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Sep 11, 2023

A Macbeth Soliloquy

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Crider Scott

Scott F. Crider

University of Dallas

Scott F. Crider has published extensively on the works of William Shakespeare and maintains the English Renaissance as one of his major research interests.

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A Macbeth Soliloquy

As William Shakespeare Wrote It and as Denzel Washington Performed It

Three Witches Mac Beth By James Henry Nixon British Museum 1831

The three witches deliver a prophecy to Macbeth (at right), James Henry Nixon, 1831

“To thine own self be true,” you have no doubt heard someone say: Shakespearean tags circulate in the culture, usually attributed to “the Bard,” to feather a speaker’s nest with the only source of allusion still presumed to be universally recognized. But these tags come contextless, and they often mislead; after all, the speaker of the above in Hamlet is Polonius, offering his son advice upon parting, and it is difficult to know if the old toady and fool has a self to be true to. So, too, with Shakespearean soliloquies: when the text comes without the context of a whole scene or play, and unmoored from its fictive place, it often misleads. Perhaps nowhere is this as much the case as in Macbeth, in the usurping king’s soliloquy upon learning of his wife’s death. The nihilism of these lines is often taken as the Bard’s wisdom about life, which it most definitely is not. “Life… is a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury / signifying nothing.”1 That is not Shakespearean wisdom; that is a character’s unwisdom resulting from his tragic decision to become a murderer. Allow me to examine the soliloquy, both in its textual context of the entire play and in its new context of Denzel Washington’s magnificent performance of it in Joel Coen’s 2021 black-and-white film The Tragedy of Macbeth.

Macbeth—who has conferred with the family doctor about Lady Macbeth’s state, the consequence of their crime having destroyed her mental health—learns of her death from his chief servant and officer, Seyton. Macbeth’s first two lines may be in reply to Seyton (“She should have died hereafter; / There would have been time for such a word” [5.5.15–16]) or they may be the beginning of the soliloquy or—and it is a possibility—the whole text may be spoken to Seyton, since the text itself offers no exit for him until the end of the scene. Be that as it may, the famous soliloquy is spoken by a character who has just learned of his wife’s death at the end of a play-long arc of moral degradation, from his hesitation in act 1 in murdering Duncan to his dispatch in act 4 in ordering Macduff’s wife and children butchered.

In writing his plays, Shakespeare makes use of poetics, an art he learned both at school in Stratford and in his lifelong learning there and in London. Shakespeareans, both those in the academy and those in the theater, continue to study that art to this day. Its vocabulary can be daunting, but one need know fewer terms than one might fear, and knowing the art, even in a simplified form, is helpful for reading, understanding, performing, and experiencing Shakespeare. I will try to demonstrate its usefulness in the following analysis of the text of Macbeth’s soliloquy—and of Washington’s performance of it.

The soliloquy:

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. (5.5.17–26)2

Though we may read it sentence by sentence, let’s not forget that, since this is poetry, the poetic meter requires a line-by-line reading as well.3 Iambic pentameter, Shakespeare’s default rhythm, is a poetic line defined by five two-syllable “feet” of unstressed-stressed rhythm (the foot called an iamb), a rhythm on occasion varied by a trochee (stressed-unstressed), a spondee (stressed-stressed), or a pyrrhic (unstressed-unstressed) foot. The poetic line and the sentence are different units—one of sound and one of sense, as is said. The first sentence is in the coordinating style, wherein Shakespeare has Macbeth join two independent clauses with the coordinate conjunction “and.” The first clause’s subject is “tomorrow,” and its personified verb is “creeps.” The lineation and metrical substitutions provide subtle but important emphases for the reader and actor (syllables in bold are stressed; un-bolded ones, unstressed. The slash (/) indicates a line break; a greater-than sign (>) indicates enjambment, when one keeps delivering onto the next line because it is not an end-stopped line; and a double slash (//) indicates a caesura, a cut or pause in the line):

Tomor/row, and / tomor/row, and / tomorrow,
Creeps in / this pet/ty pace // from day / to day >
To the / last syl/lable of / recorded time

