Macbeth ~ expression of despair

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.











About Judy Darby

I am currently working on a memoir which I began for my MA in Creative Writing (Nonfiction). It is nearing completion. The most important people in my life are my seven grandchildren, James, Lucy, Emma, Eleanor, Owen, Michael and Tommy - and their parents of course.
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1 Response to Macbeth ~ expression of despair

  1. Judy Darby says:

    Randall Hargis replied to this by email with some interesting comments which I reproducing here with his permission:
    Randall writes:
    I like the analysis but view the speech regarding Lady Macbeth to be more about his feelings of guilt, and lamenting that there should be a way to erase the memories from her of all the wicked things he has done, as it his actions that have led to the malady. An interesting extrapolation by Judy, though.

    In response, Randall, I agree that in the second of his these two speeches his wife is foremost in his mind, but does that preclude the man having himself in mind also? Less than a scene later he is dismissing her death as something that must come second to the battle he has to fight: ‘She should have died hereafter; there would have been time for such a word.’ No one is more single minded than Macbeth, and after the fateful decision to return to visit the witches we see no more of the close relationship between husband and wife, indeed we never see them together again. Her role in the murder of Duncan was a powerful one, although the responsibility for that has to rest with him alone, but among unasked questions in the audience’s mind must be how far did he resent her influence which brought him to the brink of his own personal hell from the moment the knife went in? Some critics say that his hyperbolic speech after Macduff discovers Duncan’s body is contrived to divert suspicion from him, but I disagree. That man, by his own words, was reluctant to murder, and these words are from the heart.
    ‘Had I but died an hour before this chance,
    I had lived a blessed time. For from this instant
    There’s nothing serious in mortality.
    All is but toys. Renown and grace is dead,
    The wine of life is drawn, and the mere lees
    Is left this vault to brag of.’

    Each Shakespearean tragic hero has to have a fatal flaw, and therefore Macbeth is doomed to murder because of his ambition, but the poignant soliloquy before the murder, the remarkable insight into his own character, and his words, ‘We will proceed no further with this businesss’ are all the hallmarks not of a ‘butcher’ as Malcolm understandably comments, but a man darkly confused, a man so besotted with his wife that her contempt and persuasion are more than adequate to fuel his disastrous action.
    His tormented thoughts thereafter are never appeased.
    So, yes, Randall, he was thinking of his wife when he replies to the doctor, but I also consider his own personal hell of guilt ridden remorse, was also a factor.

    Debate this further?

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