she fixates on her hands, trying desperately to wash them clean of imaginary blood. Her hands represent her conscience, tainted by crimes that “cannot be undone”.
Hands, then, tend to stand for sin, or guilt, or confusion; they carry echoes of Matthew 18:8, and the sinful hand that must be cut off.
And yet, at the end of the passage above, the image of a hand takes on a different quality altogether. In the final scene before Lady Macbeth steps into darkness and takes her own life, the hand she dwells on isn’t her own – it is her husband’s: “Come, come, come. Give me your hand”. Gone, for a moment, are fears of blood and damned spots; instead, her words carry an air of desperate longing.
Macbeth, of course, is not there. Nor has he truly been there since the moment of Duncan’s murder, where the “painted devils” of remorse first displaced the “spirits” of ambition that she once poured in his ear. Instead, all she can do in her personal hell of doubt and pain is imagine, as it were, a painted husband – an illusion of the man she loved, based on fragments of conversations past.
It is no coincidence that the event she recalls most vividly in her sleeping delusion is the night of Duncan’s murder: for all the pain that the night caused her – and continues to cause as she scrubs her hands of the old man’s gore – she thinks on the the control she had over Macbeth, the advice that she gave him, their shared dash from the knock knock knocking at the gate. She thinks, in short, of the final time in their marriage that the pair truly acted as a unit.
I love this scene. It showcases the enormous depth of a brilliant, complicated character. Lady Macbeth is cruel, she is calculating, she is a villain. But, at points such as this, she is also enormously sympathetic. Here, she is consumed by a guilt that encompasses much more than Duncan’s death, and takes in also the irreparable damage done to her marriage, a wound that “cannot be undone”. Her final words refer to the traditional shared bastion of a healthy marriage – “To bed, to bed, to bed” – even as her husband’s absence confirms the demise of their partnership. The man to whom she imagines speaking in these final moments is not yet dead, but his illusion is no less an “unreal mockery” of what once was than the ghost of Banquo.
More than anything, though, Lady Macbeth’s language – her anguished cries, her references to Banquo – suggest that she recognises, on some level, that she will soon be dead. And here, at the end of the world, she doesn’t want forgiveness, or vengeance, or even for the damage to be undone.
She just wants to hold her husband’s hand one last time, so that they might step into darkness together.