Tomorrow and…

There are a handful of speeches in Macbeth that I want to hit before our time together comes to a close (I know, we’ve got a month to go, but for some reason today*–as I write this–I feel like there simply will not be enough time). And since there’s no day like today to begin, let’s begin with “tomorrow”…

As we near the conclusion of the play, Macbeth learns of the death of his wife and responds,

She should have died hereafter.
There would have been a time for such a word.
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.
  • V.v.17-28

If you focus too much on the word “should” in that opening line, it makes the line harsh, as if she should have died next, just not right now, in the midst of war preparation. But I don’t think that’s the intention. Yes, we all die. But she should have died in the future. The line is a short one, only three feet long. That huge pause at the end of this sentence for me indicates that it’s the “hereafter” that we should think about. In the time to come. That sort of poignancy, I think is supported by scansion of the line, which I feel is kicked off not by an iamb, or a spondee (either of which puts stress on that “should”), but rather a trochee.

/ ~ ~ / ~ / ~

She should have died hereafter.

This puts the focus on his wife, and the time to come. That sense of temporal concern continues in the next line, in which “time” itself is the stressed syllable in third iamb. The poignancy, too, is in the scansion: that first foot is an iamb, which puts the stress on the word “would” (this is the case even for a spondee; and I think there’s no way this first foot is a trochee, putting the stress on “there”): “a conditional or undecided desire or intention” (“would, n.; a.” Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford University Press, June 2016. Web. 19 June 2016.), something for the future.

~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ /

There would have been a time for such a word.

The fully iambic line ends with “word,” a word for which there would have been “a time” (not “time,” mind you). The he doesn’t want to just put off her death–and I think he’s talking about the word “died”–he wants it to be put off until its appointed time. This sense of a future time is carried through the famed next line, perfectly iambic save for the feminine ending, that extra unstressed syllable at the end of the line, which allows it to perfectly run on into the next line, which begins with a first-syllable stressed trochee. The repetition of “tomorrow” serves two purposes: it creates the cycle of language, the time that passes day after day; it also begins a series of verbal repetitions (which we’ve seen before in the play) that continues into the next line with repeated sounds “petty pace” and the repeated words “day to day.” These repeated sounds continue to cycle through time like a ticking clock, with perfect iambs (four of which complete this line), a metrical perfection broken by the two spondees that open the next line (though it could be argued that first foot is trochee), which also wonderfully, ironically, elides the last two syllables of the word “syllable” itself.

/ ~ ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ /

Creeps in this petty pace from day to day

/ / / / -~- / ~ / ~ /

To the last syllable of recorded time,

The line slows with the heavy stresses, but then rushes through a polysyllabic word, calling attention to the language and the concept of “recorded time”… and a record, a remembrance, is a kind of doubling. It’s as if this line is the one that slows him down, gives him pause, makes him realize what has happened. The next line and a half takes the poetic concept of multiple tomorrows and juxtaposes it with “yesterdays,” which create a light for fools. The darkness of his world without her is implied. The poetry also returns the rhythms to iambs, ending the sentence again with consonance (“dusty death”). The next sentence (in this same line after a caesura, or pause) kicks off with two consecutive spondees again, using monosyllabic words until the feminine ending of the line. This slows him down. Now he is giving pause to the line, not the other way around. With “Out, out, brief candle!” that light for fools has been extinguished, and he is broken:

~ / ~ / ~ / || / / / / ~

The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
/ ~ ~ / ~ / ~ ~ / / ~

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player

and what follows is trochee, iamb, trochee, caesura, iamb, trochee. The broken rhythms of a broken man. A man who sees his existence as a shadow in an already dark world, as an actor playing the part of a real man.

Ironically, he may be broken, but not bowed. The next line–save for the two-syllable “hour” elided into one–is iambic, and filled with repeated sounds (“struts and frets”; and “struts…stage”), which continues what was started the line before (“poor player”); this sentence ends with a spondee “no more.” Even the story, the life of the player, comes to an end. The last sentence of the speech, after an initial trochee, is relatively iambic, save for two elisions and a feminine ending, thus returning him to poetic regularity, normality. If the player is but a shadow, its playwright is no better, a mere “idiot” (but not even a full one, as the three syllable word is elided to two syllables in the line). The sentence and speech ends abruptly with “nothing,” before the end of its line. The pause at the end allows us to take this all in, to internalize it. It’s also a chance for the actor to take a breath, a half-line pause, before he must go back to his war-like preparation, one that will lead to the end, to the negation of many.

The respite is done.

* I’m writing this (or at least the first draft of it) on Sunday, Father’s Day, the first without mine.

3 thoughts on “Tomorrow and…”

  1. Very strong analysis of this speech’s rhythm & sound patterns. I think your argument for an opening trochee is very persuasive.

    A remarkable thing about this speech is how Lady Macbeth, its ostensible trigger, disappears (strictly speaking) after the original “She”. But oh, how she haunts it! Images like “brief candle” and “walking shadow” are bound to recall to the audience Lady Macbeth’s last (& final) appearance in her sleepwalking scene—making her a stand-in for the wandering, blathering extended figure central to this speech.

    Since the ghost of Banquo withdrew from the banquet scene, Macbeth has been steeling himself mentally to put on the warrior’s armor again. A growing insensitivity about his character is inevitable. Just before the speech Macbeth has noted how noises that once would have frightened him don’t anymore. The women’s wails do nothing to deter him from his predetermined course—except for engendering this remarkable speech. As you noted, Macbeth can’t even repeat the idea of “died” with respect to his wife: the indirect expression “such a word” has to serve. I have always found it touching that this soldier & general cannot speak directly of his wife’s death. The distance between the Macbeths, widening since the king’s murder, is now final & fixed. But that aspect of the speech can be lost in performance: Macbeth has to turn immediately (as you note) to the final battle.

    And what a contrast between Macduff’s & Macbeth’s reactions to their wives’ deaths! Macduff has to be told several times his wife is dead, & still he appears disbelieving. Macbeth feels the truth of his wife’s death right away: her conduct has foretold it.

    1. Jim,

      LOVE what you’ve brought to the discussion. I did “feel” he couldn’t say repeat the word “died” but I couldn’t verbalize it myself until you said it. And brief candle? Damn, how did I miss that???

      The contrast between the Macduffs and the Macbeths is striking; what does that tell us about their relationship. We know the Macbeths were very close: “my dearest partner of greatness” is what Macbeth calls his lady. Macduff doesn’t seem to have much problem with a quick separation from his.

      Great stuff, Jim.