In Macbeth, what are five metaphors in Macbeth’s speech in Act 5, Scene 5, lines 21–30? What do they mean?

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Susan Hurn | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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This speech is surely one of the most quoted in Shakespeare. Life, in Macbeth's tortured view, is described through a series of metaphors, one quickly following another. 

Life is a candle which, in the past, has "lighted fools the way to dusty death." Macbeth sees himself among this company, as he faces his own death, the result of his own foolish decisions. For him to say "Out, out, brief candle" suggests that he is ready to die.

Life is a "walking shadow" and a "poor player." It "struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more." Macbeth refers to his own life; it is he who has strutted and fretted during the short time he wielded power in Scotland, a bad actor on the stage of his country's history and one who will not live in its collective memory.

Finally, life is "a tale told by an idiot." Again, Macbeth assesses life in terms of his own. His life has been full of "sound and fury," but it signifies nothing at all. He leaves behind him nothing of value.

Life is a candle, a shadow, an actor, one brief hour upon the stage, and an idiotic tale. Macbeth's bitterness and despair are communicated strongly through these metaphors.

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