Lessons on one word – Macbeth and ‘Hands’

Reading Time: 7 minutes At the beginning of the play, “Hands” is a word used to refer to Macbeth’s brutal – but legitimate – killing of the Thane of Cawdor who “‘ne’er shook hands” (1.1), symbolic of his lack of gentlemanly behaviour and loyalty in participating in rebellion – a theme of ‘hands’ throughout the play.

Reading Time: 7 minutes

Andy’s post reminded me of something I did last year with several texts to great success, which is looking at one word in particular throughout the text. It’s a slight introduction to corpus linguistics, so great promo for A-Level Language, but also brilliant for tracking motifs through a text.

Download the pdf analysis here: Hands in Macbeth

I give a pair of students a word and direct them to the full text (it’s easier with out-of-copyright texts, obviously!). They use Crtl+F to find every occurrence of the word, which prompts some initial outcry at the magic of computer keyboard shortcuts. When I reveal Crtl+A or Ctrl+right arrow – minds. Blown.

We talk about whether they might want to look for derivatives (hand as well as hands, bloody and blood – this also involves reminding them to use spaces in their searches e.g. ” king ” if they want to avoid things like “shocking” coming up). Upsides: more variety, richer understanding, wider knowledge of the motif. Downsides: too much data to handle in the time given. With some classes, we might talk about a more thematic approach like looking at the words ‘sight’ and ‘seeing’ but there would also be some discussion about the difference between these two things (does ‘seeing’ include some understanding of agency? Of accepting what is ‘in sight’? Nice grammar points about the difference between verbs and nouns in practice) and again the perils of Too Much Data. We want a nice close focus, which helps with the AO2 criteria and means they don’t get lost in the maze of language.

What happens next?

Once they’re over the magic of Ctrl+F, they find every example and make a table. They don’t have to use every example. We discuss how to select them. They can choose any, but need to be looking for how words change across the play and they need to reference properly, with character, act and scene. They might need to add some context (e.g. Banquo’s ghost at the feast) if the quotation isn’t clear.

Where’s the analysis?

They get to looking at how the use of the word changes. Depending on the group and how long I want to spend on it, the format I require from them changes. They might produce a handout or a presentation for the rest of the class, or simply a few bullet points to share with the class. The critical thing is that they’re looking at the ways that words change which might include:

Characters – words change hands. Different characters might use them at different times and different ways. One character might use a word at the beginning but not in the final act.

Themes – How do the words relate to the themes of the play? “Tyrant” in Macbeth appears in Act 3 and from then on is used exclusively to refer to Macbeth, by several characters. How does it compare with “King,” which is used as the title to refer to four different characters but with connotations of reverence and loyalty – as you might expect.

Agency – What’s each word doing in the phrase? This is where reading the text is really important!! What is the meaning and underlying implications of it? How is THAT changing?

“Hands” in Macbeth

At the beginning of the play, “Hands” is a word used to refer to Macbeth’s brutal – but legitimate – killing of the Thane of Cawdor who “‘ne’er shook hands” (1.1), symbolic of his lack of gentlemanly behaviour and loyalty in participating in rebellion – a theme of ‘hands’ throughout the play. In 2.2, Macbeth’s “hands” are transformed into a “sorry sight” following Duncan’s murder – now he is the disloyal one, having committed the ultimate sin of regicide. Macbeth himself calls them “hangman’s hands” (2.2), and questions “what hands are here?” as though he no longer even recognises them as part of himself. They’ve become almost disembodied or part of somebody else. His dissociation seems to reflect his inner turmoil about the murder even at the moment of its committal. Next, Lady Macbeth compares her own – “my hands are of your colour but I shame/to wear a heart so white.” (2.2). The gruesome visual imagery at this point is usually of Macbeth’s hands slightly bloody, while directors take the opportunity to liberally coat those of Lady Macbeth, for example in the Rupert Gold version where her upright arms, bloody to the elbow, contrast with her white clothing to visually connect her to the witches who are, in this version, characterised as nurses throughout. Here, Gold’s Lady Macbeth is a macabre surgeon of death.

Hands and blood remain intimately connected with the discovery of the murder as Lennox says the guards’ “Hands and faces were an badged with blood” (2.3), the visual being taken as proof of their guilt. This idea of the visual representation of hands also echoes through the play. In act 1, the visual is a lack – of NOT shaking hands. In act 2, it is hands covered in blood to symbolise the guilt of murder. In act 4, Malcolm imagines a crowd of “hands uplifted in my right” (4.3) as he speaks of returning triumphantly to Scotland to save her from the wounds Macbeth is inflicting.

The symbolic guilt of hands returns with a vengeance in act 5, when Lady Macbeth’s infamous handwashing is noted by the doctor and gentlewoman as she herself says “will these hands ne’er be clean?” This has become one of the most famous scenes and images of the play, and the most hotly debated; does Lady Macbeth’s guilt come from an innate human sense of morality, a religious leaning inherent of the time, or perhaps simply fear that she is the only one who knows her husband’s secret? As well as her own, she tells Macbeth (in her walking nightmare) to “wash your hands, put on your nightgown” (5.1), echoing a section of the scene we did not witness earlier but which suggests the partnership between them as they ready themselves for bed having committed the sin together.

Late in Act 5, others now comment on Macbeth’s “secret murders sticking on his hands” (5.3) as they wait under Malcolm’s command. Yet it is LADY Macbeth who has “by self and violent hands/took off her life” (5.8). Whereas Macbeth’s hands were disembodied and not of his own in Act 2 and by Act 5 have come to symbolise his murder, they aren’t described with the agency that Lady Macbeth’s hands have here, being the instrument of her action – the hands took off her life, the action being attributed directly to her. Macbeth has murder “sticking on his hands” but isn’t committing murder with his hands. Is this evidence of internalised misogyny of the time, particularly as Lady Macbeth is the demonic ‘fiend-like queen’ who could be, as Gold directs, played as one of the witches and ‘blamed’ for Macbeth’s evil actions, for corrupting him from the hero of Act 1? Does the contrast in agency perhaps suggest Macbeth’s helplessness against fate, as the ‘hands’ are being acted upon or described as objects, or even dissociated from him as though he’s powerless?

Download the pdf analysis here: Hands in Macbeth

What do you think?

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