‘Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow/Creeps in this petty pace from day to day/To the last syllable of recorded time…”


Act Five, Part Two

By Dennis Abrams


The world is still deceived with ornament.
In law, what plea so tainted and corrupt,
But, being seasoned with a gracious voice,
Obscures the show of evil?
The Merchant of Venice, 3.2.80 Bassanio


I’d like to start with a couple of notes about the sleepwalking scene:

First:  Given the play’s preoccupation with “dark,” I found it fascinating that Lady Macbeth’s gentlewoman says about the taper, “Why, it stood by her. She has light by her continually, ‘tis her command.”  Obviously, at this point in the play, whether it is light or dark, Lady Macbeth is afraid of the dark.

Second:  Compare Lady Macbeth’s “Here’s the smell of the blood still, all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand,” which links crime (the smell of blood, the hand that cannot be sweetened), with Macbeth’s line in Act 3, 1.58, ‘Thence to be wrenched with an unlineal hand,” and of course, “Will all Neptune’s ocean wash this blood/Clean from my hand? No: this my hand will rather/The multitudinous seas incarnardine,/Making the green one red,” as well as Angus’ line in Act Five.2.17, “His secret murders sticking on his hands.”  And then go back to her words to Macbeth after the murder:  “Go get some water/And wash this filthy witness from your hand.”


From Garber:

macbeth3_1783052b“How does Macbeth resolve its central problem of evil and of the nature of ambition? The play presents the audience and reader with not one but two final visions, in a way that we have come to see as characteristic of the playwright. There is a final catastrophe for the tragic hero, and a redemptive and unifying moment for the new King and his court, with audience emotion torn between the options of character and state. Lady Macbeth, tortured by nightmares, follows, ironically, her doctor’s advice, and ministers to herself: her death is a suicide, but she has, in a sense, died long before. Indeed the sleepwalking scene is another version of a ‘ghost’ scene, the restless and tortured spirit vainly seeking repose.

And what of Macbeth? Perhaps significantly, in this remarkable play, Macbeth’s final attendant is an officer by the name of Seyton. The editor of the Arden Macbeth, Kenneth Muir, gives a quotation from a work of genealogy to establish that the Seytons were hereditary armor bearers to the Kings of Scotland, so that there is ‘a peculiar fitness in the choice of this thane,’ and then comments, in his own voice, ‘One critic suggests wildly that Shakespeare intended a quibble on Satan. Muir thus is able to equivocate between the tame and the wild, the ‘peculiar fitness’ of ‘Seyton,’ and what Muir implies is the arrant unsuitability of ‘Satan,’ without naming the critic who had the temerity to make such a proposal. Yet by citing and derogating the temerity of this anonymous critic, he can have things both ways; if the suggestion were really so ‘wild,’ he need not have mentioned it at all. And – although I am not his anonymous critic – I find myself very tempted by the ‘Satan’ reading, which re-links the play’s last moments with the morality play tradition out of which it clearly comes, and provides, were it to be considered seriously, yet another specter for Macbeth to (mis)interpret. In any case, the calls for Seyton precede and bracket one of the play’s great set pieces:


     Seyton! – I am sick at heart

When I behold – Seyton, I say! – This push

Will cheer me ever or disseat me now.

I have lived long enough. My way of life

Is fall’n into the sere, the yellow leaf,

And that which should accompany old age,

As honour, love, obedience, troops of friends,

I must not look to have but in their stead

Curses, not loud but deep, mouth-honour, breath,

Which the poor heart would fain deny and dare not.


Like “Othello’s occupation’s gone,’ this is a soldier’s lament for the ordinary pleasures of company and fellowship. Life for Macbeth has ceased to hold either sensation of meaning. His wife dies because of too much feeling,  he because of too little. And his famous speech on time, ‘Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,’ is a rejection of time, a rejection of history and of the learning experience of either life or art:

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.

Hamlet had asked Horatio, ‘In this harsh world draw thy breath in pain/To tell my story.’ Othello requested that his horrified audience ‘[s]peak of me as I am.’ Macbeth alone rejects the tale, and its recuperative powers. For him the image of the world is not redemptive but a stage and a delusion. We are only actors, and bad actors, who, in Hamlet’s phrase, ‘out-Herod Herod,’ and the patterns we make on earth are finally meaningless, signifying nothing. ‘Nothing,’ that resounding term from King Lear, marks the space of the zero and the cipher. Macbeth, whose borrowed robes – his actor’s costume – have become ‘a giant’s robe/Upon a dwarfish thief,’ now sees himself as the miscast victim of a play he never wrote and never understood. His final downward metamorphosis is, fittingly, into a dumb show for others:


We’ll have thee as our rarer monsters are,

Painted upon a pole, and underwrite

‘Here may you see the tyrant.’

