Despairing Macbeth:A Speech Out of Place
The famous "Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow" speech in Macbeth works on its own; the play works without the speech; and, in fact, including the speech in the play causes problems for interpretation. This paper argues that the speech was not written for the play in which it appears, but likely was written independently of the play and inserted because Shakespeare was eager to use it. For all that, though, the speech is not a flaw. Far from it, the speech is a profound meditation on the human condition, echoing Ecclesiastes and anticipating existentialism.
She 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 dayTo the last syllable of recorded time,And all our yesterdays have lighted foolsThe way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!Life's but a walking shadow, a poor playerThat struts and frets his hour upon the stageAnd then is heard no more. It is a taleTold by an idiot, full of sound and fury,Signifying nothing.1
The prevailing tendency in interpreting Macbeth is to presume that if something seems not to fit the play, then our job as readers or audience members is to figure out how it actually does fit. By contrast, in this paper I take a less-deferential approach to interpretation, arguing that the famous speech in Macbeth, act 5, scene 5, was not written for the [End Page 1] play in which it appears.2 Like the shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock's film Psycho, the "tomorrow" speech in Macbeth is known to us before we read or see it. But unlike the shower scene, the tomorrow speech does not make perfect sense in context. This may sound ridiculous, but only because scholars tend to put Shakespeare on a pedestal and look for complicated answers in interpreting his plays.
Consider the question of why the witches in Macbeth have beards. It is tempting to answer by saying that the witches have beards because they violate nature and because "Fair is foul, and foul is fair" (1.1.10). In fact, though, the witches most likely have beards because the actors playing the witches had beards. The boy actors were playing female parts and could not double as the witches. If Shakespeare could have had beardless witches, that would have been preferable. Instead, he took what he had and worked with it. What could have been a comic fault in the hands of a lesser playwright, bearded witches, becomes an eerie detail. The point is that Shakespeare had real practical parameters within which he had to work. One of those parameters was that he was a member of an acting company. As a result, whole scenes in Shakespeare's plays most likely were written to give lines to actors who were shareholders in the company, and indeed, entire characters may have been inserted to indulge actor shareholders.
Like all writers, Shakespeare would have conceived of some characters, lines, and themes prior to, and independently from, the works in which they eventually found their homes. In most cases he wove them in so seamlessly as to leave no clue to their independent origin. But the famous speech from Macbeth's act 5, scene 5 should give us pause. The speech works on its own; the play works without the speech; and, in fact, including the speech in the play causes problems for interpretation. Rather than posit a sudden, temporary shift in Macbeth's worldview or a hidden complexity to his psyche, it makes more sense to think that the speech was written independently, was too good not to use, and was inserted into a play where it did not really fit. Indeed, Macbeth is Shakespeare's shortest play, and the need for lines could have been a reason for including the speech. I am not saying that the speech is a flaw or that it mars the play. Quite the contrary, it is a profound meditation on the human condition that could not help but enhance nearly any tragedy.
Ever since killing Duncan, Macbeth has been suffering from guilt and fear, not despair and resignation. The news of Lady Macbeth's death does not function as a catalyst to despair. In fact, Macbeth seems largely [End Page 2] unmoved by it. He does not ask to see her body; he does not mourn her loss. Instead, he launches abruptly into the speech. Afterward he shows no signs of despair but rather continues to think he is invincible, as the witches seem to have predicted. Macbeth's response to his wife's death in the speech would have been more appropriate if he had been suffering from despair all along and now hit a new low. It would have been more appropriate if his vaulting ambition had gotten him all he ever wanted and yet he found it did not make him happy, like the author of Ecclesiastes, who tells us, "I have seen everything that is done under the sun; and behold all is vanity and a striving after wind" (Eccles. 1:14).3
Indeed, the speech stands perfectly well on its own as an expression of some of the existentialist sentiments of Ecclesiastes, perhaps something Shakespeare himself felt at times—that despite his great fame and success none of it really mattered. But unlike Shakespeare, Macbeth never really got all he wanted because his power was always insecure and unstable; he did not get to be king on firm ground. As he says, "To be thus is nothing, but to be safely thus" (3.1.48). Macbeth is never "safely thus." He never has the chance to grow weary of all his power and riches, à la Ecclesiastes, in a way that might justify the speech. Confirming this, prior to the murder of Banquo, Lady Macbeth reflects the insecurity of their position, musing, "Nought's had, all's spent, / Where our desire is got without content: / 'Tis safer to be that which we destroy / Than by destructions dwell in doubtful joy" (3.2.4–7).
