What does the following Shakespeare quote from Macbeth mean? “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.”

This quote, spoken by Macbeth, means that life is brief and meaningless. In comparing life to an actor who "struts" for only an hour upon the stage and then "is heard no more," Macbeth is commenting on the fleeting nature of life. Macbeth then compares life to a story told by an "idiot," meaning that life has no more significance than an idiot's pointless rambling. Macbeth speaks these bleak words shortly after learning of his wife's death.

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MACBETH. Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more.
(act 5, scene 5, lines 26–28)

Macbeth, written about 1605, is the last of Shakespeare's plays in which this theme of players on a world stage appears. Shakespeare's first reference to the world as a stage occurs in The Merchant of Venice, written about 1596–1597.

ANTONIO. I hold the world but as the world, Gratiano;
A stage, where every man must play a part,
And mine a sad one.

GRATIANO. Let me play the fool!
(act 1, scene 1, lines 80–83)

The most famous reference to this theme is Jaques's "all the world's a stage" speech, also known as the "seven ages of man" speech, in As You Like It.

JAQUES. All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts.
(act 2, scene 7, lines 146–149)

Jaques describes each of the the player's "exits and entrances," until the player's final scene, after which the player is heard no more.

JAQUES. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion.
(act 2, scene 7, lines 170–172)

This is a recurring theme to which passing reference is made in King Henry IV, Part 2, written in 1597:

Let order die!
And let this world no longer be a stage
To feed contention in a ling'ring act.
(act 1, scene 1, lines 170–172)

This reference is also made in King Lear, written in 1605–1606: "When we are born, we cry that we are come / To this great stage of fools" (act 4, scene 6, lines 197–198).

Macbeth's speech in which he says that "Life's but a walking shadow" isn't the first time that the theme of players on the world stage is mentioned in Macbeth.

ROSS. Ah, good father,
Thou seest the heavens, as troubled with man's act,
Threaten his bloody stage.
(act 2, scene 4, lines 5–7)

Macbeth also talks about playing "the humble host" at his coronation banquet, at which the ghost of Banquo appears uninvited, and playing "the Roman fool, and die / On mine own sword?" a reference to the deaths of Brutus and Cassius in Julius Caesar that Macbeth makes shortly before his own death.

MACBETH. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.
(act 5, scene 5, lines 28–30)

With the death of Lady Macbeth, Macbeth is utterly alone in the world, and he's alone on the stage on which, until recently, he played the major role of king of Scotland.

At this point in the play, Macbeth is confused, disheartened, and disillusioned. He's also in disbelief that all of this is truly happening to him. Macbeth comes to the realization that everything he's done, all of the strutting and fretting and the part he played in the "sound and fury" that made and kept him king, is essentially meaningless.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on December 29, 2020
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In these famous lines, spoken after the discovery of Lady Macbeth's suicide, Macbeth expresses his nihilistic outlook on life. According to Macbeth, life is inherently meaningless. Far from its being a source of purpose and meaning, it is nothing more than “a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury / Signifying nothing”.

Given everything that's happened to Macbeth since he murdered his way to the Scottish throne, it's not surprising that he should've come to adopt such an unremittingly grim outlook on life. With his wife now dead and with his enemies ready to remove him from the Scottish throne by force, it's no wonder that Macbeth now sees life as bleak and meaningless.

There's also more than an element of self-justification about Macbeth's remarks. If life, and everything in it, is meaningless, then that would also include Macbeth's wicked actions such as murdering Duncan and having Macduff's family wiped out.

That being the case, Macbeth can simply shrug his shoulders and describe the bloody consequences of his tyranny as an idiot's tale entirely devoid of significance. In any case, human life, as Macbeth would have it, is just like an actor strutting about on stage; there's nothing real about it.

In this speech, Macbeth is effectively seeing himself, the world, and everything in it, from a God's-eye perspective. In becoming a tyrant, he's become like a tyrannical deity, looking down on the world that he's created and seeing nothing but tiny little specks which, from the standpoint of eternity, ultimately mean nothing.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on December 7, 2020
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In these lines, Macbeth first claims that life is something that really lacks substance; it is only a "walking shadow." Next, he uses a metaphor to compare life to an actor, "a poor player," who has but a very short time to be on the stage (because life is so short and passes so quickly). While on stage, this actor really acts; he stalks around dramatically and emotes passionately, "strut[ting] and fret[ting]" for the audience. And then, as suddenly as the play seemed to begin, it ends, and the actor "is heard no more."

Next, Macbeth compares life, via a second metaphor, to a story told by someone who lacks intelligence and common sense. Therefore, the story is rambling and ridiculous and, again, seemingly full of drama and passion, but it is ultimately meaningless and has no point, as it "signif[ies] nothing."

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Macbeth utters these words shortly after he is told that his wife, Lady Macbeth, has died. He is speaking of her life (the life of all humans, really) being fleeting and short. Our life is but a walking shadow (nothing we really see in substance until perhaps it is too late) a poor player (we are all bad actors...myself and my wife especially) that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more (we act upon the stage of life strutting and fretting and then we are gone--none of us are all that important and we are quickly and easily forgotten). It is a tale told by an idiot (the story is told by a fool...myself included...since I was led around by my wife and encouraged by the witches) full of sound and fury (while it's being told it sounds good--full of passion, full of excitement--but once the words are uttered there isn't much to it) signifying nothing (there are many words but in the end, nothing important has been said. It is all for nothing and changes nothing).

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The Shakespeare quotes section on eNotes has an explanation of this quotation -- which begins with Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow...

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