Yet Macbeth’s despairing perception of nihilism in the world around him is, ironically, one thing that shows him to be profoundly human. Like Richard III he is gallant in his final warlike spirit, doomed and joyous.

The play does not reject this tragic vision of walking shadows and poor players, but rather leaves them with us as a necessary antidote to the smug confidence that all the world’s a stage; that acting, disguise, and transformation are saving activities; that theater is a redemptive force. But the play’s real recuperation, its real recovery, comes only partly through Macbeth’s personal confrontation with mortality and ending, and partly through Malcolm’s public assurance of order and continuity. In his final speech, so parallel in its way to Edgar’s in King Lear, or indeed to Richmond’s in Richard III, Malcolm regains the Duncan language that has for so long been absent from the play, the language of fertility: ‘What’s more to do/Which would be planted newly with the time.’ Time for him is not an ending or a meaningless jumble of syllables, but a new beginning, a part of redemptive history. Macbeth has been turned imaginatively into a dumb how, a monster, literally a demonstration or warning, the ‘show and gaze o’th’ time.’ That is to say, although his tale may have signified nothing to him, it signifies volumes to us.

For Malcolm, however, another kind of transformation is also at hand – a political one. ‘My thanes and kinsmen,’ he says, ‘Henceforth be earls, the first that ever Scotland/In such an honour named.’ Henceforth be earls. There are to be no more thanes, and thus there will be no more destructive cycle, one treasonous Thane of Cawdor replacing another, and so on, ad infinitium. This is the pattern of cycle, and of an unredeemed history, tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow. But for Malcolm’s world, and for that of King James, cycle is to be replaced by transcendence, by ‘the grace of Grace.’ Thanes become earls, Scotland becomes part of England, as James achieves the union of Scotland and England with his ascension to the English throne in 1603 (although the union was not formalized until the legislative Act of Union of 1707). The fallen land becomes the land of the holy king who cures and saves.

It is a pleasing and redemptive vision, one that finds its emblematic counterpart in the play in that magic glass, held up in the show of eight kings, reflecting King James and his descendants to the end of time. And yet the play will not let us rest with this comforting vision, despite the sense of victory on the battlefield and in the court. In Roman Polanski’s 1971 film, produced in the wake of the senseless slaughter of Polanski’s wife, actress Sharon Tate – then eight months pregnant – by the Charles Manson gang in 1969, the play ends with a bitter return to cycle, as Duncan’s second son, Donalbain, seeks out the witches and their prophetic instruction. It is all about to begin again.

At the last, I think, we cannot help but here again the knocking of the damned soul at hell’s gate. For Macbeth, whatever else it is, remains the sublimest and most ‘modern’ of morality plays. And to the redemptive vision of Malcolm we need continually to oppose the treadmill language of Macbeth – the speaker like Sisyphus rolling his stone patiently to the top of the hill, only to have it roll down again, eternally; like Ixion bound to his wheel of fire, revolving in hell, eternally – the treadmill language of the damned and living soul who is Macbeth, his life sentence (at once opinion, judgment, utterance, and aphorism) meted out syllable by syllable:

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow

Creeps in this petty pace from day to day

To the last syllable of recorded time,

And all our yesterday’s have lighted fools

The way to dusty death…”


From Stephen Booth, King Lear, Macbeth, Indefinition, and Tragedy:

macbeth 1952“I submit that the tragedy of the play Macbeth is not the character Macbeth, and that it does not happen on the stage. The tragedy occurs in the audience, in miniature in each little failure of categories and at its largest the failure of active moral categories to hold the actions and actors proper to them. An audience undergoes it greatest tragedy in joining its min to Macbeth’s both in his sensitive awareness of evil and his practice of it. Like Macbeth, it knows evil. But, even in the last two acts when Malcolm is repeatedly proffered as a wholesome substitute for Macbeth, it persists in seeing the play through Macbeth’s eyes the audience itself is unable to keep within the category dictated by its own morality, even though its moral judgments of characters and their actions are dictated entirely by that morality.