It would have been more in line with the guilt and fear that Macbeth feels to express that, with the death of Lady Macbeth, he is getting his just deserts. He feels tremendous guilt for what he has done, and the chickens are starting to come home to roost. Despair and a sense of meaninglessness are out of place. Nothing has led him to those feelings, and no evidence of their continuation follows the speech.4
Macbeth is a dark play, but not a despairing play. It may be somewhat Nietzschean, but, aside from the speech, it is not Camusian. The play is Nietzschean in its depiction of the will to power and Macbeth's attempt to become more than a man. It is, for all that, a misguided or failed attempt on the part of the Macbeths. Chided by Lady Macbeth for shrinking from the plan to kill Duncan, Macbeth says, "I dare do all that may become a man; / Who dares do more is none" (1.7.46–47). His wife replies, "When you durst do it, then you were a man; / And to be more than what you were, you would / Be so much more the man …" (1.7.49–51). Lady Macbeth mocks her husband when he is so shaken after the murders that he returns with the daggers and will [End Page 3] not go back to plant them on the king's attendants, saying, "Infirm of purpose! / Give me the daggers. The sleeping and the dead / Are but as pictures. 'Tis the eye of childhood / That fears a painted devil …" (2.2.52–55). Advocating a Nietzschean forgetting, Lady Macbeth urges her husband not to think about what they have done, saying, "Consider it not so deeply" (2.2.29), and shortly after, "These deeds must not be thought / After these ways; so, it will make us mad" (2.2.32–33). After she has framed the sleeping guards, she proudly declares, "My hands are of your color, but I shame / To wear a heart so white … A little water clears us of this deed" (2.2.63–64, 66).
Macbeth's interview of the potential murderers of Banquo displays a Nietzschean sense of overcoming being a mere man.5 He asks, "Do you find / Your patience so predominant in your nature / That you can let this go? Are you so gospeled / To pray for this good man and for his issue, / Whose heavy hand hath bowed you to the grave / And beggared yours for ever?" (3.1.86–91). The potential murderers reply, "We are men, my liege." Macbeth retorts, "Ay, in the catalogue ye go for men" (3.1.87–92). They proceed to convince him that they are men capable of murder and are sure that Banquo is their enemy.
Lady Macbeth rebukes her husband when he begins to act strangely at dinner after he sees the ghost of Banquo, saying, "Are you a man?" Macbeth responds, "Ay, and a bold one, that dare look on that / Which might appall the devil" (3.4.59–61). Lady Macbeth subsequently wonders of her husband, "What, quite unmanned in folly?" (3.4.74). Lady Macbeth urges her husband to sleep to restore himself after being distressed by seeing the ghost of Banquo. Macbeth agrees that would be a good idea, saying, "Come, we'll to sleep. My strange and self-abuse / Is the initiate fear that wants hard use. / We are yet but young in deed" (3.4.143–45). Macbeth believes that he can become more than an ordinary man by continued practice ("hard use"). At the moment he is simply fatigued and needs sleep. Of course he turns out to be wrong about that. He cannot live with the guilt and fear that attend what he has done.
Previously, Macbeth actually envied the peace in which the murdered Duncan rests, saying, "Ere we will eat our meal in fear, and sleep / In the affliction of these terrible dreams / That shake us nightly: better be with the dead, / Whom we, to gain our peace, have sent to peace / Than on the torture of the mind to lie / In restless ecstasy" (3.2.17–22). Macbeth does not long for such rest out of despair or a sense of meaninglessness but rather out of a genuine desire for release from the guilt and anxiety that fill his days and haunt his nights. [End Page 4]
Despite urging her husband to overcome guilt and fear, Lady Macbeth is herself tormented by guilt, sleepwalking and trying to wash the blood from her hands: "What, will these hands ne'er be clean?" (5.1.46). Ultimately she commits suicide to be released from the torment and madness. Despair is not what pushes her over the edge.
