Wednesday, 30 April 2014

What is Macbeth Saying in the 'Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow' Speech?

Is tomorrow another day, or a petty pace that
creeps from day to day?
"Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,/Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,/To the last syllable of recorded time..."

One of Shakespeare's most famous speeches, the 'Tomorrow' soliloquy comes from act 5, scene 5, of the play, and, although there are another three scenes, in many ways Macbeth's melancholy musing marks the end or, at the very least, the beginning of the end.

We tend to think of 'tomorrow' as a concept that brings hope - "After all, tomorrow is another day," Scarlett O'Hara quite rightly tells us. For Macbeth, however, 'tomorrow', and another day, is simply a monotonous, futile crawl toward an inescapable end.

Context of Macbeth's Tomorrow, and Tomorrow Speech

Despite being known as the 'tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow' speech, those words don't actually come until the third line of the soliloquy. 

The Macbeths have a loving relationship at the beginning
of the play, but Macbeth's reaction to her death is
pretty emotionless
The speech begins with Macbeth's response to the news of his wife’s suicide, which is rather muted and almost indifferent.

This is, obviously, a far cry from the affectionate relationship the pair shared at the beginning of the play, and, I think, tells us something about the complete lack of emotion Macbeth is able to feel about...well, anything.

And it's worth bearing in mind Macbeth’s mental state at this point in the play. We start to see his sanity unravel even before the murder of Duncan, “A dagger of the mind, a false creation,/Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain?” (II,i). But by act 5, insomnia and increasing paranoia are really starting to take their toll.

What's Macbeth Talking About?

A poor player that struts and frets his hour upon
the stage and then is heard no more
So, we know the speech takes place directly after Lady Macbeth's plummet to her death. And the soliloquy suggests Macbeth is suddenly struck by a very clear recognition of the fragility, and ephemeral nature, of human existence.

In other words, it's his 'all the world's a stage' moment.

Macbeth’s speech is an extremely depressing view of not just human mortality, but also what we leave behind. And what we leave behind is, essentially, nothing.

His assertion that, "Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,/That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,/And then is heard no more." (V,v) suggests he now believes his efforts to become king have been in vain. The temporary nature of existence will ensure that his memory dies with him.

He goes on to say, "It is a tale/Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,/Signifying nothing."(V,v). In other words, life, as far as he's concerned, has no real lasting meaning. No matter what we struggle to achieve, and no matter how hard we work, it's all gone when we're gone. Thoroughly depressing stuff!

And, of course, for Macbeth this possibly has more truth, simply because he has no heir. 

With Malcolm and Macduff storming the castle, his reign is precarious, and no one is there to take the helm or even to avenge him. He's done some terrible things; sacrificed his morals and his sanity..and for what? A short spell on the throne, which will evaporate with his death.

How is Shakespeare's Tomorrow, and Tomorrow Speech Written

So, we've looked at where the speech comes in the play and what Macbeth is saying. How about the form Shakespeare wrote it in, and how does that affect the impact, and our understanding, of Macbeth's words?

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

Well, the speech is written in iambic pentameter, with lines one, three, seven and nine having a feminine ending (eleven beats instead of ten). It is probably no coincidence that Shakespeare chose to use the same poetic technique in Hamlet’s 'To be or not to be' speech - an equally uplifting little number! 

What that steady rhythm does is provide an accentuation of Macbeth’s feeling of hopelessness, and the seemingly pointless passing of 'tomorrows'. See it in action below, with a stellar performance from Patrick Stewart in the 2010 televised version of the 2007 stage adaptation, directed by Rupert Goold. 

It feels like we're being led to inexorable end; a little like the drums that might accompany a march to the scaffold. That regular beat, coupled with the repetition of the word 'tomorrow', gives us a sense of the incessant march of time, which leads to that, 'last syllable' and, ultimately, death...or nothing.

To learn more about Macbeth, check out What's It All About, Shakespeare? A Guide to Macbeth.


  1. Replies
    1. Thank you!... I assume you mean the good kind of 'sick', rather than the unpleasant kind of 'sick'. ; )

  2. When quoting the tomorrow speech, are slashes (/) used the same in regular pentameter?

    1. Hi there,

      The / is just used to denote the line breaks. It's not an essential way of quoting Shakespeare's (or any other) verse by any stretch. And, of course, if, when you quote, you write it in the original line format, it's entirely unnecessary.

      Hope that answers your question.

  3. thanks for the post, it helped a lot :)

    1. Hi, Souvik. I appreciate you taking the time to let me know it was useful to you. I'm very pleased to hear it. Thanks!

  4. It's is an outstanding analysis! Thank you!

    1. Thank you for taking the time to leave your very kind comment. I appreciate it.

  5. Wow. This is the most extensive and in depth analysis of Macbeth's final soliloquy I could find anywhere. It really helped a lot! Happy New Year!

    1. Thank you very much. I'm glad it was handy to you. Happy New Year to you, too. Hope 2017 is a good one for you.

  6. What is the theme,tone,mood and diction used in this interesting poem?

    1. Please see post above for answers to most of your questions. Thanks.

  7. I think it's really important to recognize that this speech expresses how Macbeth feels about life at the time - hopeless. Some people seem to think it's so profound, it must be 'true'! Actually it's an irrational rant by someone whose pretty ill. If life's a tale told by an idiot, at least the idiot was alive when he told it! Anyway, wasn't it Lady Macbeth's ambitions that got this pathetic but psychopathic man into all this trouble? The speech is also ironic, because the legacy of her life, far from signify nothing, was about to bring Macbeth's to its end and change the course of British history!

    1. Hello Tony,

      Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts. You're absolutely right about the hopelessness of the speech, that is exactly what Macbeth is expressing. At this stage in the play, he's slipped into a pretty deep depression with all the hopelessness that goes along with it, but something snaps him out of it a little later and he's ready to believe himself invisible again.

      You're also right that Macbeth is someone who's very unwell - he's been hallucinating since before he murdered Duncan, after all. But I'd argue that far from being an irrational rant, this is his first lucid period for quite some time. He is taking a cold, hard look at everything he's done and saying, "What the hell was it all for?"

      The "idiot" line, for me, is expressing the foolishness of attributing importance to an individual life. And it strikes me that he's basically calling himself an idiot; he had such grandiose ideas about his existence...and when you get right down to it, he's life and his reign is pretty insignificant.

      I personally wouldn't say it was Lady Macbeth that got him into this trouble. He was thinking about killing his way to the top after his very first meeting with the witches, not a great deal of prompting was needed. I'm not denying that his wife strengthened his resolve when it weakened, but she didn't put any ideas in his head. And she certainly didn't encourage him to keep on killing; the sea of blood after Duncan's murder is exclusively Macbeth's creation.

      From my interpretation, Macbeth isn't talking about Lady Macbeth here. He doesn't seem too distressed by her suicide and once we get beyond the first two lines, I think he's just talking about himself. He is something of a narcissist - that's what the witches are able to prey upon. And, unlike you, I don't read too much irony in the speech, because in terms of what he craved - respect and adulation - it did all amount to nothing. He sold his soul for something that was illusory.

      And the truth is neither the fictional, nor the real, Macbeth did a great deal to alter Scottish (or British) history. In fact, if it weren't for Shakespeare, I think Macbeth would have slipped quietly into the footnotes of history and we'd never have heard of him. Of course, the actual Macbeth might have mixed feelings about that, because he doesn't come off well in the play, and by all accounts he wasn't the tyrant portrayed in the play...but that's showbiz, I guess.

  8. Nice website. Helped a lot with my school hw

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