There is an obvious but inadequate reason why our sympathy with Macbeth has the intensity implied by that word’s etymological roots in Greek words for ‘together’ and ‘to experience’ (‘to feel,’ ‘to suffer,’ ‘to undergo’): we see things from Macbeth’s point of view – in the metaphoric sense of see – because, for most of the play’s length, Macbeth is in fact the principal conduit through which we are informed of events and their progress. The same, however, is true of Richard in Richard III and Iago in Othello; audiences’ relations with them are close (and disturbing to think about after the fact), but, where we never lose our identities as observers of Richard and Iago, to be audience to Macbeth is virtually to be Macbeth for the duration of the performance. (That this is so is demonstrated by the fact that it has occurred to so many commentators to deny it – to argue that we do not identify ourselves with Macbeth as they never would never bother to argue – or imagine a need to argue – that we do not identify ourselves with Richard or Iago.)

The reason for the morally improbable spiritual fusion between the virtuous and high-minded audience and the wicked, morally shallow Macbeth is, I think, that until Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking scene (V.i), Macbeth and the audience are (with the possible and fascinatingly perverse exception of the comically philosophical Porter) the only major parties to the play who see or feel the magnitude of the situations and events the play presents. Although Macbeth’s superbly vivid imagination reaches no further than ‘stick-and-carrot’ moral economics, Macbeth is the only character in the play who is our size.

Even the witches behave as if Macbeth, his crimes, and his fortune were on the same scale with those of the tempest-tossed sailor ‘to Aleppo gone, master o’ th’ Tiger.’ And the events of the play never evoke more from Banquo than gentlemanly musings. Duncan sounds hardly more than bemused at Cawdor’s treachery; he immediately resumes his complacent confidence in social order. Banquo and Duncan sum up their radical blandness in their slow, luxuriously fatuous commentary on the salubrious climate at Macbeth’s castle. As to Lady Macbeth: waking, she treats any challenge as a limited problem in logistics. Macduff, who responds passionately, if unimaginatively, to Duncan’s murder, is thereafter principally noteworthy for absenting himself from one place or another. In IV.iii, the “England’ scene where he hears and responds to the news that his wife and children have been slaughtered, Macduff has and takes his one opportunity to command the full attention of the audience. But, even then, that generally debilitating scene is contrived in such a way to emphasize Macduff’s passivity and impotence.

It is, however, Malcolm whom IV.iii treats most harshly.

malcolm and macduffHaving mentioned IV.iii, the only slow scene in the play, and come to Malcolm in my list of characters whose scale of response is inferior to Macbeth’s and the audience, I want to pause and look at both that scene and Malcolm in detail. Together they provide means for more fully developing the idea of the audience’s tragic loss of its comfortable confidence in the limits of its own potential.

Early in the play – in his forthright, personal greeting to the bloody sergeant who earlier had helped him battle (I.ii.3-5), and in the largemindedness of his account of Cawdor’s death – Malcolm shows signs of just the sort of spiritual energy he would need if he were to separate the audience’s soul fro Macbeth’s Malcolm does not speak again, however, until after his father’s murder:

Macduff: Your royal father’s murdered.

Malcolm:     O, by whom?

I have yet to hear an actor sufficient to overcome the inherent silliness of ‘O, by whom?’ – a response from which no amount of gasping and mimed horror can remove the tone of small talk.

Malcolm speaks twice more before he and Donalbain are left alone onstage to close II.iii with their plans for flight. After ‘O, by whom?’ his next speech (II.iii.115-16) is an all-but-overt comment on Shakespeare’s tactic in rendering our potential hero theatrically impotent: ‘Why do we hold our tongues,/That most may claim this argument for ours?’ Donalbain’s answer, though its substance is hardly heroic, is vigorously phrased. Malcolm contents himself with tacking a final phrase to Donalbain’s syntax – or, rather, Shakespeare contents himself with making Malcolm weak, not just weak in terms of his dramatized situation but, unlike Donalbain, theatrically weak: Shakespeare makes Malcolm a role in which no actor has a chance of capturing our attention. Malcolm does not appear again until IV.iii, where Shakespeare entirely undoes him by making his presence painful to his moral allies, the audience.

Malcolm’s behavior in IV.iii is the most perverse element in a perverse scene. Malcolm is obviously perverse in vilifying himself to test Macduff’s political idealism, but the perversity that concerns me here is not so much the character as of the characterization. An irritating character – one who irritates his fellow characters as Polonius, Hotspur, and Juliet’s Nurse do – is neither necessarily nor usually irritating to an audience. Shakespeare, however, makes the honorable, purposeful Malcolm a theatrical irritation. His first lengthy speech in the scene (lines 8-17: ‘What I believe, I’ll wail/What know, believe; and what I can redress,/As I shall find the time to friend, I will…’) is not only bombastic in substance but bombasted out with syntactical stuffing (like ‘As I shall find the time to friend,’ which keeps a generally hollow sentence from reaching its hollow close).