The first two lines of the speech are a bridge between the play and this incredible piece of poetry, "She should have died hereafter; / There would have been a time for such a word" (5.5.17–18). Macbeth's reaction to the news of his wife's death is strange and inappropriate. He asks, "Wherefore was that cry?" (5.5.15), and Seyton informs him, "The Queen, my lord, is dead" (5.5.16). We would expect Macbeth to react by asking how she died and going to see for himself, but instead we get his ambiguous musing that "she should have died hereafter." What does he mean? That she inevitably would have died at some point? That she should have held on longer? He completes his initial response by saying, "There would have been a time for such a word."6 Again, this seems an unsuitable response for such an emotional and high-spirited person as Macbeth upon the news of the death of his confidante, conspirator, and wife. Perhaps this is an allusion to Ecclesiastes in the sentiment that "For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born and time to die" (Eccles. 3:1–2). Perhaps he realizes that she has killed herself and violated the natural order of things according to which there is a time for everything. In any event, these first two lines seem to serve as a bridge linking the play to the rest of the speech. Just prior to the speech Macbeth remains confident that he cannot be defeated: "Bring me no more reports; let them fly all! / Till Birnam Wood remove to Dunsinane / I cannot taint with fear. What's the boy Malcolm? / Was he not born of woman?" (5.3.1–4). In these lines there is no sense of the despair that he soon expresses in the speech.
"Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, / Creeps in this petty pace from day to day / To the last syllable of recorded time" (5.5.19–21). This musing seems odd and out of place given the immediate circumstances as well as the larger context. Horst Breuer says, "The first half of the soliloquy … seems to defy closer analysis, although most commentators carefully avoid admitting this" ("DT," p. 256). Breuer's own explanation is unpersuasive, however. He argues that the news of his wife's death is not what catalyzes Macbeth's speech but rather Macbeth's sense of being alone. He is "no longer young in deed" and "He has cut off those parts of his being which still adhered to the old system of values, and with them those which were full of the milk of human kindness. … [End Page 5] Physically as well as spiritually, Macbeth is solitary, deserted, lost in the void of an indifferent universe" ("DT," p. 263). This explanation does not work, however, because it does not fit with Macbeth's words or actions before or after the speech, in which he displays no sense of despair in "an indifferent universe."
"Petty pace" does not make sense in the context of the play as a whole because there has been nothing slow about the pace of the action or Macbeth's subjective experience of it. Nor has there been anything petty in the sense of small or insignificant. Macbeth never thinks his actions are pointless or futile. He is playing a high-stakes game, one that is significant in his estimation and by any reasonable standards. He never sees it as "vanity and a striving after wind." Macbeth kills Banquo to prevent Banquo from passing down the crown to his own heirs. He does not see that "There is no remembrance of former things, nor will there be any remembrance of later things yet to happen among those who come after" (Eccles. 1:11). Yes, perhaps the Macbeths have been petty in the sense of being small, envying others. But that description of petty does not seem to fit them when we consider the scale of their ambition. Time flies when you're having fun, but time "creeps" at a "petty pace" when you are in despair, trying to fill the hours. Plagued by fear and guilt, Macbeth has temporized and equivocated, but he has not actually despaired.
Macbeth's equivocation earlier in the play comes not from a despairing sense of meaninglessness (like that evoked in the speech) but rather from a lack of resolve and daring—from a concern that he would not be able to live with the feelings of guilt. And although it would be appropriate for him to experience despair in reaction to his wife's death, we would not expect despair to be his first reaction. Rather, we would expect him to react with shock and disbelief. Perhaps later he might sink into despair, but that does not happen. Instead, immediately after the speech Macbeth renews his resolve and plunges into action.
In the speech, Macbeth says, "And all our yesterdays have lighted fools / The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!" (5.5.22–23). The concluding phrase, "Out, out brief candle" is entirely unsuited for the context. Lady Macbeth has not died of natural causes, has not gone out like a brief candle. She has snuffed herself out through suicide. These lines muse on the futility of our grand plans. We strive to be kings and queens, but we are really fools. All our actions, no matter how momentous, no matter how successful, end the same way, with "dusty death." And like our ashes, our accomplishments will be dust in the [End Page 6] wind, scattered and forgotten in the course of time. As Ecclesiastes says, "The wise man has his eyes in his head, but the fool walks in darkness; and yet I perceived that one fate comes to all of them" (Eccles. 2:14).
