“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” (5.5 23-27). This is one of Macbeth’s most famous quotations, and for a good reason. I’d like to analyze this passage because it says a lot not only about life, but about Shakespeare’s continuous theatrical themes and his own views on life and theatre.
When Macbeth speaks these words, it reminds the audience that they are in a theatre watching a play because it mentions a “player” acting “upon the stage.” This idea is reoccurring in Shakespeare’s plays, where he brings theatrical language into the dialogue to remind us that we are watching a performance. Portia, in The Merchant of Venice is “acting” when she dresses as a man and gives a speech to the crowd in the court scene, Sly sits in the back in The Taming of the Shrew and watches the action like an audience member, and many of the kings in the history plays have to put on a type of “mask” to seem brave and in control. All of this directly relates to the theatre itself and the process of putting on a performance.
When Shakespeare writes this, he is not only referring to the triviality of life, but also to plays themselves. He reminds the audience that they are not viewing reality, but merely “a tale/ told by an idiot” which “signif[ies] nothing.” The audience members will leave this theatre and nothing will have been changed in their lives. Maybe they will get something from the performance, but it won’t be much and will maybe even be forgotten in the future. This is a very interesting way to view Shakespeare’s opinion on theatre. He seems to be more interested in the immediate and short-lived emotions that acting gives the audience and not concerned with the long-term impact it would have. Theatre during Shakespeare’s time was all about pure entertainment, rather than giving a message. Even if Shakespeare’s plays end with a clear moral message, who knows how many people it would have reached in the actual audience.