The subject, “tomorrow,” is repeated and articulated with “ands” in an almost wholly regular line—but for the extra syllable at the line’s end (common in Shakespearean verse)—whose repetitions, syntax, and meter imitate the dull repetition of time’s progress.4 The metrical substitution that opens the next line—“Creeps in” (a trochee for an iamb)—indicates some kind of reversal, here an upending of tempo since the regular meter and coordination of the prior line are now transposed and given sinister character: “Creeps in this petty pace from day to day.” “Petty pace” is nice alliteration, but I am fascinated by the demonstrative adjective “this,” with which we can hear Macbeth’s living inside the pace of time he describes, only to have the enjambment after “day” and the pyrrhic of “To the” rush us toward the end of time and that ultimate spondee: “last syl/lable of / recor/ded time.” The qualification of time as “recorded” is brilliant, especially when combined with a buried metaphor of time as metered language (since recorded time here has syllables). The end is the last syllable of a record.

The second clause of our sentence then looks back at that record, reversing the perspective, wherein every tomorrow adds up to yesterdays:

And all / our yes/terdays / have ligh/ted fools >
The way / to dus/ty death.

The wholly regular rhythm frames the regularity of the opening line, the enjambment moves us from dust to dust (Shakespeare is always biblical), and two metaphors complete the mood: (1) A day is a light, offering a person guidance from darkness to darkness through darkness; (2) that person is now a fool—not the wise fool of King Lear but the “fool” of the insulting Shakespearean disjunct of “fool” or “knave.” The dental sounds of “dusty death” have our fool eating dirt.

The next, short predication—“Out, out, / brief candle”—brings the earlier verb, “have lighted,” to the surface, since that light is now explicitly a candle. As Macbeth calls for an end to the speed of life, Shakespeare slows down the pace of the actor’s line by giving him four consecutively stressed syllables—a challenge to deliver—and the extra, unstressed syllable of “candle” is a mimetic moment of sound, as if imitating the candle going out.

The next sentence varies the coordination with a subtle form of subordination:

The next sentence varies the coordination with a subtle form of subordination:

Life’s but / a walk/ing sha/dow, // a / poor player >
That struts / and frets / his hour / upon / the stage
And then / is heard / no more.

Main Image

William Shakespeare, John Chester Buttre, 1856

Now we move into an allegory, life as “a walking shadow,” the adjective “walking” picking up the metaphor of “pace,” and “shadow” picking up that of “have lighted,” since lighting the way with a candle leaves the candle holder partially in the shadows. The rephrasing for shadow, though—“a poor player / That struts and frets his hour upon the stage / And then is heard no more”—gives us a relative clause modifying “player” and recalls Jaques’s Seven Ages metaphor in As You Like It: “All the world’s a stage, / And all the men and women merely players” (5.7.139–40). This recasts our person as fool into our person as poor player whose hour on the stage—not even the full two hours of a play—is merely so much strutting and fretting, without the purpose of Jaques’s age-appropriate roles, let alone the still calm of Prospero’s “insubstantial pageant faded” in The Tempest (4.1.155).

And just in case we have missed the pitch of Macbeth’s despair, Shakespeare closes the soliloquy with a new allegory for life:

                            It is / a tale >
Told by / an i/diot, // full / of sound / and fury,
Signi/fying / nothing.

It is only a tale told by an idiot—literally, a lone person—so a tale told to no one, whose sound of fretting and fury of strutting mean nothing: the wholly trochaic close—“Signi/fying / nothing”—extinguishes whatever little hope might have existed in the iambic progress of “tomorrows.” The idiot might very well be a reference to God, now a solitary storyteller whose human characters are finite and meaningless. Given that Macbeth had, during his tragic arc, continually called upon a Christian “life to come” (1.7.7), his view may represent not only nihilism but also divinely imposed nihilism. Since the Word made flesh is God’s “tale” in the Christian metanarrative, Macbeth is unmaking not only himself and his kingdom but also his God and His universe. The apocalypse will be followed by… God’s solitude, the idiot. Macbeth thinks God is as lonely as he is.

Macbeth articulates his vision of ultimate meaninglessness upon learning of his wife’s death, the result of their tragic ambition. This is not Shakespearean wisdom, so it should not be tossed off with an “as-the-Bard-says.” As Clark and Mason put it, this soliloquy “is dramatic language at its most expressive, which brilliantly creates the effect of Macbeth’s subjectivity at work during a moment of emotional crisis.”5 Not, then, “as-the-Bard-says” but “as-Macbeth-says-at-the-end.” The soliloquy is the utterance of a character who has undone himself, his marriage, his kingdom, and his disposition toward the universe through a tragic error he knew was such when he committed it (see act 1, scene 7). That is the wisdom of this play and Shakespeare’s corpus: our thoughts, speech, and actions make or unmake us and those around us.


Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand in “The Tragedy of Macbeth” (film, 2021)

Perhaps, now that Joel Coen has made a popular film of The Tragedy of Macbeth and cast superstar Denzel Washington as Macbeth,6 we will no longer hear Macbeth’s lines delivered as Shakespearean proposition. One of the most interesting features of some of this Macbeth’s soliloquys is that they are delivered in motion: Washington’s Macbeth often walks when he speaks to himself. Coen underscores the context of this soliloquy by having Macbeth observe his wife’s dead body as he descends the stairs in her direction. As Coen films it in scene 75, “a tiny figure is sprawled near the bottom of the stair—headfirst down.”7

In his fine essay, “Shakespeare Noir,” James Shapiro notes how Coen has transformed a rather random Lord Ross into a major influence on the action, including strongly suggesting that he murdered Lady Macbeth!8 The screenplay is almost melodramatic about it:

BACK TO ROSS slowly climbing the stair, studying Lady Macbeth [who is standing on the top landing]. People are fleeing the castle but take no notice of them. CLOSE on Lady Macbeth, eyes open but seemingly unaware, as Ross reaches the landing. They are now alone. He looks at her unseeing eyes then slowly walks around her never taking his eyes off of her.

In the actual filmed version, he does not reach the landing.

Be that as it may, Washington’s Macbeth delivers the soliloquy to his wife’s corpse as he descends the stairs, a reminder not only of the consequence of their tragic decisions but also of the end of their marriage, destroyed by those decisions. Macbeth is, among other things, a tragedy of marriage. The soliloquy is not Macbeth’s recognition of a general human truth of life; it is his articulation of a specific truth of the life and death he and his wife tragically made.

Washington’s delivery is masterful, and leaving aside various divergences from my suggested readings above, three elements of the filmed play emphasize the context of the soliloquy: (1) Joel Coen cuts to Lady Macbeth’s dead body as Macbeth delivers the soliloquy, descending (not all cuts are indicated in the screenplay, so I assume this one was added in the editing phase); (2) Washington’s fatigued phrasings; and (3) his pauses in delivery and motion, including leaning against the staircase wall twice as he descends the stairs. Motion through space influences delivery through time, all within a cinematic space-time in a film that is spare and barely locatable. This is a Macbeth neither natural nor stagey but quintessentially filmic. And although I am concentrating on but one moment, the entire film is a triumph of Shakespearean cinema.

The film cuts to Lady Macbeth’s dead body two times in scene 75: first, after Macbeth says, “She should have died hereafter”; next, after he says, “Out, out, brief candle.” These two cuts remind us, during the soliloquy itself, that his words are a response to his situation—a husband suppressing his grief at his wife’s death, a death he must acknowledge as partially his responsibility, if life signifies anything at all.

As he descends, his phrasing is fatigued yet syntactically alert. At first, I thought the fatigue of Washington’s Macbeth had him slipping syntactically since he pauses at a strange moment during line 20: “To the last [pause] syllable of recorded time.” Breaking the adjective from its noun, “last” from “syllable,” is unusual. But doing so gives us a Macbeth who, while meditating on last things, pauses before inventing his metaphor of language as time. Both invention and delivery are fatigued yet precise.

That phrasing comes right before his second pause at a landing, the first having occurred at the top of the stairs, at the beginning of the soliloquy: “And all our yesterdays have lighted fools / The way to dusty death”; he stops at the landing, even reaching up with his hand to steady himself; “Out, out, brief candle.” Those pauses—simple but suggestive actions—strongly imply that Macbeth is recognizing his tragic error. During the whole of the soliloquy, he watches his wife, now gone. It is an exquisite performance of the attempted suppression of emotion, which often attends grief. In his delivery, Washington gives us the character’s pretense of a nihilism that makes such grief meaningless and therefore bearable. Yet hers was the death, and his the grief, of evacuated souls in a tragic marriage.

