H. Coombes

Literature and Criticism 

Penguin Books, 1963, pp. 44-45

When Angus says about Macbeth:
                               Now does he feel
His secret murders sticking on his hands,
Shakespeare is using a magnificently effective image. The feelings of the tyrant are not referred to with abstract words like "conscience" or "guilt" or "fear", but are given a concrete presentation which powerfully sugges the inescapability of fears and of fate and the resultant terror. The line draws much of its force from the paradox contained in the juxtaposition of the murderer's concealment -- "secret" -- with the plain and persisting visibility and feeling of the blood on the hands -- "sticking": we are brought very close to a macbeth who is suffering the terrors of a kind of nightmare; the hands cannot be washed clean, they must betray, and the intended secrecy has turned into its opposite, an overt and palpable presence. The image thus presents an idea of thought in terms of physical sensation, a sensation moreover belonging to the hands, the delicae and sensitive agents of brutal murder: "now does he feel ". Further, it has association with many other lines of the play: Macbeth feared that his hand would "The multitudinous seas incarnadine, / Making the green one red"; and Lady Macbeth had affirmed, "A little water clears us of this deed", which changed later to "All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand". But the lines with which our image has the strongest affinity are perhaps those in which Lady Macbeth had urged her husband on: "But screw your courage to the sticking place, / And we'll not fail" . . .


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