Macbeth Questions and Answers
by William Shakespeare

Macbeth book cover
Start Your Free Trial

What does the following Shakespeare quote 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, and they poetically convey Macbeth's inner feelings of pessimism and despair in this moment.

Expert Answers info

Wallace Field eNotes educator | Certified Educator

briefcaseTeacher (K-12)


calendarEducator since 2016

write7,429 answers

starTop subjects are Literature, History, and Arts

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."

check Approved by eNotes Editorial

amy-lepore eNotes educator | Certified Educator

calendarEducator since 2005

write3,513 answers

starTop subjects are Literature, Social Sciences, and History

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).

Further Reading:

check Approved by eNotes Editorial

santari eNotes educator | Certified Educator

calendarEducator since 2002

write60 answers

starTop subjects are Literature, Law and Politics, and History

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

check Approved by eNotes Editorial



frizzyperm | Student

Basically... it means Shakespeare was depressed when he wrote it, but also he was in the mood for writing poetry because it is one of his finest!!! Macbeth's wife's just killed herself and he's out of his depth in a bloody, murderous, political campaign mainly organised by her, without her he is lost. He knows his life has just crashed in a major way and he is alone without his partner. 

Your quote is preceded by the wonderful...   

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!

In other words... "life is very short; always was, always will be"

Then we come to your selected text...

Life's a walking shadow; insubstantial, without importance or deep solid meaning; 'The Unbearable Lightness of Being'. Life's not 'real' enough.

And people are just bad, stupid actors; shouting and running about and generally making a lot of noise and fuss but not much sense, and then they die anyway.

At the end he says, The story of life is just short and absurd, full of action and events, but, in the final analysis, completely meaningless.