Act V - Scene V

[Dunsinane. Within the castle.]

Enter Macbeth, Seyton, and Soldiers, with drum and colors.

MACBETH:
Hang out our banners on the outward walls;
The cry is still, “They come”: Our castle's strength
Will laugh a siege to scorn. Here let them lie
Till famine and the ague eat them up.
Were they not forced with those that should be ours,(5)
We might have met them dareful, beard to beard,
And beat them backward home.

A cry within of women.

What is that noise?
SEYTON:
It is the cry of women, my good lord.
MACBETH:
I have almost forgot the taste of fears:(10)
The time has been, my senses would have cool'd
To hear a night-shriek, and my fell of hair
Would at a dismal treatise rouse and stir
As life were in't: I have supp'd full with horrors;
Direness, familiar to my slaughterous thoughts,(15)
Cannot once start me.
Wherefore was that cry?
SEYTON:
The Queen, my lord, is dead.
MACBETH:
She should have died hereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word.(20)
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!(25)
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.(30)

Enter a Messenger.

Thou comest to use thy tongue; thy story quickly.
MESSENGER:
Gracious my lord,
I should report that which I say I saw,
But know not how to do it.
MACBETH:
Well, say, sir.(35)
MESSENGER:
As I did stand my watch upon the hill,
I look'd toward Birnam, and anon, methought,
The Wood began to move.
MACBETH:
Liar and slave!
MESSENGER:
Let me endure your wrath, if't be not so.(40)
Within this three mile may you see it coming;
I say, a moving grove.
MACBETH:
If thou speak'st false,
Upon the next tree shalt thou hang alive,
Till famine cling thee; if thy speech be sooth,(45)
I care not if thou dost for me as much.
I pull in resolution and begin
To doubt the equivocation of the fiend
That lies like truth. “Fear not, till Birnam Wood
Do come to Dunsinane,” and now a wood(50)
Comes toward Dunsinane. Arm, arm, and out!
If this which he avouches does appear,
There is nor flying hence nor tarrying here.
I ’gin to be aweary of the sun
And wish the estate o’ the world were now undone.(55)
Ring the alarum bell! Blow, wind! Come, wrack!
At least we'll die with harness on our back.

Exeunt.

Footnotes

  1. In a play in which ambition and power were the only goals of the main characters, Macbeth realizes that all of his decisions and actions are meaningless: life is a "brief candle" set to go out. Not only does Macbeth realize that life is meaningless, he begins to see his life as ruled by others. This is a take on the Shakespearian trope of "all the world's a stage;" but rather than highlighting the performed nature of identity or love, Macbeth uses this theater metaphor to show that our ambitions and actions are part of a badly scripted performance without meaning. In other words, life, ambition, achievement are all illusions that dissolve in death. This is one of the most famous speeches from this play and it has inspired multiple literary and artistic works, including William Faulkner's 1929 The Sound and The Fury.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  2. Macbeth, enraged at learning how the "fiend" deceived him, abandons his plan on letting the enemy waste their strength on trying to take his castle. Instead of this prudent plan, he decides to meet them on the field of battle in a desperate (and suicidal) effort. Notice what happens to many of his men when they are given the chance to desert once in the open field.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  3. Here, Macbeth realizes that the witches and the fiend, or devil, who inspired them to raise the apparitions for Macbeth, have deceived him. "Equivocation" refers to language that is ambiguous in order to conceal the truth, and while Macbeth considered the Woods of Birnam moving against him an impossibility, he sees now that it was merely symbolic and that Malcolm's army "moves" the forest with their covering branches.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  4. Macbeth is considering the meaning of life and thinks back on all of his "yesterdays" and what they have led to. In a moment where he is possibly contemplating suicide, Macbeth compares his life to that of a candle--a brief amount of time that is now spent.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  5. Continuing with his nihilistic view on life, Macbeth uses this expression to say how all past events have "lighted" (that is, guided) fools to their death.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  6. The adjective "petty" means that something is trivial or unimportant. Macbeth considers the endless march of days to be meaningless, without purpose or direction.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  7. Many critics have contended the meaning of this line, whether Macbeth is callously indifferent to his wife's death or whether he is so sunk in misery by the news that he finds life not worth living. Perhaps the most plausible reading of this is connected to the latter and that Macbeth wishes that she had died after the battle, when there would have been time to mourn her properly.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  8. "Ague" in this context can either refer to a kind of high fever or a disease characterized by fever, intense cold, and shivering, or it refers to a state of fear, distress, or other strong emotion. The association with famine perhaps indicates that former definition is the more likely, but in either case, both would make soldiers abandon a castle siege.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  9. "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow" has eleven syllables. The effect of the extra syllable at the end of the iambic pentameter line may be to suggest that the "tomorrows" continue to be repeated in Macbeth's mind, as:

    Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow...

