Surely many readers are familiar with these words without even having read Macbeth. This passage has been referenced contemporarily in everything from a Robert Frost poem, to a television series Six Feet Under. This passage certainly has much to say about the brevity of life, how quickly and steadily time passes by, and theater. On the surface, in this passage Macbeth is comparing the suicide and life of Lady Macbeth to a brief candle – the candle has burned for a limited amount of time, supplying light to the life of Macbeth, but has now been extinguished. The first line, “she should have died hereafter” is commenting on how he wishes she had died under different circumstances and in a different time. This can also be interpreted on a much grander scale to signify the delicate fragility of the human condition that throughout life can be easily forgotten. The lines “tomorrow, and tomorrow and tomorrow/creeps in this petty pace from day to day” to me comments on how many people often lose themselves in the promises of “tomorrow”; so often people are wishing for a new day, for school to end, for work to end, for a class to end, that they simply just forget that time itself is creeping rather quickly. Many people find themselves wishing for a never ending stream of tomorrows and simply wish their lives away in the process. Although in the context of the play this passage is usually interpreted much more negatively, I think it can be read inversely as a message to enjoy the present moment, for it will soon be the past.
In the next three lines Macbeth, although in a nihilistic and detached manner, is seemingly in touch with both the past and present. “All our yesterdays have lighted fools/the way to dust death” is signifying that all of these days that have come to pass have done little more than help us to become closer and closer to death. Although the overall tone is completely despairing and hopeless, there is still some good advice here being conveyed by Macbeth about the brevity and fragility of existence. Again, I feel that despite the negative connotations these lines have in the play, this passage can be utilized to enhance the reader’s awareness of how brief one’s life is and how quickly and steadily time passes by.
In the next lines, Macbeth continues with the images of light and darkness first initiated by the candle by comparing life to a walking shadow and a player on a stage which can be interpreted in (at least) two different ways. One being an obvious comparison of how in life all of us are given a mere “hour upon the stage” further elaborating on the idea of how brief and essentially pointless life is. Of course Macbeth is merely an actor on the stage, a “poor player strutting and fretting his hour” as well. This is surely a direct acknowledgement to the audience about the play itself, encouraging the viewer to realize that what they are watching is merely a play. The last lines: “It is a tale/Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury/Signifying nothing.” On one level, Macbeth has surely completed his full descent into complete nihilism and depression, implying that life itself has no purpose at all. Shakespeare also seems to be encouraging the viewer of his plays to realize that even this play is nothing more than a tale. Whether interpreted positively or negatively, literally or figuratively, this passage has much to say about the nature of existence and the human condition.