In the rush of modern life there is little time for reflection but it’s sometimes relaxing to pause occasionally to reflect on some single instances of Shakespeare’s genius. Here is a short soliloquy from Macbeth worthy of attention.
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
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,
The passage is full of meaning and there is so much one can say about it. But we can look at it only for the way Shakespeare uses imagery. If we do that we are reminded that any idea of the Bard’s not being the greatest user of the English language ever would be absurd.
At this moment Macbeth’s suffering is intense and becoming unbearable. His victim’s ghost is haunting him, his guilt is torturing him, his enemies are closing in on him, his wife has gone mad and now he’s just heard that she’s committed suicide. We would expect a response with language that expresses a wild and desperate state of mind. That’s what it seems like, with his mind jumping from one idea to the next without any logic. He mentions time, then candles, acting and the theatre, shadows, and a tale told by an idiot.
There is no intellectual logic in the development of the passage but the poetical, imaginative logic makes the piece very tight, and one of the most remarkable achievements one could find in English poetry.
In this soliloquy Macbeth is a man for whom life has ceased to have meaning. He starts with a statement of the futility of life and of time itself with images of time – tomorrow, yesterday, day, recorded time – using a rhythm that stretches time out, making it creep.
Then there is a mention of light, but it’s only daylight to guide us to the darkness of death. The light has come naturally from the images of time, particularly the word ‘day’. In death that light is extinguished, like a candle, which is the next image, and a candle’s light is brief, like life, compared with the long period of the night to come. Candles cast shadows, which gives rise to the next image, life as a walking shadow.
A walking shadow is another term for an actor on the stage, so the shadow thrown by the candle creates the image of the actor on the stage. The actor plays out the dramas and anguish of a human being, strutting and fretting, but that only lasts for the performance, and then he goes home and you don’t hear from him again. His passion has been shallow, just an act, and for a very short time. All that is a representation of life: it’s full of empty passion that is just the raving of an idiot: it doesn’t last and it’s meaningless.
There you are. It’s a short piece of verse that sums up, not only a weariness of life but a whole philosophy of life and its futility. Each image gives birth to a new one and the beautiful logic develops in that way. And it captures perfectly the state of mind of the speaker. No wonder it’s one of the most famous passages in English poetry.