    Note that Shakespeare plays on the extra syllable in the first line when he refers to the "last syllable" of recorded time. It is as if all the "tomorrows" are trying to catch up with that last syllable "ow" at the end of the first line.

    — William Delaney
  10. Harold Bloom argues that Macbeth's response to his wife's death is nihilistic. In Macbeth's world, there is no life after death (541). 

    Bloom, Harold. *Shakespeare: **Invention of the Human.  *New York:  Riverhead Books, 1998.  Print. 

    William Faulkner borrowed the phrase "sound and fury" for the title of one of his best novels, The Sound and the Fury, the first chapter of which is told by an idiot named Benjy. Faulkner had a pessimistic view of life and human nature himself. "When [Malcolm] Cowley, for example, wrote asking if it would be fair to call his work a 'myth or legend of the South,' Faulkner testily replied that the South 'is not very important to me,' adding, in a gratuitous discharge of bile, that in his opinion human life is 'the same frantic steeplechase toward nothing everywhere and man stinks the same stink no matter where in time.'" Frederick Crews, "Faulkner Methodized."

    If motion pictures had existed in Shakespeare's time he might have said that life is like a black-and-white movie, because the actors we see on the screen really are "walking shadows." Shakespeare seems to be saying that we are all like actors on the stage but each of us is carrying a candle which casts a shadow on the floor. When our candle burns out, we cease to exist. We are as insubstantial as shadows.

    Notice how the words "struts," "frets," "hour," "upon," etc., are emphasized in the following lines to create the impression of a gigantic shadow pacing across a stage:

    ...a poor player 
    That struts and frets his hour upon the stage, 
    And then is heard no more.

    But the last two words, "no more," are not emphasized. It is as if the sounds of the shadow's pacing fade out, quite appropriately, with "no more." This is because of the strong "O" sounds in "no" and "more" and also because the word "no" which comes next in sequence to the pacing words is not naturally emphasized, but the emphasis, if anywhere, would be on the word "more"--almost like an echo of the departed shadow's footsteps. A huge shadow has paced across the stage and disappeared on the other side. These wonderful words can be much better appreciated if one reads them aloud. (But, for that matter, all of Shakespeare's words can be better appreciated if one reads them aloud, because they were intended to be spoken aloud.)

    Why does Macbeth use the word "fools" to describe all those who have died before him? They were fools because all their plans and activities were canceled by death. 

     

    — William Delaney
  11. The word "should" can be misleading for many modern readers. Macbeth does not mean that he would have preferred to have his wife die later, that she "ought to" have died hereafter, or that it would have been more convenient if she had died later. He is using the subjunctive mood, which is gradually disappearing from the English language. According to the article in Wikipedia on "Subjunctive":

    The subjunctive is a grammatical mood found in many languages. Subjunctive forms of verbs are typically used to express various states of unreality such as wish, emotion, possibility, judgment, opinion, necessity, or action that has not yet occurred; the precise situations in which they are used vary from language to language. The subjunctive is an irrealis mood (one that does not refer directly to what is necessarily real) – it is often contrasted with the indicative, which is a realis mood.

    A modern American would say:

    "She would have died hereafter" or perhaps "She would have died sooner or later."

    Macbeth is not showing the slightest concern about his wife. No doubt he once loved her, but it seems as if he has no love for her at all anymore. In fact, he probably hates her because she talked him into killing King Duncan when he really didn't want to do it. If he hadn't listened to her he could now be enjoying a comfortable and honorable old age. He holds her responsible for the mess he is in. Their marriage has evidently fallen apart. The fact that that share the same guilt does not bring them together but drives them apart. Each reminds the other of their shameful deed. Everybody in Macbeth's kingdom hates him. He will probably lose the coming battle with the English army, in which case his own death is inevitable.

     

    — William Delaney
  12. The messenger frightened and confused, afraid to tell Macbeth what he saw and still bewildered by the sight of what appeared to be a moving forest. He tells Macbeth, "I look'd toward Birnam, and anon, methought..." The word "methought" indicates that he still doesn't know whether he saw the trees moving or whether he was having an hallucination. Macbeth can't believe it either, immediately calls the Messenger a liar, and possibly starts to draw his sword with the intention of killing the hapless servant.

    — William Delaney
  13. Macbeth is planning to remain inside his castle and withstand a siege. This is probably a good idea, under the circumstances, because he is continually losing men by desertion. He would lose more men if he ventured outside his castle with his remaining forces, because they would be free to go over to the enemy.

    — William Delaney