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Free Study Guide-Macbeth by William Shakespeare-Booknotes Summary
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Act V, Scene 5

Summary

This scene again take place in the court of the palace at Dunsinane with Macbeth talking to Seton and his soldiers. He is still lying to himself as the tells the others, "Our castle's strength will laugh a siege to scorn." His vain words are interrupted by the wailing of women. Macbeth admits he is unaffected by the sounds since he is so used to "slaughterhouse thoughts." He does, however, ask Seton why they are crying. The officer replies that the queen is dead. Macbeth responds with words that reflect not grief, but the total emptiness of life that he feels:

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.


A messenger interrupts the king's thoughts and tells him that as he stood watch on the hill, "I looked toward Birnam, and anon, me thought the wood began to move." Macbeth immediately thinks of the prophecy and curses "the fiend (devil) that lies like truth." He knows that if the woods are moving towards his castle, his days are numbered. He ends the scene by again stating a death wish: "I 'gin to be aweary of the sun, and wish th'estate i' the' world were undone." He says, however, he will die in armor like a man.

Notes

This scene clearly shows two sides of Macbeth, the appearance and the reality. In the beginning, the king is still puffed up and deceiving himself into believing his castle's strength will hold against 10,000 soldiers. His mood changes from mock courage to melancholy at the sound of the wailing of the women. (Think how many women he has caused to wail over murdered husbands and sons.) He ponders how he used to be filled with life and emotion. Now he is not even bothered by women crying because he has "supped full of horror: direness...cannot once start (startle) me," ironic words spoken just before he learns that his wife is dead. His mood deepens into emptiness when he learns about Lady Macbeth. His famous speech, elicited by her passing, is filled with irony. He says that life drags on "creeps in this petty pace" when, in reality, the speed of his actions and the development of the play's plot has been at a breath-taking speed. He describes life as a brief candle (therefore, death must be eternal darkness); it is ironic that through the whole play, Macbeth has begged for darkness or night to hide his evil. (Perhaps subconsciously, he has longed for the sweet release of death all along as a release from his worldly pain and guilt.)

The king then calls life "a poor player that struts...upon the stage...a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury signifying nothing." Although Macbeth is speaking of life in general, he ironically is really painting a self-portrait with his words. He is a poor player (filled with appearance rather than truth); he has strutted through life (falsely proud of stolen power); he has told a tale (his whole existence in the play has been a tale, a lie marred by appearance rather than reality); he is an idiot (a foolish man that goes mad); he is fully of sound and fury (chaos characterized his life); life is signifying nothing (his life is to end in total meaninglessness). What a pathetic commentary on living!

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