Summary and Analysis
Now fully armed, Macbeth confidently turns all his scorn on the advancing armies, only to find his brave rhetoric interrupted by an offstage shriek. The queen is dead — whether by her own hand is not made clear — and Macbeth is left to contemplate a lonely future of endless tomorrows "signifying nothing." Yet another blow comes with the announcement that Birnam Wood appears to have uprooted itself and is even now advancing towards Dunsinane. Again Macbeth recalls the prophecies of Act IV, sure of, but still wishing to deny, their powerful truth.
This scene, like Scene 3, starts with a bold imperative: "Hang out our banners on the outward walls." Macbeth's speech is warlike and defiant, his strength mirrored in that of the castle and men who surround him; his curse on the enemy vivid and graphic in its use of metaphor: "Here let them lie / Till famine and the ague (disease) eat them up . . . " (3-5). But the curse is empty rhetoric: In his play Troilus and Cressida, written two or three years earlier, Shakespeare had written that man's ambitious appetite for power, once it has preyed on everything in its path, can eat up only itself. Power-seeking tyrants tend toward self-destruction; if this curse falls on anyone, it's likely to be the curser.
At this point, Macbeth hears a heart-stopping scream. While a servant is dispatched to find the cause, Macbeth confesses in a brief soliloquy that such noises no longer have the power to frighten him. The audience recalls other noises: the owl-shriek that Lady Macbeth heard during Duncan's murder; the voice that Macbeth heard crying "Macbeth shall sleep no more!" and the fateful knocking at the door, all in Act II, Scene 2. But in a phrase that calls to mind the banquet scene (Act III, Scene 4), Macbeth admits that he has "supp'd full with horrors" and that his familiarity with slaughter means that such sounds can no longer amaze him.
The report of Lady Macbeth's death perhaps comes as no surprise, either to Macbeth or to Shakespeare's audience. The word "hereafter" recalls the "hereafter" of the Witches' first prophecy; their "hereafter" was the future that Macbeth was to inherit as king. But the word also refers, ironically, to the heavenly "hereafter," which Macbeth seems intent on denying for himself. In the hands of a sensitive actor or director, this exact word is what triggers the poetic outpouring on the nature of Time, which follows it.
The famous lines "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow" have a resigned, almost wistful tone to them, occasioned not only by the death of his wife but also by Macbeth's entire loss of purpose. Although there is perhaps an underlying bitterness at lost opportunity in the words "petty," "fools," "frets" and "idiot," for a man who has received such desperate news, this is not a desperate speech. In fact, compared with some of Macbeth's earlier "set pieces," its rhetoric is controlled, its metaphors precise: Time is like a path to "dusty death," and our lives are as "brief" as a candle. We are like shadows, or actors, on the stage of life. Again, the question occurs, as it did in Act I, Scene 7: How can a man who is capable of such poetic thought act as he does?
Macbeth's musings on this topic are cut dead by still another message, which reports what the audience already knows, the fulfillment of the second prophecy, the movement of the woods. Once again, Macbeth's response is both angry and reflective: "I . . . begin to doubt th'equivocation of the fiend — / That lies like truth . . . " (42-44).
To the servant, he must hotly deny the truth he has been told — to keep his public appearance and satisfy his own doubt — but he must also secretly accept the truth of the prophecy, even if logic persuades him that a moving wood is a lie. It is an understandably human reaction to such a paradoxical problem that Macbeth admits that he is literally stuck — "There is no flying hence, nor tarrying here" (48) — or, in his words from Act III, Scene 4, "Returning were as tedious as go o'er." On a psychological as well as a military level, Macbeth can neither move forward nor backward, neither advance nor retreat.
In this case, and with his gaze firmly fixed on the universe as a whole, Macbeth can only call, like King Lear, on the elements themselves: "Come wind, blow wrack!" he cries. It is the bold cry of a hopeless man.
ague (4) disease
forc'd (5) reinforced
fell of hair (11) the hair on my flesh
treatise (12) tale
sooth (40) truthfully
estate of things (40) the physical frame of the universe