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Macbeth Act 5, Scene 5: Summary & Quotes

Instructor: Margaret Stone

Margaret has taught both college and high school English and has a master's degree in English.

In Act 5, scene 5 of William Shakespeare's ''Macbeth'', Macbeth learns that an army is marching toward his castle. Macbeth faces the exact scenario the witches have described: Birnam Wood moves toward Dunsinane Hill. As the castle readies for the siege, Macbeth is informed that Lady Macbeth has died.

Previous Scenes

Macbeth has killed Duncan, king of Scotland, and become the new ruler. Witches have predicted that Macbeth will not be harmed until Birnam Wood moves to Dunsinane, Macbeth's castle. Thinking this an unlikely event, Macbeth nonetheless continues to murder all who might challenge his claim to the throne. In an effort to thwart Macbeth's ruthless reign, Malcolm, Macduff and the other noblemen have formed an army to attack him. To camouflage the troop's movement, the soldiers have been ordered to cut branches from trees in Birnam Wood to carry as they march.

The Queen is Dead

As Dunsinane Castle readies for battle, Macbeth hears women crying within the castle. When he is told the weeping is because Lady Macbeth has died, he pauses briefly to grieve in one of the most well-known passages in all of Shakespeare's works. Macbeth considers the larger issues of human existence, as he compares a person's life to a scene from a play: '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.' Macbeth questions the purpose of life and arrives at a rather grim conclusion: 'It is a tale/Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,/Signifying nothing.'

With this speech, the audience is left to consider whether Macbeth is truly a nihilist, a person who sees life as meaningless. If so, then the speech offers some explanation for Macbeth's willingness to cast aside moral and ethical concerns. On the other hand, this could simply be grief speaking. Lady Macbeth has supported Macbeth's overthrow of the legitimate king and has been his trusted confidante throughout his bloody rise to power. Thus, Macbeth's words could be a reflection of his despair over the death of his wife, spoken from the depths of grief, rather than some sort of overarching statement of his view of human existence.

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