As the speech progresses – and in the speeches that continue from it (lines 18-24, 25-31) – Malcolm’s style is grating in its lack of economy: he both offers us luxurious appositives for phrases that need no clarification and uses elliptically foreshortened constructions that save time at the expense of an audience’s ease of understand (consider, for example, ‘and wisdom,’ a particularly crabbed ellipsis for ‘and it may be wise,’ in ‘and wisdom/’To offer up a weak, poor, innocent lamb.’ Then, when he comes to self-slander (which, though odd, could have been interesting to listen to), Malcolm’s syntax is maddeningly contorted, and his pace tortuous. For instance, he spends several slow, unnecessary lines making it difficult for Macduff and the audience to be entirely certain they know who it is he is talking about:


     But, for all this

When I shall tread upon the tyrant’s head

Or wear it on my sword, yet my poor country

Shall have more vices than it had before,

More suffer, and more sundry ways than ever

By him that shall succeed.


What should he be?


It is myself I mean…

Malcolm thereupon invites Macduff to debate his claim to villainy greater than Macbeth’s. Malcolm’s response to Macduff’s case for Macbeth’s superior villainy piles specifics on for emphasis and thereby delays the progress of the scene. No quantity of alternative adjectives and nouns can fill up the cistern of Malcolm’s lust to dilate upon particulars:

     I grant him bloody,

Luxurious, avaricious, false, deceitful,

Sudden, malicious, smacking of every sin

That has a name. But there’s no bottom, none,

In my voluptuousness. Your wives, your daughters,

Your matrons, and your maids could not fill up.

The cistern of my lust…

Detailed demonstration of Malcolm’s syntactic perversity and the lack of expository economy in the several speeches by which he finally exhausts Macduff’s patience and prepares the way for the speech in which he ponderously takes back all he has said against himself would be as tedious as the scene is. That is less true of the scene’s more obviously frustrating second movement.

Ross, who enters a scene that has been previously concerned entirely with establishing identities, is unrecognized by Malcolm, who identified him smartly for Duncan in I,ii, and who here adds a little more gratuitous bulk and gratuitous delay to the scene by nattering about his brief difficulty in recognizing Ross. Ross is understandably unwilling to deliver the crushing news he brings Macduff. And, when Ross does at last approach the painful topic of Macduff’s family, Macduff has to coax the information from him. Ross’s well-intentioned reticence thus stretches out his own anguish and Macduff’s; it also heightens our sense of the horror of Macbeth’s crime and of the pathos of Macduff’s situation. Above all, Ross’s reticence also heightens the already aggravated lesser agony the scene inflicts on us as an audience.

macduff and rossRoss delays doing what we assume or suspect he has come on stage to do, and Shakespeare provides conversational accidents that help Ross delay and make our frustration as audience – comparable – on its lesser scale – to Macduff’s. For example, when Macduff encourages Ross to speak further about his wife and children (‘Be not a niggard of your speech. How goes’t?’), Ross’s answer seems on its way to telling Macduff his family is dead; ‘When I came hither to transport the tidings/Which I have heavily borne, there ran a rumor/Of…’ But the rumor is not the one we guess (and, as it at last turns out, rightly guess) Ross has heard – the rumor that Macduff’s castle has been surprised and his wife and babes savagely slaughtered. Ross will not get to that rumor for another twenty tortuous lines. The rumor he reports here is ‘Of many worthy fellows that were out’ – a rumor he pursues through a thicket of syntactically snarled modification (Which was to my belief witnessed the rather/For that I saw the tyrant’s power afoot’), to emerge at an exhortation to Malcolm to invade Scotland promptly. Ross’s speech takes us back to a matter settled in the first half of the scene and leaves us further from the report we expect than we were ten lines earlier, when Macduff asked specifically about his wife and children.

Obviously, it is theatrically splendid that Shakespeare should so manipulate Ross’s compassionately intended, but effectively tortuous, reticence that in evokes an audience response parallel with the response it evokes from Macduff in the fiction. However, without denying the theatrical energy the delay generates, it is also true that the experience of those lines is unpleasant for an audience – unpleasant in very much the way any scene is when it drags.

What is more, Shakespeare develops the socially and emotionally awkward exchange between Ross and Macduff in such a way that it resembles the work of a clumsy playwright. Not only does Macduff have to prod Ross, but he does so in lines that lack verisimilitude and seem prompted b y the despair of a writer who does not know his trade. Ross has said that the words he has to speak are too painful to be heard: Macduff responds:

     What concern they,

The general cause or is it a fee-grief

Due to some single breast?

