Shakespeare Explained: Life is but a Walking Shadow

We’ve all heard this before, or some version of it. Likely, the most concise version circulating the quote-obsessed internet is this:

“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, signifying nothing.”

But how many people know where it comes from? And if they know it’s Shakespeare, who in Shakespeare is it? Which play is it?

And that’s why you’re here. It’s Macbeth. Not just the play either — Macbeth himself. If you’ve never read or seen the play before, Macbeth is a successful soldier who decides to kill his king (Duncan) after an encounter with witches. The witches prophesy that he will one day have the crown, and because of the prophecy (interestingly enough, exactly what we would call a “self-fulfilling prophecy”), Macbeth sets his plan in motion. He tells his wife about the prophecy, and through her insistence, overcomes his own moral objections to the murder and becomes king.

To maintain his reign, he must continue to kill those who oppose him, but as the play goes on, he and his wife steadily go more insane from guilt, and also because a lot of spooky shit starts to happen. Ultimately, both end up dying because it is found out that Macbeth is the culprit and people don’t like treason, so they start a war with him.

So how is it that someone apparently so “evil” can say something that has made it onto God knows how many cheesy photos?

Like this monstrosity, which at the very least, says it’s Shakespeare.

Macbeth is an enormously conflicted character. Throughout the entire play, he has a hard time dealing with the fact that he stabbed Duncan in his sleep. Probably, you know, ’cause that’s a chicken-shit way to do it, but he also is unable to deal, psychologically, with his own actions.

His wife also cannot deal with the guilt — she is hugely influential on Macbeth’s decision to kill Duncan. Had she not pushed him to do it, he may not have. Through emasculating him, she causes him to go through with the murder. But by the end of the play, we see her trying desperately to wash imaginary blood off of her hands. She has taken a one-way trip to cuckoo-land.

And that leads us to the context of this famous quote. When Macbeth is alerted to his wife’s death (which was a suicide, unsurprisingly), he has a moment of rumination on the nature of life:

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,
Signifying nothing.


Let’s start from the top. “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow”. So far so good. “Creeps in this petty pace from day to day” — alright, so tomorrow moves slowly (creeps in this pace) “to the last syllable of recorded time” — until THE END. So the future comes at a pretty damn slow pace until it doesn’t come anymore. “And all our yesterday’s have lighted fools / the way to dusty death” — so yesterday leads people to dying. Or the past leads people to dying. Or with each passing day, people are closer to dying. Ah, yes, that has the right tune.

“Out, out brief candle!” No need to yell at it, it’s inanimate.

But really. “Brief” candle. Like, briefly burning, briefly lighting. “Life’s but a walking shadow” — think about the implications of this. Shadows are short-lived and dependent on where the light source is, and how bright it burns. Life is a shadow dependent on a fickle light. Hey, makes sense why Shakespeare would stick a candle prop in this part. You know, motifs and what-not.

“A poor player / that struts and frets his hour upon the stage” Come on guys, you can do this. A “player” was an actor in Shakespeare’s time.



Not this kind of player.

It’s another reference to how brief life is — life is an actor who does his thing on stage and gets off. Takes a couple hours, then the play is over. Brief. Hm, I’m sensing a pattern here. “And then is heard no more”. Well, you know, unless the play has a long run. Then they might get on stage again. Ha. Haha. Get it?

“It is a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury / signifying nothing”

Life is still the noun here. LIFE is a tale told by an idiot. LIFE is full of sound and fury. LIFE signifies nothing.

That definitely belongs on an inspirational poster, I think.


P.S. Marilyn Manson may have actually captured the spirit of the quote!

3 thoughts on “Shakespeare Explained: Life is but a Walking Shadow

  1. hey, I just wanted to let you know, I enjoyed reading stuff you wrote here, cause i never truly knew what this passage meant, altho It was used in my english class for grammar practice and it got me curious

  2. When I studied Shakespeare, Macbeth was meant to teach us about “equivocation” – how a lie that seems like the truth creates deception which leads to murder, regret and suicide. The power-hungry two, Macbeth and his wife, never really enjoyed the power once it was acquired; they didn’t have a moment’s rest. “Out damned spot, out!” She kept seeing the blood on her hands until she felt the only way to make it stop was to kill herself. ‘Equivocation’ is deception – a lie that has just enough truth to make the lie seem plausible, believable; then the rest is left to your vanity and the corrupt desires of your heart. Macbeth was also a demonstration of the power of the woman behind the throne. Since women were made to accept a lower position in society, some women realized their own ambitions by pushing their husbands to achieve her goals, as did Lady Macbeth.

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