This is not something that Macbeth seems to grasp. He is bent on defying the witches' prophecy by killing off Banquo's line and hopefully leaving his own line of royal succession. Even if he succeeded, though, his legacy would eventually fade and be forgotten.
"Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player / That struts and frets his hour upon the stage / And then is heard no more" (5.5.24–26). Here we have an allusion to Ecclesiastes, "For who knows what is good for man while he lives the few days of his vain life, which he passes like a shadow?" (Eccles. 6:12). Life seems to be what is most real and most valuable, but it is just "a walking shadow." This leaves open the possibility that something higher casts the shadow, but the rest of the speech does not bolster that hope. We are all playing our roles. Some of us may be proud of the roles we have been given or worked hard to get, and thus we "strut." We also "fret" though. Actors commonly experience stage fright before a performance, but an actor who frets while on stage will likely hurt the performance. Time on the stage is time for action, for lines delivered without delay. The Macbeths have done their share of fretting, but they have also taken action. The tenor of this speech seems to threaten that Macbeth will sink into a state of despair and fretting with no action.
This does not come to pass, however. The line "And then is heard no more" suggests the futility of all action. No matter how great the performance, the actor is ultimately doomed to anonymity. Few people today recognize the name Richard Burbage, the actor who originally played Macbeth, and over the long-enough run of time no one will. Even Shakespeare will eventually be forgotten.
"It is a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing" (5.5.26–28). The story we are acting out as poor players is a tale told by an idiot. The original Greek meaning of the word "idiot" is a citizen who does not vote and does not take part in public life. In this sense we can all see ourselves as idiots to the extent that our selfish choices disconnect us from others. We can apply this line to Macbeth, who began the story as a victorious hero, celebrated by his comrades and honored by the king, but who with his vaulting ambition becomes an idiot, cut off from society in his attempt to rule. Lady Macbeth is his close ally, but eventually he is separated from her as well, plotting the murder of Banquo without her and not even appearing on stage with [End Page 7] her for the second half of the play. Life is full of "sound and fury" with the battles we, as idiots, wage in our own heads and outside them. It all seems very important, but in the end even battles fought for thrones are meaningless, "signifying nothing." As Ecclesiastes says, "all is vanity." No higher purpose or plan exists; life is all just a speech. With Ecclesiastes, Macbeth seems to wonder, "What gain has the worker from his toil?" (Eccles. 3:9).
The witches seem to have known this all along, as they chant, "Double, double, toil and trouble; / Fire burn and caldron bubble" (4.1.10–11). Macbeth's actions are ultimately futile, but that is not what he thinks prior to the moment of the speech or after. Like all of us, he believes that his actions are of great consequence. If the speech contains an epiphany or anti-epiphany, it is a fruitless one because, moments later, he is resolved to fight on, convinced that the witches' words still make him safe and secure. He sees himself as playing a vital role in a cosmic drama.
Shortly after the speech, a messenger tells Macbeth that in ironic fashion Birnam Wood is indeed coming to Dunsinane. But Macbeth's response reflects none of the despair or nihilistic quietude of the speech. Rather, he is full of purpose and resolve, saying, "Ring the alarum bell! Blow wind, come wrack! / At least we'll die with harness on our back" (5.5.51–52). His resolve continues in act 5, scene 7 where, despite Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane, Macbeth clings to the witches' other sooth, saying to himself, "They have tied me to a stake; I cannot fly, / But bearlike I must fight the course. What's he / That was not born of woman? Such a one / Am I to fear, or none" (5.7.1–4). Unlike Lady Macbeth, he will not kill himself: "Why should I play the Roman fool, and die / On mine own sword? Whiles I see lives, the gashes / Do better upon them" (5.8.1–3). In response to Macduff telling him that he was from his mother's womb untimely ripped, Macbeth says, "Accursed be that tongue that tells me so, / For it hath cowed my better part of man!" (5.8.17–18). For a moment Macbeth is about to yield, saying "I'll not fight with thee" (5.8.22). But then, goaded by Macduff, he renews his resolve, saying, "Yet I will try the last. Before my body / I throw my warlike shield. Lay on, Macduff; / And damned be him that first cries 'Hold, enough!'" (5.8.32–34). The play ends for Macbeth not in the kind of nihilistic resignation that permeates the speech but in a Nietzschean sense of commitment and resolve in the face of certain defeat.
