Scanned: Macbeth’s Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow

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.

Vocab

“Creeps in this petty pace” – moves slowly.

“…lighted fools…” – guided fools.

“…poor player” – actor.

“…struts and frets…” – to proudly walk and needlessly worry.


Scansion

(If this doesn’t make sense to you, do a quick review on how to read Shakespeare’s scansion.)

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
(11 beats in the line, weak end)
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
(inverted first foot)
To the last syllable of recorded time,
(“syllable” treated as two syllables, not three)
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
(normal)
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
(11 beats in this line, ending weak)
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
(inverted first foot, “player” pronounced as one syllable)
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
(normal)
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
(normal)
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
(inverted first foot, “idiot” pronounced as two syllables, 11 beats in this line, weak ending)
Signifying nothing.
(completely inverted line – all feet are upside down, with 4 empty beats with no words)


Analysis

When Macbeth says this, his kingdom and castle are under attack, he’s losing, and he’s just learned his wife is dead. You might picture him as panicked, or consumed by sadness, but that’s not what Shakespeare is telling you to do.

Macbeth is rock solid in the meter – nothing abnormal to indicate emotion. Macbeth is more calm now than he ever has been. He now knows that life is hopeless. He’s not angry or fighting, he has accepted his fate to die, just as his wife has died and just as his legacy will die. When he hears of his wife’s death, his response is “well fuck it, she would have died anyway”. And then he launches into this famous monologue.

You can see that some lines have inverted feet at the beginning, where a line starts with a stressed beat and some have an extra beat at the end. This is usually the result of a character trying to move his or her thoughts forward, to continue on with something. In some cases it’s unintentional, with the character racing ahead faster than their words can carry them. In this instance, I read it as Macbeth trying to stay in the game long enough to reach his death, and maybe find some meaning in his last few moments.

Then something strange happens in the last line – Macbeth breaks. The meter is completely reversed, and the last 4 beats in the line are completely silent. Shakespeare is telling you that something massive happens to Macbeth as he says the words “signifying nothing“.

Maybe he finds the meaning he needs. Maybe he really doesn’t. Your choice.