Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow..

Gearing up for another stint in Swindon for the STFC Astronomy Grants Panel this week, I was trying to think of an appropriate theme for a blog post. The following short soliloquy from Macbeth somehow came up in a conversation in the pub last week, so I thought I’d post it here.

We actually “did” Macbeth at school and I was lucky enough to be cast in the best part, Lady Macbeth. No jokes please. I went to an all-boys school and, anyway, in Shakespeare’s time all the female roles were actually played by boys. I still remember quite a lot of the speeches I learned then, including all of Lady Macbeth’s famous Act I soliloquy The raven himself is hoarse. I’ll keep that for another post, so that no compunctious visitings of nature distract me from reading grant applications.

The speech below is remarkable for two things, I think. One is that it’s where one of the central themes of the play is laid bare: the numbing of the moral sense. Lady Macbeth has just died, but Macbeth himself seems no longer to care. He’s indifferent to everything around him, as the events that his ambitions have set in motion carry him to his ultimate doom. The incessant, mechanical rhythm of the verse accentuates this sense of inevitability.

The other thing is that, with the exception of some passages from Hamlet, this short excerpt has a higher density of familiar phrases than just about anything else in Shakespeare. Titles of novels and TV programmes figure prominently throughout the text but somehow it has survived all that borrowing without any diminution of its dramatic effect.

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
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.

It’s almost as if the immortal bard himself knew what it was like to have to travel to Swindon over and over again…


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8 Responses to “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow..”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    Yes, that’s where Alistair MacLean, my favourite author as a young teenager, got his book title “The way to dusty death” (though his talent had, sadly, largely been wrecked by the bottle by that stage).

    John Laurie, the magnificently gloomy Scottish undertaker Fraser in Dad’s Army, was reckoned to have been the 20th century ‘s greatest MacBeth.

    When did women start playing women on stage?

    • telescoper Says:

      About 1660, I think. Theatres were closed down in 1642 by the Puritans, but when they were opened again by Charles II, women were allowed to act for the first time. Nell Gwynn (Charles II’s mistress) was an actress, in fact.

    • It’s also the source of the title of the Star Trek episode “All Our Yesterdays”. And of Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury.

      Amazing how familiar many phrases in that passage are.

      Reminds me of the joke where a Shakespeare buff convinces a sceptical friend to come to a performance. Afterwards, the latter says “I don’t understand all the fascination with this Shakespeare. Where is the art in taking several well known quotes and stringing them together with a bit of plot?”

      The sentiment expressed in the passage quoted above was echoed not as beautifully but more succinctly by Steven Tyler in an interview with Mojo: “Deep and meaningless”.

    • Dave Carter Says:

      Wikipaedia reckons that women played female roles in later Roman theatre (though not Greek). No idea whether its true.

  2. I’m still waiting for a scientific paper in blank verse. Tegmark managed a poetic abstract: http://arxiv.org/abs/astro-ph/9610094

  3. telescoper Says:

    There was a Granada TV series called All Our Yesterdays, which featured bits of old newsreel footage.

  4. Thanks for this. We had to learn it at school. I only got 9.5/10 😦

  5. […] with the play, having studied it at school, so it was a big disappointment to find Macbeth’s great soliloquy after the death of Lady Macbeth chopped to only a couple of lines. The same is the case with Lady […]

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