should have died hereafter.
There would have been a time for such a word.
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,
These words are uttered by Macbeth after
he hears of Lady Macbeth’s death, in Act 5, scene 5, lines 16–27.
Given the great love between them, his response is oddly muted,
but it segues quickly into a speech of such pessimism and despair—one
of the most famous speeches in all of Shakespeare—that the audience
realizes how completely his wife’s passing and the ruin of his power
have undone Macbeth. His speech insists that there is no meaning
or purpose in life. Rather, life “is a tale / Told by an idiot,
full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing.” One can easily understand
how, with his wife dead and armies marching against him, Macbeth
succumbs to such pessimism. Yet, there is also a defensive and self-justifying quality
to his words. If everything is meaningless, then Macbeth’s awful
crimes are somehow made less awful, because, like everything else,
they too “signify nothing.”
Macbeth’s statement that “[l]ife’s but a poor player /
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage” can be read as Shakespeare’s somewhat
deflating reminder of the illusionary nature of the theater. After
all, Macbeth is only a “player” himself, strutting on an Elizabethan
stage. In any play, there is a conspiracy of sorts between the audience
and the actors, as both pretend to accept the play’s reality. Macbeth’s
comment calls attention to this conspiracy and partially explodes
it—his nihilism embraces not only his own life but the entire play.
If we take his words to heart, the play, too, can be seen as an
event “full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing.”