Shakespeare has successfully convinced me of something I used to think absurd, that Macbeth—the tyrant, the man who murders his friends and slaughters his kinsmen, the usurper whose rule makes Scotland’s “sorrows strike heaven on the face”—is actually worth pitying. Perhaps the most moving part of the play is when the tragic hero reacts to the news of his wife’s death with this famous soliloquy (watch Patrick Stewart’s rendition).
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,
If the audience were to listen carefully to that “last syllable of recorded time,” if they were to pay close attention to the “sound and fury” of the tale-telling “idiot,” then they could easily hear the clear echoes of Ecclesiastes reverberating in the background of these lines. Here are a few examples. Lady Macbeth was bound to die sometime since “there is a time to be born and a time to die” (Ec 3:2). Macbeth’s monotonous and cyclical portrayal of time evokes the same image described by Ecclesiastes, “generations come and generations go, but the earth remains forever” (Ec 1:4). The last of the four metaphors in this passage compares life to “a tale / Told by an idiot,” who is “full of sound and fury” while “Signifying nothing,” or being empty of any meaning. This same idea is expressed in the Scriptures when Qoheleth states that “all is vanity” or “everything is meaningless” (Ec 1:2).
Macbeth’s soliloquy is a cry for help, one that resounds from the darkest pits of agony, grief and destruction, begging to discover some salvific meaning to his dreadful life. Staring into this dark abyss surrounding him, wide-eyed and dismayed as if looking into the sublime depths of the ocean, he attempts to find or construct some consequential meaning that would strengthen his desire to live. He is unable to do this because he has surrounded himself with nothing but vanities, false gratifiers that bear a deceptive semblance to the Truth yet have nothing to offer except (empty) promises of temporary satisfactions. Finally, when he comes to this subtle, Shakespearean form of anagnorisis (as some interpreters may suggest), he fails to find any hope for salvation. One cannot but feel pity for the soul that mistakes “fair” for “foul,” a soul that has been worshiping at the altar of power and vanity far too long to easily reverse its course and restructure its priorities.
On the one hand, Macbeth’s prior behavior reveals an exceptionally disordered character, wherein God, family, and the good of others have taken the back seat while his lust for power becomes the driving impulse according to which he steers his life. On the other hand, Macbeth’s tragic flaw, his “vaulting ambition” and unrelenting desire to gain power and authority, may very well be a disease with which we are all infected to some degree. This disease convinces us that we are in control, that we have the power to forge a meaning in our lives apart from God.
Fortunately for us, the Scriptures have the cure. While there are similarities in Macbeth’s nihilism and the vanities described in Ecclesiastes, the Scriptures go on to offer the antidote for anyone who is struggling with emptiness in life. In order to overcome these vanities and discover the true meaning of our life on earth, Ecclesiastes says “remember your Creator” (Ec 12:1). This is not meant to be a constraining prescription that takes away our freedom to enjoy the secondary goods in our lives (e.g. careers that come with great authority); nor should it be dismissed as a moralistic dictum, which imposes on us an idealistic vision that does not adequately address our human needs. On the contrary, the fulfilment of all human desires resides in God, Our Creator, a fact that is emphasized in the great hymn, “The King of Love My Shepherd Is”:
I nothing lack when I am His / And He is mine forever.
Our desire is infinite, and it is impossible to satisfy the infinite with finite objects. Only the Infinite Creator of our desires can fully satisfy us.
When we surrender our lives to God, His love strengthens in us our yearnings for heaven, and thereby endows us with a never-ending desire for life, life and more life. May the Lord protect us from drowning in the ocean of vanities that surrounds us. With tears welling up and a cry de profundis, we raise our voice: Tear the heavens open and come down, O Lord, because our hearts are restless, and they will always remain restless until they rest in you.
Image: Pieter Claesz, Vanitas