The opposition of light and dark as symbols for life and death is the foundation upon which much of Shakespeare’s Macbeth is built. In Act V Scene V of Macbeth, strong words covey all of these thoughts to the reader. The tone for Macbeth’s speech is immediately set after hearing of the death of Lady Macbeth. Having lost his queen, and seeing his hopes turn to ashes, the bitter Macbeth now comments on life in caustic words.

“Tomorrow creeps in this petty pace.” The basic feel of this brings a negative connotation to tomorrow. It keeps coming slowly and slyly as if to attack. What exactly does this petty pace refer to? It is the progression of life, as Macbeth now sees it.

This negative and dark imagery continues to grow because tomorrow is unrelenting. “[T]ommorow creeps…To the last syllable of recorded time.” With these dreary remarks, Macbeth presents his hopeless outlook. He feels the only way to end the pain of life is through death. “And all our yesterdays have lighted fools The way to dusty death.”

What can be taken from this is that from our earliest recollection, we are constantly being guided forward from yesterday to our death. If the light is life, then the light just leads us to death. When these lines are read together it enables the reader to see the despair and agony Macbeth is now suffering. The past is pushing him ahead and the future is creeping in on him. He has nowhere in time or space to escape.

Death is the only place left to go. “Out, out brief candle!” Lady Macbeth’s candle has burnt out and soon his will also. Although he talks here about life being light (the candle flame), light is not desirable to him. He wants to extinguish it. Macbeth is at the point in his life where he is now trapped by his fate. The consequences of his actions have caught up with him. This may very well be why he has such a dreary outlook on life.

Life is associated with light but Macbeth is in a state where he sees no significance in having lived. “Life’s but a walking shadow.” Macbeth is saying here that one’s life is dark and dreary, and that the light of life only serves to cast a dark shadow. “ [A] poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage And then is heard no more.” A person lives his life like a bad actor. He only gets one chance on the stage, and he does a terrible job. “Struts and Frets his hour,” says that everyone overdramatizes events.

Life according to Macbeth is like this and it ends…. “Signifying nothing.” We can easily distinguish between what is life and what is death in the world of Macbeth through the interpretation of light/dark imagery. Towards the end of this play, however, it becomes difficult for me to relate to the character because he presents ideas in the direct opposite of what I generally associate with life and death.

His feelings at this dismal point are that life is pain and he presents life with the imagery of darkness. The general connotation of death is one of darkness and sorrow. However, he now views it as an escape or an end to the darkness, possibly light.

This reversal of the light and dark imagery Shakespeare uses causes me to have to stretch to relate to the character. By reaching to try and relate to Macbeth’s agony, I see how Darkness/Evil blinded Macbeth, and when he was no longer blinded, it was too late. The use of light and dark imagery brings a heavy tone to this play.

Although the traditional values of light for life and dark for death are used by Macbeth, as he starts to see that neither life nor death holds any meaning for him, the light becomes darker ( a shadow) and the opposition becomes weaker. His struggle for life ends and he starts to see life and death as a single tone of darkness.

We feel his strong emotions, the heaviness of his heart and his sense of despair as he expresses that everything has lost it’s light.

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William Anderson (Schoolworkhelper Editorial Team)
William completed his Bachelor of Science and Master of Arts in 2013. He current serves as a lecturer, tutor and freelance writer. In his spare time, he enjoys reading, walking his dog and parasailing. Article last reviewed: 2022 | St. Rosemary Institution © 2010-2024 | Creative Commons 4.0

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