An Extract from ‘Macbeth’ by William Shakespeare

By Christopher Nield Created: August 2, 2009 Last Updated: August 9, 2009
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Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

What is the nature of despair? Does it grant us an insight into our existence, or is it a shadowy distraction we should drive into the light?

Listening to Macbeth in this soliloquy, we hear the voice of calm, absolute desolation. Yet somehow, as he looks into the darkness, he sees further than many of us ever dare. …

In the context of the play, Macbeth has learned that his wife, Lady Macbeth, already gone mad from her role in murdering King Duncan, has died—possibly by her own hand. He shrugs indifferently, saying she should have died some other time, adding, “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow.”

Everything here evokes lethargy, boredom, hopelessness. Listen to the repetition of “tomorrow.” Listen to the stress insistently coming down on “and,” evoking a sense of mechanical movement without purpose, almost without consciousness. Even the commas, slowing the line to a crawl, help to create a mood of profound tiredness.

How Macbeth has changed. At the beginning of the tragedy, encouraged by the riddling prophecies of three witches, it was he who dared to discern his fate. This, in turn, led him to believe that he was destined to murder King Duncan and attain the crown—and then to fulfil that prediction in blood. Yet like a wound, his evil has festered. His life as king is not one of glory, but the slaughter of children.

Now all thoughts of heroism are over. Now the days move at nothing more than a “petty pace.” They are silly, mediocre, trifling. In the alliteration of “tomorrow and tomorrow,” “day to day,” and “dusty death,” we hear his voice choking with terse, quiet disgust.

Two curious contradictions strike me whenever I read the opening of this extraordinary passage, first, the way in which the endless tomorrows loop back to “all our yesterdays.” The future appears to be as unchangeable as the past, forever progressing toward decay.

Secondly, the creeping “petty pace” suggests an agonizingly slow procession to the grave, while the image of the “brief candle” suggests that life is over in a moment. This paradox indicates that our experience of time is deeply psychological, in turn rooted in our beliefs about the soul, the body, and what happens when we take our final breath.

The light of the candle seems to promise that there is truth. Yet Macbeth goes on to compare life to a play, seeing it as nothing more than illusion. It is a sham, a hoax.

Each one of us is a ham actor in a creaky melodrama—or soap opera. A mixture of arrogance and fear, we strut and fret, but our script turns to silence. With this metaphor, Macbeth steps out of character, emerging from the play to comment on his own fictional lack of being. The “idiot” taleteller is implicitly the author of “Macbeth,” Shakespeare himself, who is the proxy of a gibbering God.

Does this description touch a nerve? Behind our own mask of identity, with our name, our clothes, our likes and dislikes, our strident opinions and inner worries, is there ever a sense of the unreality of it all? Are there moments when our identity seems to slip away, and we stand outside of ourselves—seeing our daily persona as a kind of caricature we’ve lazily slipped into, using a borrowed language to express other people’s thoughts? Moments when our free will seems but a sequence of predictable responses, twitched by the need for applause?

For Macbeth, language is mere “sound” that signifies “nothing.” It has no connection to anything. Many would agree—among them our most fashionable philosophers and opinion-formers. Yet as members of the audience, we grasp that that final “nothing” is the perfect fulfilment of the witches’ opening creed of chaos, where “fair is foul and foul is fair.” And do we really believe that the witches are wise?

Shakespeare’s supernatural tragedy shows that as soon as good and evil become confused, “nothing is but what is not.” All hell breaks loose. It is only by unravelling the knot of the witches’ moral contradiction in our own lives that we can draw back from Macbeth’s haunting vision of the void.

William Shakespeare (1564–1616) is widely regarded as the greatest writer in the English language. Christopher Nield is a poet living in London.


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