23

In Act 2 Scene 2 of Macbeth there is this line.

What hands are here? Ha! They pluck out mine eyes.

Someone two days ago told me this is a reference to a different piece of literature. I didn't know how to spell the name of the reference so didn't write it down, and have forgotten what the reference was. I have no idea which piece of literature it is referencing, and wish to find out. This specifically refers to:

They pluck out mine eyes.

What does this reference?

21

It's a Biblical reference.

Noting that Macbeth is speaking of his own hands, and his own fears,

How is ’t with me when every noise appals me?

it is clear that this is an allusion to Matthew chapter 18, which speaks metaphorically of removing one's own bodyparts if they should bring you to sin.

Wherefore if thy hand or thy foot offend thee, cut them off, and cast them from thee: it is better for thee to enter into life halt or maimed, rather than having two hands or two feet to be cast into everlasting fire.

Macbeth fears that his actions, which have led to terrible bloodshed (most notably in the murder of Duncan), have rendered him irredeemable.

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15

Possibly the Bible? From Matthew 18:9:

And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: it is better for thee to enter into life with one eye, rather than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire.

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7

The OP states that the source is hard to spell. That can't apply to the Bible.

A classical character who actually blinds himself is Oedipus. His crime is the same as the one Macbeth contemplates--regicide, or murdering the king. Shakespeare's audience would be familiar with the story of Oedipus and with the constant reminders about the evils of regicide.

To someone unfamiliar with the name, Oedipus would be hard to spell, and he is a character known for blinding himself. As always, other interpretations are possible.

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1

Others have already correctly pointed out that "they pluck out mine eyes" is a reference to Matthew 18.9 (here quoted in the King James Version):

And if thine eie offend thee, plucke it out, and cast it from thee: it is better for thee to enter into life with one eie, rather then hauing two eies, to be cast into hell fire.

See also Mark 9.47:

And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out: it is better for thee to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye, then hauing two eyes, to be cast into helfire:

The separation of or contrast between the eyes and the body from the line in Macbeth can also be found in Luke 11.34-36:

The light of the body is the eye: therefore when thine eye is single, thy whole body also is full of light: but when thine eye is euill, thy body also is full of darkenesse.

Take heede therefore, that the light which is in thee, be not darknesse.

If thy whole body therefore be full of light, hauing no part darke, the whole shalbe full of light, as when the bright shining of a candle doeth giue thee light.

There is also an echo of Sophocles's Oedipus Rex, especially the following excerpt from a speech by the Second Messenger (here quoted from Edward H. Plumptre's translation):

Tearing from her robe the clasps,
All chased with gold, with which she decked herself,
He with them struck the pupils of his eyes, ⁠
With words like these—"Because they had not seen
What ills he suffered and what ills he did,
They in the dark should look, in time to come,
On those whom they ought never to have seen,
Nor know the dear ones whom he fain had known,"
With such like wails, not once or twice alone,
Raising his eyes, he smote them (...)

However, the entire passage contains more references to other works:

How is't with me, when every noise appals me?
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 in incarnadine,
Making the green one red.

The lines about Neptune and washing away the blood may have been inspired by Seneca's Phaedra (here quoted from Frank Justus Miller's 1907 translation; Shakespeare may have read John Studley's 1581 translation):

What Tanaïs will make me clean again?
Or what Maeotis rushing to the sea,
With its barbaric waves? Not Neptune's self,
With all his ocean's waters could avail
To cleanse so foul a stain.

And see also Seneca's play Hercules Furens, which Shakespeare may have read in Jasper Heywood's 1581 translation (but quoted here in Frank Justus Miller's 1907 translation):

What Tanaïs or Nile,
What Tigris, with the waves of Persia mad,
What warlike Rhine, or Tagus, flowing full
And turgid with Iberia's golden sands,
Can ever cleanse this right hand of its stains?

"Making the green one red" may be a reference to Revelation 16.3:

And the second Angel powred out his viall vpon the sea, and it became as the blood of a dead man: and euery liuing soule died in the sea.

But see also The Downfall and The Death of Robert Earl of Huntington by Anthony Munday and (possibly) Henry Chettle; Act 4, scene 1 (cited by Muir):

And made the greene sea red with Pagan blood.

Sources:

  • Shakespeare: Macbeth. Edited by G. K. Hunter. The New Penguin Shakespeare. Penguin, 1967.
  • Shakespeare: Macbeth. Edited by Kenneth Muir. The Arden Shakespeare. Methuen, 1962, 1984.
  • Shakespeare: Macbeth. Edited by A. R. Braunmuller. The New Cambridge Shakespeare. Cambridge University Press, 1997.
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