“We usually think of our hands as fairly physical things — almost distant things; we don’t regularly consider what they are doing or how we control them. Not so much for Macbeth. In William Shakespeare’s classic Macbeth, power-hungry Macbeth murders many for the Scottish throne, which witches tell him he will gain.”
We usually think of our hands as fairly physical things — almost distant things; we don’t regularly consider what they are doing or how we control them. Not so much for Macbeth. In William Shakespeare’s classic Macbeth, power-hungry Macbeth murders many for the Scottish throne, which witches tell him he will gain. Because Macbeth is set in the 11th Century, all of these murders are physical — all of them done by hand. Because of Macbeth’s desire for power, though, the fire driving the murders is solely in his head. Throughout the narrative, the word “hand” often symbolizes the connections and separations between Macbeth’s body and Macbeth’s mind.
In Act 1 of Macbeth, Shakespeare uses the word “hand” to symbolize a separation between mind and body, specifically within Macbeth. In Act 1, Scene 4, Macbeth is speaking about murdering King Duncan. He says, “Stars, hide your fires; / Let not light see my black and deep desires: / The eye wink at the hand; yet let that be, / Which the eye fears, when it is done, to see” (1.4.57-60). Here, “hand” is being used both literally and metaphorically; it is literally in reference to the murder that Macbeth’s hand will help commit, but it is also using the action of Macbeth’s hand stabbing Duncan to represent the whole idea of Duncan’s murder — both the desire and the act. It is also interesting that there is a distinction here between “hand” and “eye.” Shakespeare is noting the difference between the more physical aspects of a body, in this case Macbeth’s hand, and the more mental ones: what Macbeth’s eye sees. Macbeth is afraid of seeing himself — of realizing that he is about to murder a friend. As readers, we can assume that the separation between mind and body — between eye and hand — that Macbeth is exhibiting originates in this fear of himself. Later in Act 1, Lady Macbeth is speaking to Macbeth, and Macbeth has just said that Duncan is coming that day and leaving the next. She speaks,
Shall sun that morrow see!
Your face, my thane, is as a book where men
May read strange matters. 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. (1.5.71-77)
In this quote, Lady Macbeth is describing very literally that Macbeth’s hands (“hands” representing Macbeth’s whole physical body) need to seem innocent. In the previous use of “hand,” Shakespeare distinguishes “hand” from “eye,” but here it is all representing what Duncan is supposed to see. But, similar to the previous example, Shakespeare is noting a separation between mind and body — Macbeth’s body must be welcoming, but his mind must be deadly. In both of these instances, Shakespeare makes a point of noting the separation between the parts of Macbeth’s body Macbeth can control and the parts of Macbeth’s mind Macbeth can control and how they contradict each other.
Other times in Macbeth, Shakespeare uses “hand” to demonstrate a connection between Macbeth’s mind and body. In Act 2, Macbeth says (in a soliloquy), “Is this a dagger which I see before me, / The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee. / I have thee not, and yet I see thee still” (2.1.44-46). The repetition of hand is interesting here — handle is not actually a form of hand but sounds repetitive when read aloud. Shakespeare may have chosen to emphasize this to show the connection Macbeth is feeling between his hand and the dagger. Macbeth is wondering if this dagger is here as a sign that he should murder Duncan with his dagger and his hands. This example suggests a leading somewhere: the handle of the dagger is leading Macbeth. It is almost as if Macbeth has no control here — the tone is passive; he has no choice but to be led by his mind’s creations. His body is acting under his mind’s tricks, a separation between action and desire similar to the previous example, but more importantly a connection between his entire mind and body; a connection so strong that Macbeth’s body is functioning under only his mind’s “tricks” — his mind and body are inseparable.
Connection and separation are opposites, and Shakespeare often treats them that way, but he also sometimes uses the two within the same lines or moment in Macbeth. In Act 4, Scene 1, Macbeth has just found out from Lennox that Malcolm fled the country. He is panicked and has just seen the Weïrd Sisters’ prophecies, so he is also confused and doesn’t know what to think. He says,
Time, thou anticipatest my dread exploits:
The flighty purpose never is o’ertook
Unless the deed go with it; from this moment
The very firstlings of my heart shall be
The firstlings of my hand. (4.1.164-168)
Here, Macbeth is himself (as opposed to Shakespeare) drawing the connection between mind and body; he is noticing that often your mind has an idea, but your body doesn’t execute it. Here, he also seems to be noticing or pointing out, though, that his mind is what is driving his body, almost that his mind is in control of his body. In this example, Macbeth is noticing a connection between his mind and body, but also that what his mind wants is separate from what his body does. Shakespeare is illustrating a broader relationship between Macbeth’s mind and body.
In Macbeth, Shakespeare often uses the word “hand” to symbolize the relationship between Macbeth’s mind and body. Sometimes he uses it to show the connections, sometimes to show the separations, and sometimes both. As we see in waddling toddlers or talking babies, right from the start our society establishes a relationship between the mind and the body — some babies develop physically first, some mentally; people often are either “smart” or “athletic.” We categorize people into mind and body — our society treats them as separate. As Shakespeare teaches us, though, our minds and bodies are separate sometimes, in sync other times, and sometimes both. So the next time you hear someone talking about meditation or breathing exercises or the new popular adult coloring books — or the next time you are using any of these yourself — remember to recognize both the separations and connections between your mind and body. Take it from Macbeth.