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Macbeth Teaches Us About the Futility of Life

June 21, 2013


Macbeth (Act V, Scene v)

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.

Rare is the poem – or in this case, the passage of a play that can stand by itself as a poem – whose beginning and end have been used as titles for other literary works. The opening, Tomorrow  and Tomorrow  and Tomorrow, is the name of an essay from Aldous Huxley. It is about the danger of societies that are at the mercy of either religious crusaders, who tell the losers in this materialistic world that they will be rewarded later in heaven, or social engineers, who tell their concentration camp victims that their sacrifice will benefit some future generation. The penultimate line of the poem forms the title of William Faulkner’s novel, The Sound and the Fury. This is the story of the decline of a once aristocratic family, the Comptons, and is narrated, in part, by Benjy, an idiot and a Compton. Huxley and Faulkner are considered literary gods, albeit with a small case “g,” as both defer to God, William Shakespeare, the author of Macbeth.

To understand the poem, it will help to put it in dramatic context. Macbeth is a general returning from a successful battle when three witches inform him that he is destined to become king. This prompts him and his loyal wife, Lady Macbeth, to hasten the prophesy. Macbeth stabs the present king to death in his sleep, while Lady Macbeth frames two of the king’s grooms for the murder. Now they are King and Queen of the realm, though both become paranoid about being found out as the true regicides. This leads to more killing and persecution, which, in turn, leads to more dementia. Soon the whole enterprise begins to collapse until, first, Lady Macbeth commits suicide, and then, at the close of the drama, Macbeth meets his own end when beheaded by Macduff. It is when hearing of his wife’s demise that Macbeth recites the Tomorrow poem.

It is a stunned and disillusioned Macbeth who takes a step back from all the mayhem to repeat the word “tomorrow” three times in succession. This mantra underlines the futility of all those future days. It also allows Macbeth to gain his rhythm, to collect his thoughts, to bring home to himself the reality of his wife’s death. Yes it is tragic, but, in the context of all those tomorrow’s to come, one of them would still have been her last day, whether they had usurped the crown or she had become a harmless doddering aristocrat.

And one can sense Macbeth’s eyes becoming more riveted toward those futile tomorrows when he soliloquizes that each of them “creeps in this petty pace from day to day.” This is not the procession of time toward a glorious future, as contended by social engineers and religious fanatics, but rather a shuffling toward the void.

That void will be reached by collective humanity beyond “the last syllable of recorded time.” Afterward, Time will not be fitted into man-made measurements, making Time the winner and humanity just another biological novelty gone out of fashion. What could be more arrogant than believing that events are official only when given validation from a bipedal species evolved from chimpanzees?

If Time is going to humor us by allowing itself to be divided into twenty-four hour segments, then it will laugh all the harder when using these markers to lead us to the end of our time. Macbeth says almost with a resigned smile: “And all our yesterdays have lighted fools/The way to dusty death.” He was the biggest fool of all for thinking that it was so important that he become king of an empire that would also, like the people in it, perish and fade into oblivion. What a joke.

There is more Time than human life, and so “Out, out, brief candle!” The darkness envelopes us on all sides. Our small and temporary incandescence can never grasp the whole picture; and if it could, to what purpose?

“Life’s but a walking shadow” amidst this stretching blackness, and shadows are not real. If life is real, then it is far from grand and noble as so often thought by its practitioners, especially would-be kings; rather it is “a poor player,” an actor, really, that “struts and frets his hour upon the stage” of Time and “then is heard no more.” Once “recorded time” is finished, there will be no one to remember even the greatest of people, much less hear their dead voice. Macbeth can perhaps even take solace in the idea that his ugly deed will also, at some distant point, vanish off-stage into the realm of the vacant theatre that is the Universe.

Now Macbeth is perhaps feeling angry, not so much at the futility of life, but at humanity’s delusion that we are major players and writers of our own Fate. Pah-leeze! He snorts that, if anything, life “is a tale/Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,/ Signifying nothing.” The story of mankind is the story of the Comptons, once all high and mighty and convinced of their own importance, and now reduced to the last drop of blood in Benjy, an idiot — inarticulate, yet noisy – explaining the whole goofy saga. The moral of the story? Nothing.

The language in the poem comes in three parts going from the general to the particular. The first five lines use Time to set the stage as too vast for human endeavor, what with all those “tomorrows.” On the other hand, Shakespeare manages to give to Time some human characteristics, as it “creeps in this petty pace,” like some galactic stalker that no restraining order will ever keep from its mission. It is also articulate “to the last syllable,” while showing a certain human malignancy by holding up a lantern and guiding us “fools/The way to dusty death.” At that point, it smiles and, like a mother after putting her kids to sleep, blows out the candle.

The second part narrows the setting, and in fact puts it on a stage no as small as Shakespeare’s own Globe Theater. Now humanity is seen to scale, “a poor player,” though not in its own estimation. It wants to be big, and therefore “struts and frets” for the short duration of the play; and when the curtain falls, the actor, now without an audience, is forever mute. This is a one-night show.

The third and final part reduces the concept of the futility of life to one thing – an idiot telling a tale. Contrast this with the beginning, of Time stretching out into endless tomorrows, and there you have the meaningless of life put into a beautiful poem. And this poem does signify something.

What this poem signifies is that life, in the grand scheme, is short (a brief candle) and that humanity is foolish to think that its gyrations here on Earth, no matter how impressive at the moment, will stand the test of Time – that is, beyond “the last syllable of recorded time.” But only those who have lived to experience their own dreams of kingship come and go and then come and go again, what with “tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow” becoming “all our yesterdays,” and who have read a lot about human and evolutionary history, are able to accept this harsh truth.

An adolescent, with an egocentric view of the Universe, or any ignorant adult, will disagree with Shakespeare. She believes in “signs” – because that Sheryl Crow song came on the radio en route to the convenience store, I will hit the megabucks — that cosmic forces are at work to ensure that the little egomaniac becomes this famous and special person, if only on Reality TV.  Or she will impose meaning on her every act, no matter how trivial, likening her breakup with Bobby, the clerk at a Dollar Store, to Mother Mary’s transition from Joseph to Yahweh right down to being convinced that her first kid out of the eventual eight member brood in the trailer park will grow to be the Messiah. Then life “creeps in this petty pace from day to day” until her eighth and last child burns down the trailer, while the first-born is doing twenty years for armed robbery – and then she begins to realize that there never were any “signs” or deeper meanings. She recalls her solipsistic adolescence, and now feels like “an idiot,” and so tells her cautionary tale in a loud, inarticulate voice to the younger generation. But to them, it “signifies nothing,” or maybe it’s a “sign” that they are the ones destined for a greater fate – perhaps as kings of a media or fashion empire. But even the Roman Empire, after having strutted and fretted its geological hour upon the world’s stage, ended and was “heard no more.”

The key, then, is to realize the truth of Macbeth’s summation and not repeat his mistake of grasping for an outsized life that, in the end, is nothing but a walking shadow; to accept and appreciate the smaller, manageable parts to existence. What difference does it make if you are not the alpha male or the queen bee? Look where it got Macbeth and his lady, to say nothing of the Compton family and their pseudo royal aspirations. There is also the lesson realized by Aldous Huxley through his reading of Macbeth coupled with his observations of twentieth century man, and that is the insanity of living for a mythical future, of saying I’ll be happy when…There is only the present, the now, and so strut – not fret – that hour upon the stage and make it a good, albeit modest, show. Sure it may be a tale told by an idiot signifying nothing, so why not make the tale a light comedy, not a tragedy?

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