Summary

Act 5, scenes 1–11

Summary Act 5, scenes 1–11

Like Duncan’s death and Macbeth’s ascension to the kingship, Lady Macbeth’s suicide does not take place onstage; it is merely reported. Macbeth seems numb in response to the news of his wife’s death, which seems surprising, especially given the great love he appears to have borne for his wife. Yet, his indifferent response reflects the despair that has seized him as he realizes that what has come to seem the game of life is almost up. Indeed, Macbeth’s speech following his wife’s death is one of the most famous expressions of despair in all of literature. “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,” he says grimly,

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. (5.5.18–27)

These words reflect Macbeth’s feeling of hopelessness, of course, but they have a self-justifying streak as well—for if life is “full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing,” then Macbeth’s crimes, too, are meaningless rather than evil.

Additionally, the speech’s insistence that “[l]ife’s . . . a poor player / That struts and frets his hour upon the stage” can be read as a dark and somewhat subversive commentary on the relationship between the audience and the play. After all, Macbeth is just a player on an English stage, and his statement undercuts the suspension of disbelief that the audience must maintain in order to enter the action of the play. If we take Macbeth’s statement as expressing Shakespeare’s own perspective on the theater, then the entire play can be seen as being “full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing.” Admittedly, it seems unlikely that the playwright would have put his own perspective on the stage in the mouth of a despairing, desperate murderer. Still, Macbeth’s words remind us of the essential theatricality of the action—that the lengthy soliloquies, offstage deaths, and poetic speeches are not meant to capture reality but to reinterpret it in order to evoke a certain emotional response from the audience.

Despite the pure nihilism of this speech, Macbeth seems to fluctuate between despair and ridiculous bravado, making his own dissolution rougher and more complex than that of his wife. Lured into a false sense of security by the final prophecies of the witches, he gives way to boastfulness and a kind of self-destructive arrogance. When the battle begins, Macbeth clings, against all apparent evidence, to the notion that he will not be harmed because he is protected by the prophecy—although whether he really believes it at this stage, or is merely hanging on to the last thread of hope he has left, is debatable.

Macbeth ceased to be a sympathetic hero once he made the decision to kill Duncan, but by the end of the play he has become so morally repulsive that his death comes as a powerful relief. Ambition and bloodlust must be checked by virtue for order and form to be restored to the sound and fury of human existence. Only with Malcolm’s victory and assumption of the crown can Scotland, and the play itself, be saved from the chaos engendered by Macbeth.