Shakespeare’s handling of Ross’s delay also generates and prolongs a petty but real agony of understanding for us – for us who saw the slaughter but do not immediately know whether Ross knows what we know. Ross left the previous scene while Lady Macduff and her children were indeed ‘well at peace’ – were still alive and in good health. We do not know how to respond to Ross’s answers when he tells Macduff that this family is ‘well.’ Is this the traditional pious equivocation by which, because they are at rest and free of worldly cares, ‘we use/To say the dead are well’ (Antony and Cleopatra II.v.32-33), or is Ross merely reporting what he ignorantly believes to be simple fact, or is he insisting upon a quibbling distinction between the news he has heard and the now-superseded facts he knows at first hand? We are obliged to wait to find out.

To conclude this account of IV.iii, it should suffice to say that, when, immediately after IV.ii has closed on Lady Macduff’s offstage cry of “Murder,’ we are presented with Macduff and Malcolm, we are thereby promised a scene that will show us Macduff’s response to his private griefs and tell us what practical plans and hopes Malcolm and Macduff have for opposing Macbeth. The scene fulfills its promise, but in so frustrating a way that, from the beginning of the scene onward, an audience’s experience includes impatience. Malcolm and Macduff are and remain our allies, but in the morally insignificant terms of our likes and dislikes as audience to an entertainment they are – because this scene is – irritating to us.

In three scenes between Iv.iii and the death of Macbeth – V.ii, V.iv, and V.vi – Shakespeare gives us further opportunities to think of the action from the point of view of Malcolm, Macduff, and their army of liberation; he makes each of those opportunities uninviting. The scenes not only delay us in our certain progress toward the play’s inevitable conclusion: they are, like IV.iii, slow in themselves.

The first of the three, V.ii, serves an expository purpose: Menteith, Angus, Caithness, and Lennox inform us that Malcolm’s invading army will soon reach Dunsinane and that Macbeth has fortified it against a siege. The scene also teases us with matter-of-fact references to Birnam Wood as the place where the Scottish patriots are to join forces with Malcolm. We know from all previous literary experience that the comfortable impossibilities the witches presented as the only threats to Macbeth will occur (just as the first people to hear the stories of Oedipus and of Rumplestiltskin presumably ‘knew’ that Oedipus would murder his father and marry his mother and that the miller’s daughter would somehow manage to spin gold from straw). Act V, scene ii both activates our eagerness to find out how Birnam Wood will manage to do the impossible and, because the scene meanders for twenty extra lines, frustrates our desire. In the first speech of V.ii we hear that ‘revenges burn’ in Malcolm, Siward, and Macduff, but there is no fire in the placid chat of the thanes who tell us so; note, for instance, the ironically leisurely anaphoric use of Now’s in Angus’s speculative account of Macbeth’s state of mind:

Now does he feel

His secret murders sticking on his hands.

Now minutely revolts upbraid his faith-breach.

Those he commands move only in commend,

Nothing in love. Now does he feel his title

Hang loose upon him, like a giant’s robe

Upon a dwarfish thief.

Our next chance to defect from emotional commitment to Macbeth comes in V.iv, which follows the pattern of V.ii. The business of the scene is finished during its first seven lines:


What wood is this before us?


The Wood of Birnam.


Let every soldier hew him down a bough

And bear’t before him. Thereby shall we shadow

The numbers of our host and make discovery

Err in report of us.

The scene goes on for another fourteen lines, concluding with Siward’s word-heavy commendation of finality:

     The time approaches

That will with due decision make us know

What we shall say we have and what we owe.

Thoughts speculative their unsure hopes relate,

But certain issue strokes must arbitrate –

Towards which advance the war.

               Exeunt, marching

The last of the three scenes that offer us a chance to think of the battle from the viewpoint of the forces of virtue is V.vi, a scene ten lines long that does its scarcely necessary business in its first line (‘Now near enough. Your leafy screens throw down’), and then spend itself on prebattle formalities and rhyming rant. Such formalities and rant are usual before Shakespearean battles and are usually effective in generating excitement. Here the prophesied approach of Birnam Wood and the approach of one member of the army – Macduff – matter, but the army and its affairs are dramatically irrelevant to a climax for which the terms have been firmly established as supernatural Shakespeare may have had extradramatic purpose in these scenes; for instance, a Jacobean audience probably found political edification in the play’s insistence upon the family tie between the English Siward and his Scottish nephew Malcolm; but, dramatically, Shakespeare’s expense of attention on Siward must always have been an unwelcome diversion for audiences.

imagesThe whole paradox I have been demonstrating – the paradox of audiences’ dual contrary allegiances in  Macbeth – is mirrored in a summary example provided in the issue of the speed at which the play moves. Macbeth moves so quickly and is therefore so short that scholars used to speculate carelessly on a lost ‘full’ text of the play – a text of which the Macbeth we have was assumed to be only a mutilated relic. Such scholars may, of course, have been right, but the historically evident power the play has over audiences and the contribution speed makes to that power suggest that brevity was probably always the soul of the play.