At this point, we may be in danger of ignoring another important context in a moment of premature universalism, wherein one moves to the level of general human nature before having accounted for all the significant contingencies expressing that nature. That other important context is race. Washington is, obviously, black. His performance in Coen’s film is, in general terms, remarkable—perhaps his greatest in a long career of intelligent, perceptive, and energetic performances—but in racial terms, this remarkable performance, taken with a number of Coen’s own artistic decisions, offers a new Macbeth, one like none before. Even if rare, it’s not the first time a black actor has played Macbeth. But this Macbeth is Denzel Washington, and in the soliloquy and the film, he makes the role and play his own.

The interpretive question of what to do with race and gender in Shakespearean productions is a pressing question today as theater and film companies try to diversify their casts (and companies): Does one cast actors of color for traditionally white roles, or female actors for traditionally male ones (or vice versa), while ignoring the contemporary valence of the casting, or does one cast them while attending to it? The Globe in London tends to follow the first path: Anjana Vasan’s East Asian Cordelia played daughter to Kevin McNally’s white Lear in its 2017 production of King Lear, for example, and I don’t think anyone noticed much. Helen Mirren’s Prospera in Julie Taymor’s 2010 film adaptation of The Tempest made the play a mother’s play, not a father’s, and part of its power was how that changed the play and how we experienced it. Sometimes it doesn’t matter; sometimes it does. In The Tragedy of Macbeth, Denzel Washington’s blackness matters, perhaps more than it did when he played Don Pedro in Kenneth Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing (1993), although even there, the Don’s disappointed love played differently when, if I remember correctly, he was the only black member of the major cast.9

How does Washington’s blackness play in Coen’s film? Shapiro does not quite know what to do with the racial makeup of the cast: as he admits, “I was left puzzled by the movie’s seemingly colorblind casting.” The Macduff family is cast as black; so too, obviously, is Macbeth. All the other principal characters, including of course Frances McDormand’s Lady Macbeth, are white. Scottish play, indeed! I certainly do not want to claim I know what Coen intended, but I do think I have identified one effect of this casting, an effect made all the more poignant in the soliloquy I have been discussing.

Washington’s Macbeth is in a racially mixed marriage, unlike Corey Hawkins’s Macduff and Moses Ingram’s Lady Macduff (and their children), all of whom are black. This does not look like colorblind casting to me. Macbeth has married white; Macduff has not. That the Macbeths’ marriage—in the film underscored as a genuine and emotionally rich one—is interracial means that the play cannot help but resonate with Othello, and with the anxiety interracial marriages apparently still arouse, sadly. This Macbeth rises socially accompanied by a white spouse. That the Macduffs are black means that Macbeth’s final opponent has maintained his blackness, at least in his children, in a way that Macbeth has not. When Macduff decapitates Macbeth, the scene plays very differently than it would have had Macduff been played by a white actor. The play’s usurper is black, and so too is its agent of justice. Interestingly, the henchmen sent by Macbeth to kill the Macduff family are played by one black actor and one white, so Coen has gone to great lengths to make sure only one black character (Macduff’s son) is killed on screen by a white one, in a brief but obscene moment indicative of Macbeth’s now absolute depravity. Of course, the film’s saving of Fleance through the machinations of Ross reminds us that Banquo’s white line will rule in the end. And it is a white Malcolm (played by Harry Melling) who governs at play’s end. That final black-on-black violence in the play has a white frame. This is a black-and-white Macbeth in black and white.

And since Alex Hassell’s Ross is everywhere in the film a conspirator moving major events, often silent and motiveless, he plays a Coen brothers type: the clever sociopath who is close to omnipresent and omniscient. This Ross is more frightening than the witches. Contrasted with Washington’s sympathetic performance as Macbeth, Hassell’s icy Ross reminds us that Washington’s Macbeth is no sociopath; instead, he is a tragic hero, both distinctly black and universally human, a type still all too rare on the screen. Ross’s sociopathic violence is colored white; both Macduff’s righteous violence and Macbeth’s errant violence—both tragic since neither can save his family (it is too late)—are colored black.

So, in the soliloquy of this text message, our black tragic hero descends a staircase while denying any significance to his thought, speech, and action, even though we know all three have undone his soul, his marriage, his kingdom, and perhaps his world. We should fear and pity that undoing, during this moment of Shakespearean catharsis, while remaining cognizant of the context of the play itself and its performance by one of America’s greatest Shakespeareans, an actor whose particulars are not being effaced in theatrical passing but being folded into a shared humanity, here inflected by the subtle, timely presence of race. That is a text message delivered anew.