One of the most remarkable aspects of the "tomorrow" speech in Act 5, scene 5
is the efficiency with which the passage manages not only to effectively present a plurality
of contrasting themes and ideas
, but also to unify this presentation into an eloquent whole
. At the same time that this speech is busy dazzling its audience with the variety and the complexity of its subject matter, it is also attempting both to offer a pleasing arrangement of sound
and to convince that very same audience that it isn't attempting to do anything other than present one simple, singular idea
, when this is obviously far from the case. In truth, Shakespeare works very hard within this passage to maximize the performance of his language
, both as a means to present diversity and richness of concept
and a series of audible sounds that are assembled to comprise the music of human speech
. For this reason, many complicated, overlapping systems are simultaneously at work within the "tomorrow" speech, each doing a different task but ultimately working towards the shared goal of unifying the passage for delivery to an audience member's ear
When Macbeth's "tomorrow" speech is delivered, an audience member receives three distinctly complicated items within the course of a mere twelve lines: first, a rather curt response to the news of Lady Macbeth
's suicide (lines 17-18), then a brief meditation upon both the passage of time and the inevitability of death (lines 19-23), and finally, the consideration of stage drama as a possible metaphor for life (lines 24-28). Shakespeare, however, manages to weave just enough similarity of concept
through each of these distinct portions of the speech that he can successfully blend these three unique sections together into one efficiently unified whole and still preserve their identifying characteristics.
Lines 17 and 18, for instance, succeed on their own as a fairly flat reaction to the news that Seyton
brings of Lady Macbeth's death, but they, rather subconsciously, also raise issues of time, of place, and of language, issues that will be explored and complicated throughout most of the remaining speech. When an audience listens to Macbeth's character announce that "hereafter
/ There would have been time
for such a word
" (lines 17-18, emphasis mine), they are compelled to understand this as meaning that "later
/ Is the appropriate place
for such news
." What they hear, however, is something entirely different. The word "hereafter", which - since it begins with another word, "here" - sounds as though it should be used to describe a physical location
, is being used as a synonym for "later", a description of time
. One's sense of the temporal
, therefore, is being subtly confused with his or her understanding of the spatial
. Likewise, when an audience member hears the word "time
" in the next line, he or she expects that it will be discussed in the abstract
, as time usually is. Shakespeare, however, uses it to mean something both immediate
; in his speech, Macbeth employs "time" in almost exactly the same way that one would use the word "box" in "there should have been a box for such an object," as a physical container for some imagined object. The physical is thus further confused with the spatial. Finally, Shakespeare uses "word" in this line, which an audience would, again, expect to mean something abstract, to signify a concrete item: the news of Lady Macbeth's suicide.
All of this works to suggest - and, again, only to suggest - strange conceptions of time, of place, and of language to the alert audience member's mind. They are therefore prepared, when presented with the image of "tomorrow / Creeping
in this petty pace from day to day / to the last syllable of recorded time" in lines 19-21, to successfully understand what would otherwise appear as total nonsense
. That an abstract concept such as "tomorrow" could possibly "creep", that it could do so in a "pace" rather than in a concrete physical location, that this same "pace" could be measured "from day to day" in the same way that a city is measured in miles, that "recorded time" would similarly be measured in "syllables" rather than minutes
- all of these paradoxes
the audience has been conditioned to accept from the first few lines of the speech onward, and all of which it assumes to be perfectly logical. This same audience is likewise prepared to accept that, like these “tomorrows”, “yesterdays” could “light fools the way to dusty death” (lines 22-23) in the same way that, say, a “match” could “light firecrackers the way to explosion.” A parallel relationship is therefore created between “yesterdays” and “tomorrow”, two antithetical concepts, and to the casual ear, it appears as though Macbeth has described the whole of “recorded time” within one sentence.
