Macbeth says, "It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." What do you suppose he means by that? I'm doing an three page essay over that quote, depicting each and every line, but I don't know what that line means.

This famous quote about life expresses Macbeth's nihilism, a sense of the meaninglessness of life. Macbeth says this after hearing that his wife has died, in the moments right before his climactic battle with Macduff. In this tumultuous moment, Macbeth is feeling that life is absurd and that nothing has any purpose or meaning. Everything he did to become king will soon be erased by his story coming to an end.

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This famous line from Macbeth tells us how the title character has come to see the world. Despite having everything he wants in life, despite being king of Scotland and having the absolute power to do as he pleases, he's still profoundly unhappy with his lot.

Macbeth has come to see life as inherently devoid of meaning. This is what he means when he says that it “signifies nothing.” Contrary to what most of his contemporaries would've believed, Macbeth doesn't see any overriding purpose in life, cosmic or otherwise. In that sense, it resembles a “tale told by an idiot.”

Just imagine, for one moment, that someone you know to be a complete idiot comes up to you one day and starts telling you some ridiculous story or other. For Macbeth, that's what life is like. There's no meaning to it, no purpose, no structure—just a lot of empty blather.

It's no coincidence that Macbeth should be feeling this way at this specific moment in the play. His scheming wife has just killed herself, adding to a growing sense that life's really not worth anything. In his wife's death, Macbeth sees a confirmation of his growing conviction that no amount of political power can impart meaning to a life that is inherently meaningless.

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Macbeth and his wife, Lady Macbeth, did many terrible things to ascend to the throne of Scotland. Together, they plotted and carried out the murder of the beloved King Duncan so they could clear their path to the crown. Later, Macbeth planned the murder of his former best friend, Banquo, and Banquo’s young son, Fleance, so that Macbeth could feel more secure in his position as king. He even plotted to kill the innocent wife and children of his enemy Macduff simply because he was angry with Macduff himself. For years, the goals of becoming and remaining king have seemed to give Macbeth’s life meaning and purpose, and he clearly believed that being king would fulfill his life’s ambition in some way.

However, now that he has the power and status that he wanted, he is not happy. Power and status have not fulfilled or satisfied him (or his wife, as she took her own life) in the way he imagined it would. And so life begins to seem like a ridiculous story, a joke: he seems to ask, If what we thought would make us happy does not, then what on earth is it all for? Life is “full of sound and fury”—so much activity and passion and strife that feels so urgent and necessary—but it ultimately “signif[ies] nothing.” Everything we fought so hard for is ultimately meaningless, and this means that life is meaningless as well, as though it were simply a “tale told by an idiot.”

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In context, the line reads like 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.

At this point in the plot, Macbeth is losing his sanity and has just lost his wife. Everything seems to be quickly spinning out of control and toward his doom. Life looks ominous and meaningless after all his seemingly futile efforts to come out on top via the schemes he has played.

Life, then, is a tale. A story. Each person is the protagonist of their own life story, choosing the direction the plot will take. Macbeth notes that this protagonist writing the tale is an "idiot." This refers to the way people tend to move through life, strutting upon the stage they are given, not realizing that their time is like the brief flame of a candle. It is all so fleeting, and individuals spend their brief "hour" of life full of sound and fury. For what? Against whom? In the end, none of the fury that consumes so much of life amounts to anything.

Macbeth realizes that he has wasted so much of his brief life (and, by extension, all of us do as well) and that it has all proven meaningless in the end.

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The Shakespeare quotes section on eNotes has an explanation of this quotation that can be found at the link below:

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Macbeth utters these lines after being told of his wife's death. To truly understand them, you must look at them in context. The full thought of which this lines is a part is:

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.(30) 

Earlier in this soliloquy, Macbeth has also said:

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this trivial pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time.
And all our yesterdays have lighted
The way to dusty death for fools. Out, out, brief candle!

In other words, life is meaningless. It is lasts for a brief time and is full of "sound and fury", but in the end, nothing lasts. Life, a "walking shadow", something inconsequential, really doesn't amount to anything. Macbeth is realizing that all his machinations to become king and to keep the throne have come to nothing. He "made a lot of noise" and created quite a story, fought quite a battle, but in the end, nothing is to come of it. 

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