Out damned spot‘ is a line spoken by Lady Macbeth in Shakespeare’s play, Macbeth.

She is walking and talking in her sleep about the assassination of King Duncan, in which she is implicated. Both Lady Macbeth and Macbeth have been unable to sleep since they murdered Duncan, but when she does manage to fall asleep she is plagued with a nightmare about the murder and the blood they have shed.  In this episode she is observed by a serving woman and a doctor who are overhearing her confession of the regicide she has committed.

As she walks she rubs her hands as though washing them, trying to get rid of the blood. The spot she’s referring to is a spot of blood on her hand. She’s rubbing it, trying to erase it, but cannot. “Here’s yet a spot,” she cries, desperately rubbing. “Here’s the small of blood still.”

It’s hard, when looking at a Shakespeare text, to identify the most central image because of the incredible unity and integrity of every text, but the “spot” of blood on Lady Macbeth’s hand is pretty central to the entire play.

Blood in Elizabethan and, particularly Jacobean, drama is one of the most dominant images in those texts. They serve such themes as courage, romance – particularly sexual passion – youth, family ties, violence, and, in Macbeth,  guilt. (Read more about Shakespeare’s themes here.)

Blood words appear 109 times in Macbeth. Directors mounting the play love saturating the characters and painting the set with blood.  After stabbing Duncan to death Macbeth goes down to where Lady Macbeth is waiting. His hands are dripping with blood. He holds them out and says “This is a sorry sight.” He refers to them as “hangman’s hands”. He tells her that one of the guards stirred in his sleep and cried “God bless us” and the other muttered “amen,” which is what you were supposed to do to be included in the requested blessing. Macbeth was unable to say “amen.” He says he was in most need of blessing but couldn’t say it. He spends a moment agonising about that. The guilt is already beginning to set in. Lady Macbeth tells him that they should not over think it as it will make them mad. There is subsequent over-thinking by both of them and a steady decline in the mental health of both.

Macbeth says he thinks that he heard a voice cry “Sleep no more! Macbeth doth murder sleep,” and he doesn’t sleep again during the course of the play. His wife ridicules him for saying that that but she starts to suffer the same problem – insomnia, and nightmares when she does manage to fall asleep.

Lady Macbeth tells him to get some water to wash his hands.  He has brought the daggers with which he stabbed Duncan down with him, and she tells him to take them back, smear the guards with blood and leave the daggers there. He tells her he cannot go back and look on what he’s done and she does it instead. While she is doing that he looks at his bloody hands. “What hands are here?” he cries, “they pluck out mine eyes!”. He says that the whole of the ocean couldn’t wash the blood off his hands. “No, this my hand will rather the multitudinous seas incarnadine, making the green one red.” During the sleepwalking scene Lady Macbeth, while rubbing what she sees as a spot of blood on her hand, sobs “all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand.”

When Lady Macbeth returns from Duncan’s chamber she holds out her blood-stained hands and says, “My hands are of your colour, but I shame to wear a heart so white,” claiming that although she has Duncan’s blood on her hands she feels no guilt. That is soon to change. When they hear knocking at the castle door she tells Macbeth that they should go to their quarters and wash. “A little water clears us of this deed,” she says. It’s ironic because they will never able to get the guilt off their hands.

That scene is remarkable for the meaning Shakespeare has packed into it. It is all about the anatomy of guilt. We get a detailed look at the enormity of regicide, particularly from a most loyal and trusted friend. It is all constructed around the blood of the victim and contains some of Shakespeare’s most memorable lines. It is the place from where we get the idea of someone having blood on their hands, meaning being guilty of murder.

The blood symbolism continues throughout the play. Macbeth goes on a slaughter rampage, murdering all his rivals, including the family of Macduff – his wife and all his children – a small boy actually being murdered by professional murderers onstage, and at the end of the play, Macduff cuts Macbeth’s head off.

Blood imagery and quotes from Macbeth

Make thick my blood (act 1, scene 5)

I see thee still;
And on thy blade and dudgeon gouts of blood

(act 2, scene 1)

The spring, the head, the fountain of your blood is stopp’d; the very source of it is stopp’d.

(act 2, scene 3)

Blood hath been shed ere now.  i’ th’ olden time,
Ere humane statute purged the gentle weal;
Ay, and since too, murders have been performed
Too terrible for the ear.  The times has been
That, when the brains were out, the man would die,
And there an end; but now they rise again,
With twenty mortal murders on their crowns… (act 3, scene 4)

It will have blood, they say:  blood will have blood
Stones have been known to move and trees to speak;
Augures and understood relations have
By maggot-pies and coughs and rooks brought forth
The secre’st man of blood. (act 3, scene 4)

There’s blood on thy face. (act 3, scene 4)

I am in blood stepp’d so far that, should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as go o’er (act 3, scene 5)

Of all men else I have avoided thee : But get thee back; my soul is too much charged. With blood of thine already. (act 5, scene 7)