In Macbeth Act 2 Scene 2 how is water used as an image and what is the effect of this image?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Replete with imagery, the second scene of Act II of Shakespeare's Macbeth continues the motif of blood while the ominous sound images of the screeching of an owl, the tolling of bells, and the ironic knocking outside the gate by Macduff, who later kills Macbeth portend the psychological demises of both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth.

The water imagery connects to Macbeth's regret and sense of guilt at having killed Duncan:

What hands are here?  Ha! they pluck out mine eyes!

Will all great Neptune's ocean wash this blood

Clean from my hand?  No, this my hand will rather

The mutitudinous seas incarnadine

Making the green one red (2.2.74-79)

 Clearly, Macbeth is unnerved after his heinous act, suffering great remorse for his act.  While Lady Macbeth tells him that some water will wash away the evidence of their act, ironically it is she who loses her mind completely as, obsessed with guilt, she tries to wash away the "spot" of her conscience.  Unlike Pontius Pilate, she and Macbeth cannot wash their hands of the affair of Duncan's murder; they are doomed to become the victims of their evil deeds.

favoritethings eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In this scene, Macbeth meets his wife after having committed the murder of Duncan. His hands are bloody, a fact that greatly upsets him. Lady Macbeth, rather disdainfully, tells him, "Go get some water / And wash this filthy witness from your hand" (2.2.60-61). The image of clear, clean water washing away the crimson evidence of Macbeth's sin is an arresting one. Lady Macbeth makes it seem so simple, but—of course—it is not. He cannot move on so quickly, and, despite her protestations to the contrary, neither can she.

Soon after, Macbeth says that not even all the water in the ocean could cleanse him of his sin: "Will all great Neptune's ocean wash this blood / Clean from my hand? No, this my hand will rather / The multitudinous seas incarnadine / Making the green one red" (2.2.78-81). Macbeth uses overstatement to convey the truth of his terrible guilt. He feels so wretched after having killed Duncan that he thinks he will never sleep again, that his conscience will never be unburdened. The blood might wash away, but he feels that his guilt never will, and the image of the entire green ocean turning red conveys this.