Macbeth by William Shakespeare

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By the self-conscious programme of gratuitous violence and murder he undertakes, Macbeth hopes not just to secure his position as King of Scotland, but also to inure himself to the horrors that haunt his imagination. Taken off stage for the rest of Act IV (as is Shakespeare’s universal practice with his tragic protagonists), he returns in Act V, Scene iii as the hardened, tyrannical brute he, earlier, willed himself to become. In his new state of mind, he boasts that no imagined horror can disturb him any longer:

I have almost forgot the taste of fears.
The time has been, my senses would have cool’d
To hear a night-shriek; and my fell of hair
Would at a dismal treatise rouse, and stir,
As life were in’t. I have supp’d full with horrors:
Direness, familiar to my slaughterous thoughts,
Cannot once start me. (V.v.9-15)


The difference between this Macbeth and the Macbeth of Acts I to IV is every bit as marked as the change seen in Hamlet after his own absence from the stage. This is a Macbeth who has apparently succeeded in killing his imagination – and his heart – stone dead. In doing so, however, he has killed everything, and lost everything, that made his life worth living. When he first heard the witches’ prophecy, he felt, in his first soliloquy, like a great hero in a play or pageant of glory:

Two truths are told,
As happy prologues to the swelling act
Of the imperial theme. (I.iii.127-9)


A little later in the same speech from Act I appears the ‘horrid image’ that ‘doth unfix [his] hair’ (135) – the very idea he returns to here, in Act V, referring to his ‘fell of hair’ stirring ‘As life were in’t’ (V.v.11-13). In his most famous speech – beginning ‘Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow’ – which follows in the text five lines later, the rich imaginative vision of ‘the swelling act’ and ‘the imperial theme’ has become empty, hollow and utterly meaningless:

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. (V.v.24-8)


Macbeth ends his appalling and profoundly tragic career, despising and rejecting once and for all the world of the imagination that formerly compelled him and, in many ways, controlled him.

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William Shakespeare