A Murderer Laments
Instead of reading “The Wheels on the Bus” to the kindergarteners yesterday and teaching them the song that goes with it, I decided to give them something with more heft and depth from the Bard’s pithy smithy. I settled on the “Out, out, brief candle” speech from “Macbeth.” The lecture I gave owes heavily to Colin McGinn’s treatment in his excellent book, “Shakespeare’s Philosophy.” Since I no longer have the book handy, I’ll try not to plagiarize him too egregiously. Feel free to pick it up and read it yourself, as I can only claim to be McGinn’s epigone when it comes to analyzing Shakespeare, and his treatment of the plays is delightfully spot-on.
So without further ado, here’s the analysis I regaled my cherubic charges with yesterday.
Hello, boys and girls! How are you today? It’s cold outside, isn’t it? Yeah. But at least it’s nice and warm in here, and I’ve got a half a cup of instant coffee mixed with sugar and fake dehydrated milk to warm me up even more. Today I’m going to read you a scene from Shakespeare’s “Macbeth.” Let me set the stage for you. Macbeth, a man who has plotted and murdered his way to becoming the King of Scotland, and is getting ready to fight the last battle of his life, has just learned the news from his page, Seyton (pronounced “Satan”) that: “The queen, my Lord, is dead.”
“She should have died hereafter:
There would have been a time for such a word.
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,
We’re not going to sing today, children, so just relax. You don’t have to stand up. This isn’t church. A little later we’ll draw in our “Shakespearean Tragedy” coloring books, but right now I’d like you to think about time. Yes, time. You see, that’s the thing Macbeth doesn’t have enough of, and he realizes it from early on in the play. When the three witches known as the Weird Sisters promise him that he’ll be king, he can only rejoice so much. They also tell him that his friend Banquo’s children will be kings, since Macbeth has no children of his own to take over for him after he croaks.
Macbeth knows you can’t get something for nothing in this world, so after inviting benevolent King Duncan to his castle, at Lady Macbeth’s behest, he murders him in his sleep. The first murder is hard for Macbeth to take (even though at the beginning of the play, whose first scene involves the re-telling of a battle General Macbeth has just fought in, we’re told by a bit player that Macbeth “unseamed” his foe “from the nave to the chops”–in other words, slicing him open from his bellybutton to his chin with a sword that “smoked with bloody execution.” In a more martial context, violently dispatching another man is no big deal).
His conscience plagues him, though not enough to prevent him from hiring two men to track down and do in Banquo and his son Fleance. They manage to stab the former to death, but the latter flees, much to Macbeth’s vexation. He then sees Banquo’s ghost sitting at the table where Macbeth is having a banquet and the host goes nuts before his guests.
Egged on by his wife, he says, “I have a strange infirmity, which is nothing/To those that know me,” just in case they write him off as an acid casualty.
An interesting thing happens around the middle of the play, shortly after this scene transpires: Macbeth’s conscience evaporates. Lady Macbeth, who seemed much more suited to the art of cold-blooded murder before they conspired to shed Duncan’s innocent blood and blame it on his kinsmen, suddenly develops a pang that manifests itself in the need to act out washing her hands while walking in her sleep–an ineffective gesture, needless to say.
After hearing of her death (how it comes about we’re not informed), Macbeth is able to voice his despair with full-throated woe. He’s beyond the possibility of the salvation a guilty conscience might bring, but his insight into life’s futility is striking in its eloquence. The funny thing is that while recognizing the monotonous nature of time as we experience it (“Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,/Creeps in this petty pace. . .”), he likewise sees that, in accordance with the cliche, life is also undeniably too short.
As Oxford University professor Colin McGinn so brilliantly points out in his book “Shakespeare’s Philosophy,” whereas a lot of what’s commonly regarded as “Shakespearean Wisdom” is limited to the mind of the character voicing the sentiment, and not necessarily the playwright’s view (to wit: Hamlet’s oft-quoted, “Nothing is good or bad, but thinking makes it so”–a nice motto for a solipsistic psychopath to have), the author himself may be speaking to us directly in the lines: “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player/That struts and frets his hour upon the stage/And then is heard no more.”
An actor himself, Shakespeare knew how it felt to perform on stage. Whether he was a great actor or a “poor player” is anyone’s guess; who knows? He could have been as ligneous as Chuck Norris. In a separate chapter from the one on “Macbeth,” McGinn suggests that what prevents Hamlet from being able to “act,” in the sense of “be decisive,” is that he can only follow through in the presence of an audience.
Macbeth, clearly, is less unwilling to act (although his imagination torments him all the way, at least in the first half of the play, his “valiant” antics in the field of battle notwithstanding). And yet, he too is painfully aware of how false we all are, dressed in our finery or make-up, “strutting” like roosters, “fretting” in our more private moments when we can remove our masks and breathe more freely, despite anxiety’s fever.
King Lear, deprived of his kingdom and the role that goes with it, now a homeless vagabond, asks of another character, “What’s unaccommodated man but a poor, bare, forked animal?”
What makes Macbeth’s speech resonate is its uncompromising tone; all too often we don’t get a second chance to come up with a zinger, or to say those kind words that might have repaired an irrevocably lost friendship, or refrain from blurting out how pretty our date looks, so that she instantly loses interest in us because she’s heard it too many times before from too many different guys.
Life is a dress-rehearsal for an absurd play written by an absent-minded hack in the glow of a faulty lighter in a cold apartment with noisy neighbors and dogs that keep barking and a combative spouse and cheap ballpoint pens that quickly run out of ink.
So, are you kids ready to do some drawing? You’re going to use a lot of red, okay? Let’s go!