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What does Shakespeare mean when he says, "Out out brief candle ..."?

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mahdi | Student, Grade 11 | eNotes Newbie

Posted January 17, 2008 at 12:43 AM via web

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What does Shakespeare mean when he says, "Out out brief candle ..."?

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William Delaney | (Level 1) Distinguished Educator

Posted March 16, 2014 at 4:22 PM (Answer #4)

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Shakespeare, speaking through Macbeth, is saying that reality is nothing but infinite and eternal emptiness and darkness. Existence for each of us provides a moment of light in which we are able to see around us. Before we are born there is nothing but blackness and silence; after we die there is nothing but the same eternal blackness and silence. Being alive is like having the brief light provided by a single candle burning in all that darkness. The light from that tiny candle-flame casts a shadow--and that shadow is us! The shadow walks around in the circle of light provided by the candle. We strut and fret. We think we are very important and that our desires, interests, and activities are of great significance. But we are only shadows which will disappear when that candle-flame goes out. Macbeth is wishing that his own personal candle-flame would blow out because he is tired of existence. He is utterly dejected. He sees how futile his own aspirations and expectations were, and by inference he sees the futility of everybody's aspirations and expectations. He sees not only the meaninglessness of life but its ridiculousness. Everybody who comes into existence for a brief moment in eternity is a fool because he thinks he is important and that what he does in his life must also be of great importance. Then he dies and loses everything he has acquired, and he is quickly and completely forgotten. The last two words of Macbeth's soliloquy summarize Shakespeare's pessimistic view of existence: "signifying nothing." Our existence ends up meaning nothing to ourselves and signifying nothing to anybody else. 

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amy-lepore | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

Posted January 17, 2008 at 12:54 AM (Answer #1)

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This quote is found in Act V, scene 5 of Macbeth.  

The entire quote, "All our yesterday 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," is Macbeth's comment on life and the "players" who walk the stage of life--a lovely metaphor.  He and his wife are two of those players.  Her life, ended much sooner than it should have, is the "brief candle"--the candle and her life have been extinguished.

He says that we all "strut and fret" upon the stage of life and then die--"are heard from no more."  Lady Macbeth's fretting and strutting are over...the curtain has closed, the candle is out.

Macbeth is busy when he hears the news of his wife's death, so he doesn't pay much attention to her death.  It can be viewed that he is cold and heartless at this point in the play, or that he is rationalizing his grief by putting it in context with the battle for which he is preparing at the time he receives the news of her untimely demise.  He does, however, realize the pointlessness of his ambition and how her candle (life) has been unnaturally shortened and in all probability, his candle will also soon be snuffed out.  Had he been patient and not "stirred" the pot to make his ambitions and goals a reality, they would have lived longer, more fulfilling lives.

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vn5472 | Student, Undergraduate | eNoter

Posted January 17, 2008 at 4:09 AM (Answer #2)

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"...Out, Out brief candle..."

This part of the siloquy could be interpreted as Macbeth's view of his wife's life after she had commited suicide. Macbeth considers Lady Macbeth's life to be short and brief like a candle.

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melbillmc | High School Teacher | eNoter

Posted August 23, 2008 at 4:22 PM (Answer #3)

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This passageis a figurative reference to life. The canlde represents Lady Macbeth's life, but also life in general. It suggests that Shakespeare is making a somewhat existential comment on life and its meaninglessness. Firstly he states that life is short, "brief candle". We know that lady Macbeth died prematurely, but there is the universal message here too. The idea of us all strutting and fretting on the stage of life suggests that our lives are short, and meaningless and we are "heard no more" implies that there is nothing beyond death- hence the existential suggestion - meaninglessness of life and nothing after death. Shakespeare suggests this too in Hamlet, "the rest is silence".

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