Again scene juxtaposition is crucial. 5.4 demonstrated how Malcolm and his forces were threatening Macbeth’s castle, and, importantly, fulfilling one of the prophecies. 5.5 begins with Macbeth’s defiance, his bravery, perhaps his hubris, as he proclaims “Our castle’s strength / Will laugh a siege to scorn,” etc. This is an almost constant technique of Shakespeare’s–look at this, now compare that this–a very practical approach to dramaturgy. That established, Shakespeare moves on to some character development as Macbeth’s hears the off-stage cry of some women. He comments: “The time has been my senses would have cooled / 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 supped full with horrors, / Direness, familiar to my slaughterous thoughts / Cannot once start me.” Here is evidence of both how far Macbeth has changed from what he was originally and of his own self awareness. Self-insight is another crucial factor in tragedy and in the audience’s perception of the central tragic figure. That is intensified by the news of Lady Macbeth’s death; this, interestingly, takes place off-stage, and therefore does not shift the focus and intensity from Macbeth. Rather, Shakespeare’s concern is with Macbeth’s reaction to his wife’s death, a reaction that is sincere and moving, and results in another of the play’s famous speeches:
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 on the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Even if an audience doesn’t understand absolutely everything here, the overall import carries a tremendous impact. What is also significant is Shakespeare’s use of theatrical imagery at this high point of the drama. The actor playing Macbeth reminds the audience that he is indeed an actor, and everything an actor does on stage is transient and impermanent. It reminds us that the actor is not the thing itself, but only an illusion (albeit real for the length of the performance). But then so is so much of life itself. This meta-theatrical allusion captures exactly what it’s all about. (It is also one of Shakespeare’s favourite ploys, yet a natural one considering that the theatre was indeed his profession. Just as an artist has particular tools of his trade, so does the dramatist).
The scene is then rounded out by an illusion becoming reality–news of Birnam wood apparently moving.
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