Literature

A Short Analysis of Macbeth’s ‘Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow’ Speech

Macbeth’s speech beginning ‘Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow …’ is one of the most powerful and affecting moments in Shakespeare’s tragedy. Macbeth speaks these lines just after he has been informed of the death of his wife, Lady Macbeth, who has gone mad before dying (off stage). You can find our fully plot summary of the play here and our analysis of Macbeth here. In this post, we’re going to consider Macbeth’s ‘Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow’ speech, looking closely at the language and imagery.

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.

Spoken upon hearing of the death of his wife, Macbeth’s speech from towards the end of this play, Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy, has become famous for its phrases ‘full of sound and fury / Signifying nothing’ and ‘Out, out, brief candle!’ In summary, Macbeth’s speech is about the futility and illusoriness of all life and everything we do: we are all bound for the grave, and life doesn’t seem to mean anything, ultimately. He is responding to the news that Lady Macbeth is dead here; it’s the beginning of the end for him.

There is, in fact, a couple of lines preceding ‘Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow’, which explicitly address the news that Lady Macbeth has died. But they are ambiguous. Upon being told by Seyton ‘The Queen, my Lord, is dead’, Macbeth replies: ‘She should have died hereafter: / There would have been time for such a word’. What does he mean by this? Is Macbeth simply saying, ‘She would have died at some point anyway’ (thus paving the way for his ensuing meditation on the futility of all human ambition, since it all leads to the grave)? Or is he saying, ‘It would have been better if she had died later’? The second line, ‘There would have been time for such a word’ (i.e. the word ‘dead’), inclines us towards the latter: Macbeth appears to be saying that it would have been preferable for Lady Macbeth to die peacefully after all of the conflict and battle. There would have been time to say their goodbyes and for him to mourn properly. Not so in the heat of battle (which Macbeth is when he hears the news).

Lady Macbeth’s death, then, prompts Macbeth to reflect upon the futility of all of his actions: his ‘overweening ambition’, which has spurred him on to commit murder (and murder of a king, no less) and take the kingdom for himself, has all been for nothing now he is truly alone, with most of the lords rallying to Macduff and standing against Macbeth. Lady Macbeth was the one who urged her husband to murder Duncan, and now she has died, having been pricked by her conscience over what they have done. (In her last scene in the play, Lady Macbeth is observed sleepwalking and miming the washing of her hands: her conscious mind may repress it, but her unconscious, as Freud would later argue, forces the truth to come out.)

As with much of the rest of the play, the lines spoken in verse are an example of blank verse: unrhymed iambic pentameter. But look at how the simplicity and dulling repetition of the first line, containing just five words (three of them the same) gives way to a line containing nine small (or ‘petty’) words:

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day …

In other words, the days of our lives creep at a slow rate

To the last syllable of recorded time;

Until the very end of the world, the apocalypse.

And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death.

And every day that has already occurred in the past has only brought fools one day closer to their deaths.

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.

Life is like a candle which burns for a short while only, so Macbeth argues that it should just be put out, since it will soon be ‘out’ anyway. He then likens life to an actor who comes out onto the stage, struts his stuff, says his lines for an ‘hour’, and then disappears again.

It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

Continuing the idea of life as an actor upon a stage for an hour only, Macbeth develops this, thinking about plays, illusion, stories, and fictions: life is like a story, but a bad story, told by someone too stupid and blustering to say anything of significance. In short, what is the point of anything, when a man’s life appears to achieve nothing? Duncan is dead; Banquo is dead; Lady Macbeth is dead; and Macbeth seems ready for his own death, now all appears lost.

‘Sound and fury’ is a more interesting phrase than it first appears: it’s an example of hendiadys, a curious literary device whereby one idea is expressed by two ‘substantives’ (specifically, nouns or adjectives). These two substantives are joined by the word ‘and’. In Macbeth’s phrase, ‘sound and fury’ are not two distinct phenomena, but more intimately joined: what ‘sound and fury’ means here is something like ‘furious sound’. It is part of the power of this speech that Macbeth’s language conveys his disordered mental state, the fact that he is overcome by the pointlessness of his whole endeavour, and – because he cannot escape his own mind – of life itself.

4 Comments

  1. Is ‘dusty death’ hendiadys as well?

    Is the entire speech a raving example of mixed metaphors? Count them all. Does that indicate Macbeth has lost control of his expression? Has his vaulting ambition o’er leapt the tropic barrier? Has he borrowed the robes of a manic philosopher?

    Sound and fury. Sound implies noise, a criticism of Macbeth’s content.
    Fury, that links to an odd aspect of this speech. It moves through emotional registers: contemplative and introspective, anger at what history leads us to understand, grief at what the moment has become, death’s waiting room. How an actor, reader treats those last three words, in a trailing voice or shouting at fate or somewhere in between, colors all that’s gone before.

    Most people will disagree, but this speech at the turn to the 17th C. anticipates 19th C existentialism’s we come from nothing, nothing we do matters, and we go to nothing.

    Nothing endures to this day.

  2. Brian Burden

    It is appropriate that this speech, expressing total demoralisation, should be prompted by the death of Macbeth’s wife. In the unavoidable battle to come, it is Macduff, whose own wife – and children – Macbeth has had murdered, who, driven by righteous rage, finally dispatches the tyrant.

  3. Brian Burden

    In answer to Don’s comment I disagree about “mixed metaphors”. There is certainly a rich profusion of metaphors, but my idea of a mixed metaphor is where one metaphor contains contradictory images – a classic example being “If you have a spark of charity in your heart, for heaven’s sake, water it and let it grow.” Sorry to sound pedantic!

  4. isabellacatolica

    You note the two previous lines referring to the death of Lady Macbeth. Also worth noting maybe is the line afterwards when a messenger enters:
    [Enter messenger]
    Macbeth : Thou comest to use thy tongue; thy story quickly.
    Macbeth now turns from the reflections on the meaning of life to his daily routine of battle and slaughter, without missing a beat! The “tale told by an idiot” is followed up by a “story” told by “a messenger”. The story of course is highly idiotic too: Birnam Wood is moving! However idiotic, the tale and the story must go on.

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