In William Shakespeare's The Tragedy of Macbeth, Macbeth's soliloquy in act V, scene V begins with the line, "She should have died hereafter." What exactly is meant here and why does Macbeth utter it?

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billdelaney's profile pic

William Delaney | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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The word "should" is misleading because it is no longer in common usage in such a context. Macbeth is saying, in effect, that his wife would have had to die sooner or later like everybody else, so it doesn't make any difference whether she, or anybody else, dies now or dies next week or next year. The thought is common enough, especially for people who are feeling depressed. Once you're dead, you're dead. So what difference does it make whether we die today or die tomorrow? Life is meaningless and death is inescapable. Death will get us sooner or later. And when it does catch up with us, it will be as if we never existed. 

We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.
                The Tempest, Act 4, Scene 1

The words "She should have died hereafter" need to be understood in relation to the line that immediately follows:

She should have died hereafter.
There would have been a time for such a word.

In other words, "She had to die sooner or later, so it doesn't make any difference whether she dies today or dies at some other time in the future." By implication, it doesn't matter whether any of us die today or die at some future date. It is evident that Macbeth is not only terribly depressed but that he is thinking about his own life and death. Many people have felt the same way. Many people have committed suicide because of the thought that they were going to die someday anyhow, so why not get it over with now? Hamlet is thinking approximately the same thing in his famous "To be or not to be" soliloquy. 

It is also evident that Macbeth no longer loves his wife--if he ever did. They always seemed to have a rather unhealthy relationship. Macbeth does not show the slightest emotional reaction to the announcement of her death. In fact, he probably hates her (Who wouldn't?) for getting him into the mess he is in. If he hadn't listened to her, but if he had listened to his own better judgment instead, he could have enjoyed a comfortable and honorable life into his old age. As he reflects in Act 5, Scene 3:

I have lived long enough. My way of life
Is fall'n into the sear, the yellow leaf,
And that which should accompany old age,
As honor, love, obedience, troops of friends,
I must not look to have; but, in their stead,
Curses, not loud but deep, mouth-honor, breath,
Which the poor heart would fain deny and dare not.

He hates his wife and probably hates himself for listening to her. The thought that she would have died "hereafter" if she hadn't died today leads him into the rest of his soliloquy in which he generalizes about all human aspirations and all common human destinies.

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.

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mwestwood's profile pic

mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Just to underscore Mr. Delaney's explication, this soliloquy of Macbeth's in Act V, Scene 5, evinces his sense of fatalism and growing nihilism, returning to an earlier line of his in Act I which can now be given even more significance. "Nothing is but what is not." 

For Macbeth at this point in the play, nothing means very much, indeed. Lady Macbeth is subject to the laws of fate like everyone else; she would have eventually died, anyway. After all, men are but "walking shadows," so nothing really matters.

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shake99 | Teacher | (Level 3) Senior Educator

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In William Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Macbeth, the soliloquy that begins with the line “She should have died hereafter” appears in act V, scene V. This short eleven-line speech is among the greatest lines Shakespeare ever wrote.

To understand what Macbeth means by this line, we have to look at what happened before the soliloquy is uttered. Macbeth’s castle is under attack by the rightful king, Malcolm, and Macduff. Things are looking grim, but Macbeth is still confident because of the witches’ earlier prophecy:

Macbeth shall never vanquish’d be until

Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill

Shall come against him.

The last time the audience sees or hears from Lady Macbeth is in act V, scene I, when she is deliriously talking and acting in her sleep. Her final lines are:

. . .  what’s done cannot be undone: to bed, to bed, to bed.

Then, four scenes later, Macbeth learns that Lady Macbeth has committed suicide. Despite his descent into power-hungry cruelty and violence, he has maintained his love for his wife, whose ruthless ambition is at the heart of the entire disaster.

When he learns of her suicide, Macbeth recites the soliloquy:

She should have died hereafter.

There would have been a time for such a word.

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.

He is saying that his wife, Lady Macbeth, should not have died already, and that had she lived they would have eventually been able to resume their lives happily. That’s because he still believes in the witches’ prophecy. However, immediately after Macbeth finishes his soliloquy a messenger enters with the news that he thought he saw “the wood begin to move.” This signifies that the witches’ prophecy really is coming true in a way that is bad for Macbeth. The end comes quickly after this, and Macbeth is killed in a battle with Macduff.

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