Macbeth must have contemporary significance, since it is only exceeded by Hamlet as Shakespeare’s most popular play. Macbeth shows how humans are tortured by wanting things and then never satisfied and often plagued with guilt and remorse. It shows how women can manipulate men to gratify their own ambitions. It shows the hypocrisy that is so much a part of human relations. And in the end it shows the futility of all human aspirations. In the last act, Lady Macbeth has even lost her husband’s love, and he is totally despondent as he faces an assault by an army reinforced by his own former friends and comrades.
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,
Signifying nothing. (5.5)
Shakespeare would have preferred to be a poet, but he couldn’t make a living writing poetry. Who can? He compromised by writing plays in which his characters recite his poetry—and this poetry is what has made his plays immortal.
O! for my sake do you with Fortune chide,
The guilty goddess of my harmful deeds,
That did not better for my life provide
Than public means which public manners breeds.
Thence comes it that my name receives a brand,
And almost thence my nature is subdued
To what it works in, like the dyer's hand:
Macbeth contains some of Shakespeare’s most beautiful poetry—much of it reflecting on humanity and the human experience in somber tones. The language is so beautiful and so profound that, to quote Milton, it fills us with wonder and astonishment.
Macbeth deals with ambition, love, loyalty, disloyalty, friendship, betrayal, guilt, fear, hatred, revenge and other themes which all relate to the contemporary humanity and the human experience.
Some of Macbeth’s soliloquys are famous. One that is not so frequently quoted is the following:
We have scotch'd the snake, not kill'd it:
She'll close and be herself, whilst our poor malice
Remains in danger of her former tooth.
But let the frame of things disjoint, both the
Ere we will eat our meal in fear and sleep
In the affliction of these terrible dreams
That shake us nightly: better be with the dead,
Whom we, to gain our peace, have sent to peace,
Than on the torture of the mind to lie
In restless ecstasy. Duncan is in his grave;
After life's fitful fever he sleeps well;
Treason has done his worst: nor steel, nor poison,
Malice domestic, foreign levy, nothing
Can touch him further. (3.2)
It is a common enough human experience to eat a meal in fear and to be plagued with nightmares. Notice the alliteration in “After life’s fitful fever he sleeps well.” There are actually five “f” sounds because the “v” in fever will come out sounding like another “f.” In this one line, Shakespeare is suggesting that all of human life is a disease from which we are cured by dying. Like a patient in a hospital, Duncan has survived the critical stage of his illness (i.e. life) and is now resting peacefully.