Like Macbeth and the servant who outdistances him as they gallop ahead to bring Lady Macbeth news of Duncan’s imminent arrival, the events of the play move at breakneck speed. I bring the matter up here because audiences like speed and because scenes with Macbeth never drag. As I have already suggested, the only exception to the rule of haste are the scenes that focus on Macbeth’s virtuous victims and adversaries. In the theater, speed is good and slowness is bad. In the story of Macbeth as staged by Shakespeare, virtuous characters and virtuous actions move slowly; speed is characteristic of the play’s evil actions and their actors. What an audience approves in one dimension of its experience is at perfect odds with what it approves in another. One might say of an audience to Macbeth what Oswald says of Albany in King Lear: ‘What most he should dislike seems pleasant to him;/What like, offensive.’

Given what I have been saying…the following lines from Macbeth might well be describing the audience that hears them:

But cruel are the times when we are traitors

And do knot know ourselves; when we hold rumor

From what we fear, yet know not what we fear

But float upon a wild and violent sea

Each way and move.

(IV,ii, 18-22)

The trouble with such a neat and summary critical conclusion is that, though it is just, it can, like my whole disquisition on the audience’s tragically double orientation, seem to imply that audiences take conscious note of, and are actively upset by, the conflict between the locally active values they exercise from moment to moment as consumers of a dramatic product and the larges ones from which our culture traditionally evaluates human behavior. Obviously, nothing of the sort occurs. Audiences like attending Macbeth; we pay to back and see it again when we can. For audiences, their times in the theater with Macbeth show no signs of feeding the need to say ‘Great thing of us forgot’ about their temporarily mislaid priorities. IN fact, they do not mislay their moral priorities. Those priorities coexist comfortably with equally powerful, lesser, local, special ones during an effectively miraculous experience of practical paradox. That, indeed, is my point. I still claim validity for the hyperbolically stated proposition that the tragedy of plays like Macbeth occurs in the audience; but the tragic experience of audiences, though real, is not only bearable but as easily managed as flies are by the gods.

This is, thus, the proper point at which to reintroduce the distinction between our perceptions of artistically unmediated tragedy in ordinary experience and our experience of dramatic tragedy. Those plays that we agree belong to the category tragedy – those that strike us as having the particular but hard-to-particularize quality we call ‘tragic’ and for which we are so grateful – are plays that admit into a comfortable mental experiences responses that ordinarily would put us in a quandary – plays that admit such responses without disturbing our equanimity, or even our complacence, and admit them without denying or diminishing their virulence.

Like every work of art – from the humblest drawing or tune or sentence to Michelangelo’s David, Beethoven’s fourteenth quartet, or Pride and Prejudice – a dramatic tragedy is an enabling act. And, as we value works of art in proportion to the magnitude of the comprehensive power they confer upon us, so we traditionally give particularly high value to tragedy and the highest to successful tragedies. The glory of such a play as Macbeth is in its power as an enabling act – one by which we are not merely relieved of physical involvement in the dangerous events enacted before us (that minor felicity, after all, is ours whenever we see newsreels of disasters), but by which we are also genuinely – though temporarily, as we would be if we be if we were superior to the sovereign fact of the human condition – superior to the helpless relativism in which the human mind is trapped and by virtue of which the human mind ordinarily requires itself to recognize one of the set of terms in which a perceived fact operates and to ignore or deny the others.

For the length of Macbeth, we are creatures so free of psychological dependence upon our fragile, dikelike belief in limits that our minds are not only comfortable but graceful in conditions that would ordinarily drive us mad to define our positions. For the length of Macbeth we are like superhuman beings, creatures capable of being mentally comfortable with infinite possibility. No wonder we enjoy ourselves.”

I’ll finish up with Booth in my final post on Macbeth, Tuesday evening.