Thus are audience members’ expectations of time, of place, and of language all casually - but effectively -misdirected by the time that they are presented with the final metaphor of Macbeth’s speech
, the idea that life and the stage are equatable
. This is necessary, because in order for a playgoer to accept this metaphor with the amount of emphasis that Shakespeare is hoping to attach to it, he or she must both be thinking about life in terms of time
, and language
- three concepts that one usually associates with a stage play - and also have definitions of these same ideas that are flexible enough for Shakespeare to play with
. When the audience hears that “Life’s but...a poor player / That struts and frets his hour upon the stage / And then is heard no more” (lines 24-26), it is equipped by the previous designs of the speech to do several things at once. First, from the positioning of these lines this late in the speech, an audience member is prepared to accept that Macbeth
, who has spent most of his speech considering mortality, can collapse the sum of a human lifespan into terms that befit even the most tangential of dramatic characters
. Secondly, he or she is subtly coerced into letting Macbeth do so purely in terms of space, time, and location
, all of which have been solidly established by this point as the terms of his particular speech. Finally, and most importantly, he or she is willing to assume that Macbeth’s equation of life with a giant play makes perfect logical sense
. That all of human experience could be so absurdly reduced that it becomes “a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury / Signifying nothing” (lines 26-28) is a conclusion that this speech must necessarily come to, since the power of this statement comes, in fact, from this same absurd reduction, and is a deduction that is only possible for the audience to accept after they have been worked upon by the previous elements of the speech.
If Shakespeare works rigorously to make all of the concepts of this passage palatable to his audience, he works equally hard to make sure that the music of his words’ sound is equally pleasing. The “tomorrow” speech not only succeeds as a brief meditation upon death, but also scans like great poetry, and even if one did not understand a word of the English language, he or she would most likely still find this speech pleasant to listen to. This is because there are not only patterns at work
in the speech which are thematic
, but also many which are poetic
as well, and are therefore designed to enhance the act of listening to words as units of sound
rather than as signifiers of meaning
There are many places, for instance, where alliterative
device can be located within this speech. In fact, the first two words that Macbeth speaks, “she” and “should” (both line 17) form a brief and immediate repetition of sound that is pleasant to the human ear. Similar examples can be found in line 20 with “petty pace” and “day to day”, line 22 with “and all”, line 23 with “dusty death”, line 24 with “poor player”, and line 25 with “his hour.” Arguably, the entirety of line 19, with its triplicate repetition of the word “tomorrow” has alliterative qualities, but it is pleasing to the ear not just because it repeats an initial sound, but because it replicates all of the sounds across an entire word.
There are also many places where Shakespeare’s control of sound within a line is much more subtle. In the first line of Macbeth’s speech, for example, the word “have”, with its combination of “h” and “v” sounds, matches up with “hereafter”, which appears two words later and also reflects these same sounds. Similarly, “would” in line 18 shares “w” and “d” sounds with “word”, which closes the line; the “p” sound that concludes “creeps” in line 20 prepares the listener for the alliterative “petty pace”; the “to the last” clause of line 21 thrice repeats the “t” sound that will be picked up by that line’s concluding word, “time”; “last syllable”, also from line 21, repeats both “l” and “s” sounds; the “struts” and “frets” of line 25 share a concluding “ts” sound; “fools” in line 22 echoes the double “s” sound of “yesterdays”; “told” and “idiot” in line 27 both share “t” and “d” sounds; both “full” and “fury”, also from line 27, share an initial “fu” sound; and both “signifying” and “nothing”, the last two words of the speech, share a concluding “ing” sound.
Shakespeare also stretches similar sounds across multiple lines in this speech. For instance, “should have”, which spans across the second and third syllable of the first line of Macbeth’s speech both rhymes and matches up with “would have”, which likewise spans the second and third syllables of the next line, in a manner both wholly unexpected and very satisfying. Similarly, the “t” and “m” sounds of “time” in line 19 prepare the alert ear of an audience member for the triple repetition of those same sounds in the “tomorrows” of the next line; the “life” which begins line 24 echoes the “f” sound of “brief”, which comes two words earlier, in line 23; the alliteration of “tale” and “told” stretches across lines 26 and 27; and finally, the consecutive “s”, “n”, and “f” sounds of “struts and frets” matches up alongside those same sounds in “sound and fury”, two lines later.
Shakespeare therefore goes to great effort to make Macbeth’s speech pleasing to the ear
as well as to the mind
. By carefully controlling not only the sounds
within his text but also the meaning
behind those uttered noises, he provides an overarching unity to Macbeth’s speech as a whole. Multiple patterns, both of meaning and of sound, independently run through the course of the “tomorrow” speech, but each has the same ultimate effect: presenting to an audience member’s ear something that is both interesting and enjoyable.