In Act V, scene 5 of Shakespeare’s Macbeth we encounter Macbeth’s famous nihilistic soliloquy: “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.” The speech comes at a critical juncture for Macbeth in the play. All his Thanes have left him, and a united army of English and Scottish forces are advancing on his castle at Dunsinane. The English are led by Siward (whose character is based on a historical earl of Northumberland) and the Scottish are led by Macduff, Thane of Fife, whose family has recently been butchered at the behest of Macbeth. Macduff is joined by Malcolm, son of the assassinated king Duncan and heir to the Scottish throne. Up until this, point Macbeth has placed his faith in delusional supernatural prophecies -revelations which he believes have transformed him into a kind of ubermensch -exempt from death by any man ‘born of a woman.’ He remains sheltered in his castle until and unless the forests of Birnam descend upon the hilltop of Dunsinane, while also awaiting the advancing armies.
However, as Macbeth’s tragic downfall unfolds, we witness his maddening obsession with the future and at the same time he order more people killed in order to support his false understanding of fate. At the beginning Macbeth was a war hero who lived mostly in the present moment, but after receiving a dark prophecy, he begins to believe that all human actions are pre-determined by some supernatural fate. His belief turns to obsession, and his futurism stands in stark contrast to the ancient view of time as cyclical, rather than the modern view of time which is apocalyptic. Therefore, Macbeth’s nihilism grows out of a modern apocalyptic expectation. He rarely focuses on his troubles today, only on an endless forthcoming “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.” For Macbeth, “today” is merely the ignorant present -in fact, today might as well be history since it has been predetermined according to the witches. With an eye for what is to come, Macbeth incessantly slaughters his allies -he sets out to kill Duncan, and then he must kill Banquo but Banquo’s son Fleance escapes, and then he must also kill Macduff’s family. His mind becomes ensconced in a philosophy of the future -a philosophy of becoming rather than being. His hope is for some future state of perfection, which is one classical characteristic of a tyrant. In Book IX of Plato’s Republic when discussing the soul of a tyrant with Glaucon, Socrates draws a distinction between a tyrant and a philosopher. According to Plato, a tyrant is a man who follows his base pleasures and is unwilling to be virtuous. When this “private tyrant” becomes empowered as a “political tyrant” the city suffers in disharmony. However, the soul of a tyrant is different from a philosopher because a philosopher is focused on the things that are (i.e. the things that have being). In Macbeth, his particular form of tyranny is characterized by a modern pursuit of a state of purity and perfection, free from threat or blemish -a desire to see the city ‘speak together as one’ rather than to encourage the various parts of the city to grow together in harmony a la Aristotle’s Politics. Perhaps there is a certain degree of modern genocidal tendencies hidden in Macbeth’s form of tyranny, as well (i.e. ‘if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off’).
At any rate, in his famous soliloquy in Act V Macbeth suddenly sees meaningless in his unending futurism. His speech comes immediately after a report from his sole remaining loyalist, Seyton (whose name mirrors “Satan”). A cry is heard and Macbeth remembers a time when he would have been afraid of horrors in the night -a normal fear for a man but not for a tyrant dabbling in dark mysticism like Macbeth. Seyton re-enters and announces the death of Lady Macbeth. She has apparently committed suicide offstage. Upon learning of her death, Macbeth is hardly sorrowful -he suggests that she would have died anyway “hereafter” at any other time “for such a word.” Her time would have come now or at another time in the future -it makes little difference to Macbeth. He launches into his famous soliloquy bemoaning the meaninglessness of life as a mere “shadow” filled with “sound and fury.” It is an apocalyptic speech which notes the “last syllable of recorded history” (i.e. an end of history in the Hegelian and Christian sense) and yet it also makes mention of the past “all our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death” (i.e. history is a a predetermined series of revelations that merely lead to death). Ultimately, all of life for Macbeth ultimately ‘signifies nothing.’ Mirroring the book of Ecclesiastes, all is vanity for Macbeth. Life becomes a mere “shadow” and a “poor player” or a pawn of powerful supernatural forces.
Unlike the Poet-Philosopher-King of Prospero in The Tempest, Macbeth sees no glory in human greatness -no cloud capp’d towers, no gorgeous palaces. Macbeth is not a true leader like Prospero because he has no inspiration, no poetics, no vision to guide his fulfillment of the future. His reign is purely destructive. He believes that if he can eliminate enough people who pose a threat to his regime and hopefully fulfill his future prophecy, then his kingship can become perfect. Macbeth’s struggle in his soliloquy is not with a concern that human greatness is all for nought, like Prospero, but rather his struggle is with time. He laments endless tomorrows, all of which lead to an end of history. Similarly, in the life of a single human, every yesterday merely leads to death. Life is characterized as mere theatrics, filled not with reason and beauty, but rather with animalistic noises like “sound and fury.” The frivolity of life signifies nothing and he calls for life to be snuffed out like a “brief candle.” The only way Macbeth sees a return to an ontology of being is in death.
“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,
For this reading I used the 3rd Edition Arden of Shakespeare’s Macbeth
Wonderful, grim lines