And finally and completely switching gears, I just finished reading a very cool book by the playwright Ken Ludwig entitled “How to Teach Your Children Shakespeare.”  Very informative, he shows how to teach your kids to memorize passages from various plays and how to introduce them to the texts themselves – for those of you with kids, it’s highly recommended.  As a taste, here’s from one of the later chapters, on Macbeth:

Passage 13

Macbeth’s Conscience

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.

(Act V, Scene 5, lines 18-28)

macbeth__a_brief_summary_by_inctheory-d4gh8jyAfter A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Twelfth Night, and Romeo and Juliet, I thought the best way to keep my children excited about Shakespeare was to expose them to something entirely different. No more Mr. Nice guy. It was time to beg bloody. (My daughter liked the ideas as much as my son did.)

Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow,

This is the first line of a soliloquy spoken by Macbeth at the end of the play that bears his name. When the play begins, Macbeth, a lord of ancient Scotland, is fighting to protect his country from a rebellion. Just after the final, bloody battle, Macbeth encounters three witches who prophesy that he will one day become King of Scotland.

Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow

Creeps in this petty pace from day to day.

As you tell your children the story, keep repeating these opening lines of the soliloquy until they become second nature.

Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow,

Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,

To the last syllable of recorded time;

The witches’ prophecy ignites ambitious thoughts in Macbeth, and soon, with the help of his wildly ambitious, ruthless wife, Macbeth has murdered Scotland’s rightful king, Duncan, and seized the throne for himself. Once Macbeth becomes king, Duncan’s heirs begin to suspect that Macbeth was the murderer. In response, Macbeth begins a reign of terror, murdering everyone he considers a threat to his position.  This includes Macbeth’s fellow soldier Banquo (who the witches prophesied would found a line of kings and is therefore a threat to Macbeth’s future), as well as the wives and children of Macbeth’s political enemies.

Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow,

Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,

To the last syllable of recorded time;

From the beginning, Macbeth is harrowed by his conscience. His mounting sense of remorse causes him to become delusional. First he sees a dagger floating in the air, leading him to Duncan’s bedchamber; then he sees the ghost of Banquo sitting at a feast. Are these visions real, or are they products of Macbeth’s fevered mind? Is there a difference? What is the dividing line between imagination and reality? Does it matter if something is real to the senses as long as we perceive it to be real?

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.


The first line of the soliloquy is simplicity itself. Because the line is in iambic pentameter, which has five beats, the word and is necessarily emphasized, both times, at least a little bit. This gives the line a heavy, plodding rhythm, as if the word tomorrow was trudging along to its destruction.

Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.

The word tomorrow in this case has a single, strong beat: toMORrow.

ToMORrow and toMORrow and toMORrow

Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,

To the last syllable of recorded time.

For Macbeth at this point, life is a meaningless succession of tomorrows. For how long will those tomorrows creep forward? Forever. To the very last syllable of recorded time.

And all our yesterdays have lighted fools

The way to dusty death.

What does this mean – all our yesterdays? And how can yesterdays light the way for fools to follow? This raises an interesting aspect of Macbeth that is not necessarily evident on a first reading: The language of the play, in addition to being powerful, is also frequently ambiguous. Shakespeare does this deliberately, and he does it to add a sense of mystery, murkiness, and danger to the story. This technique is explained by Shakespeare scholars Barbara Mowat and Paul Werstine:

‘Each of Shakespeare’s plays has its own characteristic language. In Macbeth one notices particularly the deliberate imprecision of some of the play’s words. Macbeth’s lines ‘If it were done when ‘tis done, then ‘twere well/It were done quickly’ not only play with the imprecise verb ‘done’ but also refer to some unnamed ‘it.’…We hear it again and again in Lady Macbeth’s [speeches[. The sense is clear, but the language seems deliberately vague, deliberately flowery, as if designed to cover over the serpent under it. In reading Macbeth, one must sometimes be content to get the gist of the characters’ language, since in such lines as ‘the powers above/Put on their instruments’ no precise ‘translation’ exists.

So if at times your children find the language of Macbeth to be slightly confusing, don’t let that trouble them. What I often say to my children, particularly when we’re going to see a performance of Shakespeare, is that they shouldn’t worry if they don’t understand every word, or even every full speech. They should let the language roll over them, the way waves roll over you in the ocean. There will always be time to analyze later.

     Out, out, brief candle!

Life’s but a walking shadow;

Shakespeare often compares life to a lighted candle. And a walking shadow is a kind of ghost, isn’t it? The way Banquo became a ghost in the play.

     a poor player,

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,

And then is heard no more.

