"Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow"
This triplet might suggest past, present, and future. It is a lament,
complete with tragic overtones, about the indefatigable advancement of
time; as such, it is problematic, since the passage of time is inevitable
and might therefore be inappropriate subject matter for tragedies, which
are often avoidable. However, if time passing is tragic, then the ideal
is static, and our lives are necessarily imperfect and dystopic.
Besides describing time as something that "creeps", Macbeth further
disparages it by calling it a "petty pace". The pace could be our daily
lives, measured by a sequence of tomorrows, which are characterized as
cheap, mean, ungenerous, inconsequential, and insignificant. The pace is
a moment or measurement of time, such as the ticking of a clock or the
tolling of a bell, which are important images in Quentin's section (June
2, 1910). The word "pace" suggests a repetition of something that does
not have individual value.
"The last syllable"
This is a paradox: it implies death - the subjective end of time - but
it is also a narrative invocation that belies fatalism. The syllable is
a component of language, the basis for the communication of the stories
Quentin finds so enthralling and that shame his family so much. Although
the syllable is only a part, like increments in the pace, it nevertheless
builds the whole of language and our communication. If language transmits
the worth of our narratives, then the last syllable is an end to the telling
of stories, a vital activity for human beings. But this end does not necessarily
diminish the value of the story that precedes it. Furthermore, if the story
is painful and torturous, as it is to Macbeth, then the "last syllable"
may be the only moment of respite in the entire soliloquy - it suggests
that peace, an escape from the cycles of time, is available at the moment
Time and fate are linked in Macbeth. The woods of Birnan are
fated to approach Macbeth at Dunsinane and doom him. The time that passes
before the advent of that day obsesses Macbeth, who no longer believes
he can alter the chain of events his betrayal of Duncan set in motion.
As Frank Kermode notes in the introduction to Macbeth in the Riverside
Shakespeare: "The suffering of the Macbeths may be thought of as caused
by the pressure of the world of order slowly resuming its true shape and
crushing them. This is the work of time; as usual in Shakespeare, evil,
however great, burns itself out, and time is the servant of providence."
Although time can be redemptive, in The Sound and the Fury time
is a component of entropy, the increasing chaos of the universe. The Compsons'
lives become less stable in every generation, so that the Southern ideals
of a strong and landed nuclear family come apart. The first Quentin, for
instance, kills himself while at Harvard; the second Quentin, whose name
- the same name as her uncle's but for a different person - emphasizes
the departure from the earlier generation. She runs away in estrangement,
unable to cope with a family that constantly upholds the honor of the name
(or signifier), despite its tenuous hold on reality (the signified). Chaos
and confusion ensue when the name has too many complex referents,
just as the burden of a history that contradicts the present is too much
for both Quentins.
The past we dwell upon, our "yesterdays", has guided ("lighted") us
to death. Or, the guidance might be less direct - it may not be our attention
to the past, but simply the advancement of time, that will result in death.
In the context of Macbeth and The Sound and the Fury, however,
the past engrosses several characters who can be called "fools". Shakespeare's
typical Fool is outwardly incompetent or insane but inwardly nearly prescient.
Macbeth is both: he is so stricken by guilt from his betrayal and murder
of Duncan and Banquo that he hallucinates; and he is aware of the future
fortold to him by the witches. Lady Macbeth's death furthers his guilt
and prompts his soliloquy. He finds that his struggling conscience does
not enable him to alter the tide of events caused by his evil actions.
Similarly, in The Sound and the Fury, almost every character begrudges
some past event, which in itself foreshadows future misery: Mr. Compson
and Jason resent the sale of their land and their declining prosperity;
Quentin envies Caddy's sexual transgressions and, like Benjy, prefers a
time when his family was landed, reputable, and capable of sustaining the
myth of their dynasty; Benjy, though apparently ignorant of the Compsons'
social affairs, is stuck in a time when his first memories were formed.
He clearly recognizes and fears change, as change removes him from the
"ordered place" of the past and affronts him with an uncertain world that
becomes less coherent as time passes.
