Detailed Summary of Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 5:


Page Index:
  • Enter Macbeth, Seyton, and Soldiers, with drum and colours.
    —Macbeth expresses his defiance of the forces marching against him, then hears a cry of women and receives the news of his wife's death.
  • Enter a Messenger.
    —A messenger reports that Birnam woods is coming to Dunsinane; Macbeth goes out to meet his fate.

  • Enter Macbeth, Seyton, and Soldiers, with drum and colours:
    At Dunsinane, the royal castle that was King Duncan's and is now Macbeth's, we see Macbeth preparing for battle. He calls out, "Hang out our banners on the outward walls. / The cry is still 'They come!'" (5.5.1-2). The banners are meant to show his enemies that he will not surrender. The "cry" is either what the soldiers should say when they see the enemy, or the message that Macbeth has heard so often that he is sick of it. Then Macbeth proceeds to deliver a pep talk, directed at Seyton, the soldiers, and -- most of all -- himself. He says that the castle "Will laugh a siege to scorn" (5.5.3), and he predicts that his enemies will starve and sicken in front of Dunsinane's walls. Then he adds, "Were they not forced [reinforced] with those that should be ours, / We might have met them dareful [boldly], beard to beard, / And beat them backward home" (5.5.5-7). By "those that should be ours" Macbeth means all the Scottish thanes who have gone over to the other side, including Angus, Lennox, Ross, and Macduff. As we will see, however, his own soldiers will go over to the other side as soon as they have a chance, making the siege very short.

    Macbeth's boasting is interrupted by "A cry of women within" (5.5.7, s.d.). While Seyton goes to investigate the noise, Macbeth congratulates himself on his own savageness, saying, "I have almost forgot the taste of fears" (5.5.9). There was a time, he says, when such a shriek in the night would have given him the chills and when a story of horror would have made his hair stand on end. But now, "I have supp'd full with horrors; / Direness, familiar to my slaughterous thoughts, / Cannot once start [scare] me" (5.5.13-15).

    Seyton returns and tells Macbeth, "The queen, my lord, is dead" (5.5.16). That's the whole message. Seyton doesn't say how or why she died, and Macbeth doesn't ask. In a show of callousness, he says he doesn't have time for her: "She should have died hereafter; / There would have been a time for such a word" (5.5.17-18). Thus begins the most famous passage in the play. The rest of the speech is despair masquerading as stoicism:
    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.     (5.5.19-28)
    At the first "to-morrow" it sounds like he's thinking that he will have time to grieve for his wife tomorrow, but if that was his first thought, it quickly changes. He knows that we can live just one day at a time, but he doesn't believe in the modern cliché that says "today is the first day of the rest of your life." He sees things the other way around. Each tomorrow is the last day of all our yesterdays, and Macbeth has spent all of his yesterdays killing people. To use another cliché, what goes around, comes around. His wife is dead, and he may well be next. But he can face it. He tells the candle of life to go ahead and flicker out. It doesn't matter, because nothing matters. Life is only a part we play. We "strut and fret" as though we have accomplished something or have something important to worry about, but we're soon forgotten. But even that doesn't matter, because life is "a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing."

    Enter a Messenger:
    As Macbeth reaches the dead end of his dead-end philosophy, a messenger enters with urgent news. "I look'd toward Birnam, and anon, methought, / The wood began to move." At this, Macbeth roars, "Liar and slave!" (5.5.33-34), but his anger doesn't deter the messenger. Macbeth threatens to hang the messenger if he's lying, but then his mood changes, and he says that if the messenger is telling the truth he wouldn't mind being hung himself. He has begun "To doubt the equivocation of the fiend / That lies like truth" (5.5.43-44). He sees that if the wood is indeed moving, he's in a hopeless situation, but there's nothing for him to do except fight on. As the scene ends he says, "I gin [begin] to be aweary of the sun, / And wish the estate o' the world were now undone. / Ring the alarum-bell! Blow, wind! come, wrack! / At least we'll die with harness [armor] on our back" (5.5.49-52). The rising and the setting of the sun are part of the "estate o' the world," which is the set of general rules and principles by which the world works. Macbeth is tired of all that and wants it "undone" because it allows him no hope. In the "estate o' the world" murderous Macbeth must surely die. His only consolation is that he can die fighting, in his armor.