Of the handful of uber-famous speeches in Macbeth, the one that most often quoted is the “Tomorrow, and tomorrow” speech. There’s certainly a lot of pathos to chew on, and myriad ways to perform it (famously, Ian McKellan reportedly told Patrick Stewart to focus on the ‘and’s). Often taken as an existential lament, it’s usually recited with a bitterly sorrowful intonation.
Having played the role for one theatre or another every year for the last 17 years, I can tell you that’s not wrong. But it’s not right either. It loses context. And, like my rather unusual take on the Capulet-Montague feud, I have an unorthodox idea about this speech.
I saw the first hint at it in the summer of 2001 while playing the Thane of Ross at First Folio Shakespeare. That fall I played Mac for them on tour, opposite my wife, Janice L Blixt, and we discussed the idea at length. But we didn’t explore the notion until we played the parts for A Crew Of Patches in the fall of 2003. Our director, the late and loved Page Hearn, allowed us to play, and what we found we’ve made use of ever since.
To start, a little context:
1) The first communication between Macbeth and his Lady is a letter — the letter, in fact, in which he tells her about the witches and their prophecy.
2) After the murder of Duncan, the Macbeths begin to drift apart. He kills the grooms without consulting her and cuts her out of the murder of Banquo entirely. The process is solidified by the end of the banquet scene, after which they never speak again. He can’t sleep and she is stuck in a dreamstate, sleepwalking and reliving the horror of the night of Duncan’s murder.
3) During the sleepwalking scene (“Out, out, damn spot!”), before Lady M enters, the Doctor and the Gentlewoman have this exchange:
I have two nights watched with you, but can perceive
no truth in your report. When was it she last walked?
Since his majesty went into the field, I have seen
her rise from her bed, throw her night-gown upon
her, unlock her closet, take forth paper, fold it,
write upon’t, read it, afterwards seal it, and again
return to bed; yet all this while in a most fast sleep.
4) When Seaton enters to tell Mac that his wife is dead, Mac’s response is “She should have died hereafter; There would have been time for such a word.” (Emphasis mine).
5) Within the Tomorrow speech itself, there seem to be two distinct parts. The first has multi-syllable words and soft consonants and vowel sounds, whereas the second contains mainly one syllable words full of plosive sounds — as though originating from two minds. The speech seems to be divided thus:
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,
It was my wife Janice L Blixt (now the Artistic Director of the Michigan Shakespeare Festival) who pointed to the conversation between the gentlewoman and the doctor, bringing to my attention that we had already heard that Lady Mac was frantically writing in her sleep. She also pointed out the change in style in the Tomorrow speech.
Her analysis, combined with my initial conception of mirrored communication, made a strong case for the playing of one of Shakespeare’s most famous speeches as one part letter, one part realization.
Our thesis, then, in brief: The first half of “Tomorrow, and tomorrow” is Lady Macbeth’s suicide note.
Imagine this — Seaton enters after the blood-curdling cry offstage. The king says, “Wherefore was that cry?” In reply, Seaton holds out a blood-stained bit of paper with mad scribblings of writing all over it. The seal on it tells us that it is the same letter that Mac sent in the first scene, but it has been written over and over, in corners and on edges, until it is covered with words.
Seaton says, “The queen, my lord, is dead.”
Macbeth takes the letter from Seaton and waves him off. Looking at the paper, he says, “She should have died hereafter; there would have been time for such a word.” Then, squinting, he begins to read, trying to make sense out of the squiggles and shapes written by a sleepwalker in despair. He then responds with “Out, out, brief candle!”, starting his lament about the futility and meaningless nature of life.
We like this idea for two reasons. First, it mirrors their first communication in the play, where she reads aloud a letter from him describing the witches’ prophecy. Second, it grants them a final moment of connection, allowing Mac to realize how far they’ve fallen, and how little is left to him.
So the most famous speech in Macbeth is actually a conversation between the dead and the living, a final farewell between wife and husband. It is powerful to play, and closes the loop on their relationship in a satisfying, if awful, way.