Monday, April 19, 2010



Macbeth's "tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow" speech.  It's the second most famous speech in Shakespeare, and is often quoted out of context as a song of despair.  But how does it fit into the broader view of the character and the story?

Some read it as a final glimmer of humanity in a man degraded by showers of blood.  Others say it's a brutish thug's stupid attempt at being profound.  Ian McKellen apparently said the most important word is "and." (Which is cool, but doesn't help much.) What do you say? Any thoughts would be appreciated.


In drama, tragedy happens to people who do terrible violence and who discover they have the capacity to realize profoundly and objectively their responsibility for it.  A play can be a tragedy when the extremes of suffering that people inflict on one another are dramatized against a culturally deep belief in the possibility of human greatness.

I do believe that Macbeth is tragedy and not melodrama; or that it embraces the stuff of melodrama to reveal tragedy in it.  Which implies a central character capable of tragedy.  I think Macbeth has the capacity for greatness, for profound insight into his own character and the situation he has created.  Can a small person be tragic?

Thug he may be.  What hand-to-hand combat life-and-death soldier isn’t part thug?  And Macbeth is a great soldier.  A man of muscle and strength.  He can wield a broadsword mightily.  His feet are planted on the ground firmly, he’s balanced, ready to take direct physical action.  The kind of man who could truly muscle his way through any situation.  A man of courage in the face of steel and mud and death, who has the ability to summon adrenalin beyond what the rest of us can imagine.  Manliness.  Honor.  Virtue.
Thuggery raised to emblematic patriotic heights of masculinity and valor.

This is the Macbeth that Laurence Olivier was thinking of when, learning that the slight, gentle actor Maurice Evans was going to play Macbeth, he said:  “That cockney faggot!  Macbeth’s balls are made of brass!”

Early in the play the witches offer the brass-balled soldier who has imagined himself king of his country signs that perhaps the cosmos agrees with him.  In response, his poetic language is pretty Anglo-Saxonly prosaic:

…Stars, hide your fires,
Let not light see my black and deep desires;
The eye wink at the hand; yet let that be
Which the eye fears, when it is done, to see.

His language indicates, I think, that the witches’ prophecies have reached only the thug; they haven’t gone deep, haven’t yet struck his greater self.  His words could almost be Lady Macbeth speaking, as she does in the very next scene, both of them expressing essentially the same two thoughts in simple elemental earthy language:

...Come, thick night
And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell,
That my keen knife see not the wound it makes,
Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark
To cry “Hold, hold!”

...What thou wouldst highly,
That wouldst thou holily; wouldst not play false,
And yet wouldst wrongly win. Thou’ldst have, great Glamis,
That which cries, “Thus thou must do,” if thou have it;
And that which rather thou dost fear to do
Than wishest should be undone.

That night there’s a celebration at Inverness and Duncan is toasting Macbeth and the crowd is cheering him as a great soldier of Scotland and Duncan claps him on the back, etc., until finally he has to flee the room to clear his head and think.  He has to have a talk with his inner thug.

His thinking goes something like this: 
If we lived in a cosmos in which we could murder the king without repercussion, then I’d do it in a heartbeat.  If the universe didn’t bend irrevocably toward justice….
But it does.  What goes around comes around.  And we’ll get bit on the ass. 

These ordinary ideas cast into the great poetry that Macbeth speaks to the heavens are thus transformed into profound thinking, a grave weighing of dire consequence, all of which proceeds from profound depths of character.

 If it were done, when 'tis done, then 'twere well
It were done quickly. If th’assassination
Could trammel up the consequence, and catch
With his surcease, success; that but this blow
Might be the be-all and the end-all—here,
But here, upon this bank and shoal of time,
We’ld jump the life to come.  But in these cases
We still have judgment here, that we but teach
Bloody instructions, which, being taught, return
To plague th’inventor.

The end of this speech manifests a deeper capacity for profound thinking in him than we have yet seen as it also extends his awareness into the farthest reaches of the heavens.  Here he reveals a mind and heart that sense his individual actions reverberating in the greater cosmos.

...Besides, this Duncan
Has born his faculties so meek, hath been
So clear in his great office, that his virtues
Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued, against
The deep damnation of his taking off;
And pity, like a naked new-born babe,
Striding the blast, or heaven’s cherubin, hors’d
Upon the sightless couriers of the air,
Shall blow the horrid deed in every eye,
That tears shall drown the wind.

The ideas that Macbeth vocalizes with this language will stay with him and will link directly to the great realization he makes in his “Tomorrow and tomorrow and…” moment.

Sublime dramatic poetry from a character in a play is a direct reveal of the multitude of responses during that moment which are referred to as "subtext"—all that is happening to a person that is not spoken, all that goes unvocalized.  The greater the poetry in a dramatic situation, the less subtext within the speaking character--the less that could be said--as poetry is language that speaks the not-directly-communicable. Dramatic poetry is subtext given voice.
The character who generates great poetry has profound and inexpressible-by-prose depths of humanity that poetry is the vocal manifestation of.

In today’s world, tragedy may no longer be possible because we no longer believe in greatness of human character.  Instead of tragic irony we get cynicism or narrow skepticism, however hard-edged they might be.  For today’s culture, then, it’s possible to make Macbeth solely a thug.  You have only to reduce the poetry he speaks to literal straightforward unresonant thuggish prose—and you can do that without changing any of the words.  The poetry I’m referring to is found in the voice as the extension of human depths and not in the literal words (see the preceding post). 
Eliminate poetry and you eliminate greatness of character.  But, eliminate poetry and you also eliminate meaning, for the meaning of dramatic poetry is in the poetry not in the words.  Eliminate the dramatic poetry of this speech and you can get a thug.  Give the poetry its full vocal expression and you discover greatness of mind, depth of passion and concern, HUMAN DECENCY. 
And, therefore, tragedy of character. 
(As a footnote, I might add that to create this truly the actor must have similar greatness of mind and depth of passion and concern. Otherwise, it's likely to become false emotional pyrotechnics without substance, which actually is as meaningless as the thuggishly prosaic delivery is.
Footnote to footnote:  An actor's greatness of mind and depth of passion and concern are not guarantees against pyrotechnics without substance.)