To summarize, the speech in Macbeth, act 5, scene 5 works on its own; the play works without the speech; and, in fact, including the speech [End Page 8] in the play causes problems for interpretation. I have argued, then, that this famous speech was not written for the play in which it appears but likely was written independently of the play and inserted because Shakespeare was eager to use it. For all that, though, the speech is not a flaw. Far from it, the speech is a profound meditation on the human condition, echoing Ecclesiastes and anticipating existentialism.7
1. William Shakespeare, Macbeth (New York: New American Library, 1963), 5.5.17–28. All subsequent citations are to this edition; references are to act, scene, and line.
2. Although Macbeth is clearly speaking to himself, technically the speech is not a soliloquy because Seyton is on stage with him. Nonetheless scholars often refer to the speech as a soliloquy, for example, Horst Breuer, "Disintegration of Time in Macbeth's Soliloquy 'Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow,'" Modern Language Review 71 (1976): 256–71; hereafter abbreviated "DT."
3. All quotations from Ecclesiastes come from The Holy Bible, Revised Standard Version, 2nd ed. (Dallas: Melton Book Company, 1971). The extent of the connections to Ecclesiastes has not been previously noted, though Peter Milward makes some connections in "Two Biblical Soliloquies," Notes and Queries 38 (1991): 486–89.
4. In his two-page consideration of the speech, Colin McGinn characterizes the mood of the speech as one of "apocalyptic despair," but without much analysis claims that the speech "certainly fits Macbeth's predicament" (Colin McGinn, Shakespeare's Philosophy: Discovering the Meaning Behind the Plays [New York: Harper Perennial, 2007], pp. 106–7).
5. Paul A. Cantor, "Macbeth and the Gospelling of Scotland," in Shakespeare as Political Thinker, ed. John E. Alvis and Thomas G. West (Wilmington: ISI Books, 2000), pp. 315–16.
6. Robin Lampson interprets these lines as meaning "She would have had to die sometime; / It's news I should have had to hear someday" and goes on to say that Macbeth "is so devastated by this unexpected intramural blow—which reaches him inside his charm-protected castle—that he immediately launches into one of the most moving passages of English poetry" (Robin Lampson, "Macbeth's Response to the News of His Wife's Death," CEA Critic 36 : 33–34).
7. Disappointingly, no detailed discussion of the speech exists in any of the literature on Macbeth and existentialism: Robert G. Colmer, "An Existentialist Approach to Macbeth," The Personalist 41 (1960): 484–90; Walter Kaufmann, From Shakespeare to Existentialism (New York: Anchor Books, 1960); David Horowitz, Shakespeare: An Existential View (New York: Hill and Wang, 1965); James E. Ruoff, "Kierkegaard and Shakespeare," Comparative Literature 20 (1968): 343–54; King-Kok Cheung, "Shakespeare and Kierkegaard: 'Dread' in Macbeth," Shakespeare Quarterly 35 (1984): 430–39; John F. Hennedy, "Macduff's Dilemma: Anticipation of Existentialist Ethics in Macbeth," The Upstart Crow 18 (1998): 110–17; Simon Palfrey, "Macbeth and Kierkegaard," Shakespeare Survey 57 (2004): 96–111; J. Gregory Keller, "The Moral Thinking of Macbeth," Philosophy and Literature 29, no. 1 (2005): 41–56; Charlotte Keys, "Shakespeare's Existentialism," (PhD diss., Royal Holloway, University of London, 2013); Oliver George Downing, "To Be, or Not to Be in Bad Faith: The Tragedy of Hamlet's Superficial Reading of Sartre's Waiter," Philosophy and Literature 38, no. 1 (2014): 254–65; and Jennifer Ann Bates and Richard Wilson, eds., Shakespeare and Continental Philosophy (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2014).