Faced with the encroaching combined forces of Scotland and England, Macbeth gives way to despair in his nihilistic speech:
I have lived long enough. My way of life
Is fallen into the sear,the yellow leaf,
And that which should accompany old age,
As honour, love, obedience, troops of friends,
I cannot look to have. But in their stead,
Curses, not loud but deep, mouth-honour, breath,
Which the poor heart would fain deny, and dare not.
When the doctor tells him that Lady Macbeth is ‘troubled with thick-coming fancies’ Macbeth asks with a wistful desperation:
Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased,
Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow;
Raze out the written troubles of the brain,
And with some sweet oblivious antidote
Cleanse the stuffed bosom of that perilous stuff
Which weighs upon the heart?
But despite the growing realisation that the witches have fooled him, Macbeth is a soldier first and foremost, and gears himself for battle, and the inevitable bloody end.
However, these two speeches are profound in that Shakespeare, despite the limited knowledge there was of the effects of emotional turmoil in the early seventeenth century, has Macbeth speak powerfully and eloquently of the need for psychological and medical assistance for the mentally sick. Macbeth has run amok, killing those who oppose him, sadistically and maliciously destroying Macduff’s family, and yet he can speak with tremendous insight and poignancy about the horrors the human psyche can endure.
I have lived long enough …how often have those words been uttered and repeated throughout the centuries? And how often, looking back over the years, has remorse and regret over things said and unsaid, done and neglected caused human beings to reflect, along with Macbeth:
‘..honour, love, obedience, troops of friends, I must not look to have.’
The listing, showing just how much Macbeth has lost, gives extra emphasis to his plight and state of mind. The ‘sere, the yellow leaf ‘ is evocative of his conviction that anything sweet, fresh and desirable has gone from his life. He is fully aware of the fact that he has brought this on himself, and we can only wonder about a man who knows, before he murders the king, that it cannot bring him any lasting joy or satisfaction. His soliloquy where he praises King Duncan, is heartfelt and honest, and he admits:
I have no spur…but only vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself…
Yet still he goes ahead.
Is he any different from the reckless and misguided among us who carry on regardless of warnings, advice and inner doubts? He is, in that relatively few plot murder, but so many of us can empathise with his implied regrets about his past actions.
As always, Shakespeare’s words are apposite for any audience, spanning the centuries with timeless observation.