By the end of this sublime dramatic poetic wrestle with his inner thug, Macbeth chooses not to go through with the murder.  The decent honorable man wins out. 

Until Lady Macbeth, who has been sitting in the big party room practically reading Macbeth’s mind out here in the hall, comes out and throws every idea of masculinity and manhood and honor at him.  Do you know when you were most manly?  When you said you’d do it.  It’s the right thing to do and the cosmos has even provided the right opportunity by bringing Duncan into this house.  And by the way, husband of mine, speaking of balls:  You swore to me you’d do this.  And if I had sworn to it, even if what I had sworn to was to bash in the skull of our only child, I would follow through with it.
And with it all, there's a directness in her eyes, a slight smile tugging at the corners of her mouth, a hand touching his chest--all saying to him:  You are magnificent.  You are worthy.  If not you, then who?
What’s a thug to do?

Later that evening Macbeth, the soldier who can with a sense of right and honor unseam his enemy combatant on the battlefield from the nave to the chops with a broadsword gripped in both hands, now stands alone in an anteroom of his castle, the vision of a dagger pointing him up the back stairs to stab Duncan in secret, in shadow, without honor, without manliness. 
And so to I have done the deed.

By the time he gets to where he is for the “tomorrow and tomorrow and…” moment, he is
…in blood
Stepp’d in so far that, should I wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as go o’er.

way of life
Is fal’n into the sear, the yellow leaf,
And that which should accompany old age,
As honor, love, obedience, troops of friends,
I must not look to have; but in their stead,
Curses, not loud but deep, mouth-honor, breath,
Which the poor heart would fain deny, and dare not.

And in the immediate moment, trusting the only thing he has left—the witches and their prophecy--he has put on armor and is ready to strike out to the battle field.

Your phrase “final glimmer of humanity” suggests that he has lost his humanity.  If he has, there is no tragedy, just pathetic degradation.  But he hasn’t lost it.  What’s tragic is to see that deep human decency stifled, repressed, mangled, as he gets sucked in by the equivocations of the witches.  (Equivocation:  Language containing the possibility of two opposing interpretations in one statement—usually meant to deceive.)  The play is steeped in situations rife with mutually exclusive opposites existing side by side within the same reality, starting with practically the very first words of the play—Fair is foul, and foul is fair

Naturally, like the rest of us, Macbeth hears loudest whatever encourages his deepest wishes.  We all know what it’s like to want something so bad that we begin to read the signs of it in everything around us.  And when we see enough signs, who hasn’t decided to steel his spine and do something at least questionable if not plainly unethical because the ends were so clearly justified?  Because our better angels are surely urging us on?  The ick factor will last only a brief time, right?

Macbeth knows that Lady M is coming apart, that his bloody deeds are undoing her.  So when he hears the women scream, something in him knows what’s happened, even as he asks. 
And he’s ready for it:

She should have died hereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word.

Here starkly presented is the culminating moment of two leitmotifs that have run through the play: Time and Death.

One of the things that people who live by equivocation do is find reasons to resist seeing where all this is leading.  To take action now so as to create the future that the cosmos seems to have in mind without regard for possible negative consequences. To jump the life to come. 
And this is the moment when it all catches up to Macbeth. 
The Queen, my Lord, is dead.

What comes next is poetry of great tragic realization.  Not mental anguish, not intellectual fabrication.  But profound realization of how the whole course of a life has come to this moment and what little it all has meant.

McKellen is right:

Day after day, one day following another, though never today, like one bead after another and another on a string--
To MOR row AND to MOR row AND to MOR row

The long plodding rhythmic beats reinforced by the P and D alliterations continue the image--
Creeeeps IN this PET ty PACE from DAY to DAY

Almost visibly before him time stretches on endlessly, even to the crack of doom.
To the LAST SYLlable OF reCORded TIIIIME.

One lived day following another and where does it all lead?
And AAALL our YESterDAYS have LIGHTed [think your name here to create the image of] FOOLS
The WAY to DUSty DEATH.  Ouuut OOUUUUUTTT [remember Lady M’s  “Ouut, damn’d spot! ouuut, I say!” as futilely, frantically, she rubs her hands] brieeeef CANdle. 
I love that the same sound occurs both in Creeps and Brief: Sustain (and intensify) the E in “creeEEps” to create the interminable and slow march of days, then sustain (and intensify) the E in “brieEEEf” to create the horror of the swift passing of a life.
Each day you live takes forever and the years go whizzing by.  And what does it all add up to?  A tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing.

I’ve sometimes thought that Macbeth is the tragedy of being out of sync.  The Macbeths have capacities for making a good king and queen.  But it’s just not their time; the occasion simply won’t permit it, what with the rules of succession and such.  But then the demonic world assures him that he will be king.  And we all know that God helps those who help themselves, right?
What’s a thug and his lady to do?

To the very end Macbeth lives by his bargains with the Equivocator Supreme.  What else does he have to cling to?
*Nothing bad can happen until Birnan Wood comes to Dunsinane.
*Fear No man of woman born.
Both the Decent Man and the Thug have become victims of the Duped Believer.

But at least he chooses to go out the thug warrior he has always been.

It doesn’t seem stupid in any way at all to me.  Nor pathetic. 
It seems a tragic waste.

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