"Dusty death" is reminiscent of the Biblical "from dust to dust", which
again implies cycles of time. In Quentin's section (June 2, 1910) of The
Sound and the Fury, Mr. Compson (or Quentin's interpreted memory of
Mr. Compson) delivers a very bleak speech that contains many themes similar
to those in Macbeth's soliloquy. Shortly after remembering this speech,
Quentin kills himself. Ironically, his drowning is anything but dusty,
at least in a literal sense. If we take "dusty" to mean neglected, then
both Lady Macbeth's and Quentin's deaths could be considered under that
term: at Lady Macbeth's death, her husband is not by her side, and Quentin
dies estranged from his family and most of his peers. This neglect upsets
the normal sleep rhythms (circadian rhythms) of both characters prior to
their deaths. Lady Macbeth is tormented at night by the "slumb'ry agitation"
(V, i, 11) of sleep-walking episodes, and on the day Quentin dies he is
late rising from bed, not because he slept too long, but because he could
not stop listening to his clock: "You can be oblivious to the sound for
a long while, then in a second of ticking it can create in the mind unbroken
the long diminishing parade of time you didn't hear." (47)
"Brief candle", "walking shadow", "poor player"
The images of the candle, the shadow, and the player all suggest a similar
despondency or fatalism. The fragile candle, insubstantial shadow, and
inconstant player suggest the insignificance of the human being in the
greater scope of the universe. The candle compares to the sun, the shadow
to the material being, and the player to the character. These comparisons
imply a subjugation of one thing by a more important thing, as perhaps
our lives are in the context of the universe. The actor, in particular,
suggests deliberate disguise or impersonation and falsity, especially considering
that the character played can be a complete fiction, so that the actor
is twice removed from substantiality. As a player in a game, the actor
becomes even more transient, more contrived, and better suited for entertainment
than for more important pursuits. That this player "struts and frets" emphasizes
a theatrical characteristic and the fact that people worry; our worry,
too, is unimportant, considering it is for a game that only lasts an "hour
upon the stage."
"Told by an idiot"
The idiot in Macbeth may be the same idiot as in The Sound
and the Fury, and that idiot is not necessarily Benjy. All the Compson
brothers are incapable of rational conduct at some point, although it is
arguable that Quentin's death is the result of his father's too-rational
fatalism. Regardless, it is clear that Quentin, Jason, and Benjy all misrepresent
the world in their minds: Quentin exaggerates, perhaps, the importance
of his sister's virginity; Jason is angry, bitter, and accusatory of everyone
but himself; and Benjy is unable to reconcile the past, the present, and
the dubious future. Macbeth and Mr. Compson share a similar fatalism, since
they both demean important narratives (subjectively important, at least)
by considering them idiots' tales. Furthermore, there is a twist on the
Shakespearean representation of the Fool. Arguably, the Fool typically
embodies, at times, an unnaturally clear knowledge of the present or future.
In The Sound and the Fury, the idiots narrate the tale as they are
guided ("lighted") by their past, so that they appear destined to
repeat past mistakes.
"Full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing"
This is the climax of the soliloquy and also the hinge on which some interpretations of The Sound and the Fury turn. Faulkner does not include "signifying nothing" in the title of the novel, although its despondency and fatalism, especially in Quentin's section (June 2, 1910) and even Dilsey's (April 8, 1928), may counterbalance this point. The question then becomes: did Faulkner intend to write a fatalistic novel? Or is his constant rewriting of the Yoknapatawpha narrative evidence of an external, extra-textual redemption for the novel and for art in general? To "signify nothing" contradicts, in some ways, much of contemporary language philosophy, which contends that words signify something, regardless of whether they do so arbitrarily. In the context of Faulkner's many novels, then, he may be suggesting, however consciously or unconsciously, that time and effort will create a more coherent system of signs that is more resonant than a single sign. Again, history and the future must interplay to produce this resonance, so that the individual may be mindful of past and future without disregarding the here and now.
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