What does Lady Macbeth's statement, "My hands are of your color, but I shame to wear a heart so white," mean?

Expert Answers
William Delaney eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Since Shakespeare chose not to show King Duncan being murdered in his bed, he wanted to emphasize the reality and horror of the deed by showing both Macbeth and his wife with bloody hands. The purpose of all the looking at hands, showing of hands, and talking about hands is to call the attention of the audience to all the blood. First Macbeth says:

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 multitudinous seas incarnadine,
Making the green one red.

Then his wife replies directly to this statement:

My hands are of your color, but I shame
To wear a heart so white.

They are both making a display of their bloody hands in order to produce a strong emotional effect on the audience. Their hands are, in effect, proof of the commission of a terribly bloody murder as well as a proof of their guilty partnership.

When Lady Macbeth says, "...but I shame / To wear a heart so white," she means, "I would be ashamed to wear a heart so white," i.e., I would be ashamed to be such a coward. She is telling her husband to stop bemoaning the crime he has committed. She is continually manipulating him by questioning his courage and manhood. She knows that this is only the beginning. They will have to keep their nerve in the morning when the King's body is discovered and there is pandemonium throughout the castle.

It seems that both husband and wife are "suiting the action to the word," as Hamlet (speaking for Shakespeare) tells the actors in that play. Macbeth and his wife not only display their bloody hands but get more blood on themselves while speaking the above-quoted lines. Macbeth probably would drag his fingers across his brow and eyes as he said, "What hands are here? Ha, they pluck out mine eyes." The audience would not know for a few moments whether Macbeth had actually, like Oedipus, actually torn his eyes out. His fingers would leave trails of blood all the way down his cheeks. Then when Lady Macbeth countered that she would "shame to wear a heart so white," she would wipe one hand across her white gown with the word "shame" and the other hand across the other side of the gown with the word "white."

Shakespeare must have wanted to use lots of blood in this scene to represent the terrible murder and to make up for the fact that he did not actually show the it being committed. He may have considered inserting a scene in which Macbeth stole into the King's bedchamber and stabbed the old man to death, but such a scene would obviously be hard to enact. And there would be no opportunity for Shakespeare's poetic dialogue. It would be a sort of dumb show and not emotionally effective like the scene in which Macbeth and his wife are smearing themselves with the King's blood. Both Macbeth and his wife are elsewhere given plenty of lines in which to describe what went on inside the King's bedchamber. For example:


There's one did laugh in's sleep, and one cried,
That they did wake each other: I stood and heard them:
But they did say their prayers and address'd them
Again to sleep.

eabettencourt eNotes educator| Certified Educator

This statement is said once Lady Macbeth has had to replace the daggers (the murder weapons) back with Duncan's guards.  This was originally part of the murder plan, but Macbeth was so flustered upon killing Duncan that he ended up bringing the daggers with him.  Once Lady Macbeth returns from finishing the task at hand, she scolds Macbeth by telling him that her "hands are of [his] color," meaning she, too, had blood on her hands now from carrying the daggers, but that she "shames to wear a heart so white," meaning she plans on behaving strongly, and not being reduced to the cowardice that has taken over Macbeth.

playsthething eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Lady Macbeth is lamenting the fact that she was not the one that committed the murder of Duncan.  When Macbeth returns from performing the deed, they clasp hands, which gets the blood from Macbeth's hands onto Lady M.'s hands.  This is why she states that her hands are of the same color.  But, she feels that her heart is white (innocent) because she did not participate in the murder.  As the play goes on, however, her innocent feeling dissipates and she is overcome by guilt, leading to her endless washing of her hands.  

setosa | Student

her hands are the same colour as his because she went back and placed the daggers by the guards to make them look guilty and also covered them in duncans blood to ensure no one suspected her or Macbeth. it's not becaue they "clasped hands", she is just as guilty as he is but she choses to not feel remorse. she doesn't approve of how cowardly macbeth is acting as he was 'afraid to think what [he has] done' showing that he has not fully committed himself to evil yet (as she believes she has done, however, later in the play it is evident she isn't as strong as she thinks she is as she too experiences a deterioration of her state of mind).

kris-- | Student

After Macbeth killed Duncan, he forgot to leave the weapons with the guards and when Lady Macbeth sees them he tells her that he doesn't want to go back there. She's saying that she would be ashamed to be such a coward and such a baby to go back to the room to return the daggers. it truly shows how evil women can be because, as later pointed out in the second act, women were believed to be incapable of such violence. In the second act, another character tells Lady Macbeth that he can't repeat to her what had happened because she was a gentle lady and her ears were too fragile to take in the fact that the murder took place.