I’m having trouble keeping up with my updates. Every day seems to bring me some kind new angle about
Today I read Samuel Johnson’s 1745 commentary about the play. He explains to his enlightenment
audience how the obviously silly supernatural stuff was part of Shakespeare’s culture,
and should be excused, even praised for the way it “holds the mirror” up to Shakespeare’s era.
He makes a few other points, then ends with a commentary, his translation, of the “Tomorrow and tomorrow
and tomorrow” soliloquy.
Now, just in case you’re not obsessed with the play the way I am, I should remind you of a few things
about the story. Macbeth – unsatisfied with being a war hero and getting a huge new domain --
murders the king who advanced him in order to improve Macbeth’s future. Once he has the crown,
he’s still unsatisfied. He wants the throne for his heirs, the little Macbeths of tomorrow
(he has no children, but still obsesses on this). And he’s heard predictions that his best
friend’s son will be king someday. So he murders his best friend. The kid gets away and Macbeth’s
still unsatisfied. Macbeth wants to know if his tomorrows are now secure, and jeopardizes his soul
by getting prophecies from hell that seem to say he’ll be fine forever. He acts on these prophecies
and becomes a terrorist tyrant. He thinks he’s buying safe, glorious, and happy tomorrows by doing cruel,
hideous things today. The outcome is despair.
When we hear Macbeth saying the words of the “tomorrow” speech late in the play, we’re hearing
the nihilism is of a man who has just come to the bleak realization that he’s blown his whole
life for the sake of a future that will never come.
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
Dr. Johnson’s recaps the ideas of the speech in this prose translation.
“We always think tomorrow will be happier than today, but tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow steals
over us unenjoyed and unregarded, and we still linger in the same expectation to the moment
appointed for our end. All these days which have thus passed away have sent multitudes of
fools to the grave, who were engrossed by the same dream of future felicity, and when life
was departing from them, they were, like me, reckoning on tomorrow.”
Something about this helped that part of the story click for me. For all his evil deeds, Macbeth
is still sympathetic and I think part of it is that he’s suckered by a motivation that tempts us all.
I love this. Getting another degree of understanding on my current project from a guy who’s been
dead since 1784.