A poor player means an actor. As we’ll discuss in a later chapter, Shakespeare frequently uses actors and the theater as metaphors in his work. Struts is also a good word. It suggests that Life is an actor who gets to strut around the stage thinking well of himself. This is reminiscent of another speech, in Shakespeare’s Richard II, where a king is about to die and he compares death to a tiny actor in the brain:

For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground

And tell sad stories of the death of kings…

          For within the hollow-crown

That rounds the mortal temples of a king

Keeps Death his court, and there the antic [jester] sits,

Scoffing [at] his state and grinning at his pomp,

Allowing him [the king] a breath, a little scene,

To monarchize, be feared, and kill with looks,

Infusing him with self and vain conceit,

As if this flesh which walls about our life

Were brass impregnable.

[MY NOTE:  Still one of my favorite speeches.  And think about how far Shakespeare traveled and changed as a writer after writing that…]

Similarly, for Macbeth, life is

     A tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.

Could Shakespeare have written anything more bleak, more filled with despair and hopelessness? I don’t believe so. it is reminiscent of the twentieth-century works of Samuel Beckett, plays like Knapp’s Last Tape and the ironically titled Happy Days, that view man’s lot as one of absurd nothingness.

[MY NOTE:  As we move on King Lear, I’m going to be relying heavily on Jan Kott, who was the first to see the link between Lear’s universe and Beckett’s in plays like Endgame. And my last post on Macbeth will include his extraordinary essay on the play.]


One of the central puzzles of the play involves how we feel about Macbeth’s violent end. Here is a man who murdered at will out of blind ambition, killing a kinsman, a guest, and a king, yet something about him makes us feel that he was possessed of a great spirit, with the potential for another, better life. Is it the language of his speeches? His affection for his wife? His struggles with his conscience? Or did he have no choice in life? Were his evil deeds the product of Fate, or his wife, or his occupation as a soldier? These are questions you should discuss with your children.”


This is a wonderful clip:  Ian McKellen analyzing “Tomorrow and  tomorrow and tomorrow…”


My next post:  Tuesday evening/Wednesday morning — final thoughts on Macbeth, with the help of Stephen Booth and Jan Kott

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7 Responses to ‘Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow/Creeps in this petty pace from day to day/To the last syllable of recorded time…”

  1. sylvia519 says:

    We just saw a good student production of Macbeth which was supposedly crossed with Bladerunner about which I know nothing and which apparently influenced the costuming and design and maybe the battle scenes, but left the script uncorrupted. This performance opened with Hecate speaking the “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow…” speech and the weird sisters appear on stage often (maybe signifying Macbeth’s conscience?) seen by the audience but not the players. Hard to explain but very effective…the Hecate ends with the same speech.

  2. GGG says:

    I watched the youtube clips of the various actors, and watching the different interpretations, I decided that I liked the Japanese version best, even though not understanding the language. To me, the actor in that version most clearly linked the speech to Lady Macbeth when he took her robe upon his shoulders and shed a tear at the end of the speech. Patrick Stewart’s version is also great, when he speaks over Lady Macbeth’s corpse.

    Hearing it so many times in a row, the soliloquy became more of Macbeth’s farewell to Lady Macbeth and his summing up of their plan’s ruination of themselves and their kingdom, rather than the grand comment upon life that it seems when it is done as a soliloquy unconnected to Lady M. (McKellen and Orson Welles) Does that make sense? I know it is both, and has lived in our consciousness for so long because it is a grand statement–but in the versions chosen above, I thought it worked best when it also pulled in the meaning of all the events of the play. When “out, out brief candle” refers to Lady Macbeth and makes us recall “out, damned spot, out.” When all their yesterdays–the plotting, murders, etc.–have lighted fools (Macbeth’s supporters) to their dusty deaths on the losing side. When their grand plot to be King and Queen has become a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing.

    Of course I did love McKellen’s analysis of the play in the first clip, when he really brought out the richness of the imagery and I loved when he read the last word of each line–wow! It all made sense.

    What I am trying to say is that I was glad for the versions that reminded us of the specifics of the play, and let the universal statement linger in our memories, rather than the ones that made the universal statement the focus. Hope I haven’t twisted myself in knots here, but hope you can straighten me out!

  3. Mahood says:

    The Samuel Beckett reference above (bleakness, despair, hopelessness etc.) seems appropriate…his works are littered with Bardian allusions – and in his 1965 play ‘Come and Go’, he references the opening of Macbeth directly. In the opening scene, three females (Flo, Vi and Ru) sitting side by side…


    Vi: When did we three last meet?
    Ru: Let us not speak.


  4. GGG says:

    That’s fascinating. Mahood, you always find the most interesting references.

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