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Christopher Plummer as Macbeth, Mark Hellinger Theater, NYC, 1988
Macbeth's Tomorrow
By Stanley Kauffmann






It is at least seventy years since I first read a whimsical one-act comedy called The Rehearsal, but it still lingers in my mind for a reason that the playwright possibly did not intend. He was Maurice Baring, a well-known English author a hundred years ago. (His play is not to be confused with three others of the same title, one written three centuries earlier by the Duke of Buckingham and two twentieth-century plays by Jean Anouilh and Jack Gelber.) Baring's little play, published in 1919, takes place during a rehearsal of the very first production of Macbeth at the Globe in 1595. Later scholarship puts the premiere in 1606, but whatever the correct year historically, Baring's characters speak in the diction of his own early twentieth-century time. The author and the leading actor, Richard Burbage, are of course present, and they too speak 1919 English.

Burbage is dissatisfied with his role in the last act. He complains that, after Macbeth learns that his wife is dead, the author has given him only two lines:

She should have died hereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word.

Baring's Burbage says: "I should like a soliloquy here, about twenty or thirty lines, if possible in rhyme, in any case ending with a tag. I should like it to be about Lady Macbeth. Macbeth might have something to say about their happy domestic life. . . Could I have that written at once, and then we could rehearse it?" The director (called here the producer) agrees and says, "Will you write it yourself, Mr. Shakespeare, or shall we get someone else to do it?" Shakespeare agrees to do it and withdraws to work on it while the rehearsal proceeds. In a few minutes he returns. "I've written that speech," he says. "Shall I read it?" "Please," says the director. Shakespeare then reads:

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!
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.

Burbage is enraged. "Well, you don't expect me to say that, I suppose," he scoffs. "It's a third too short. There's not a single rhyme in it. It's got nothing to do with the situation, and it's an insult to the stage. 'Struts and frets' indeed!" He is so angry that he withdraws from the role and storms out. The others try to proceed with the rehearsal. We are left to infer that, in time, Burbage changed his mind both about the role and that new speech.

One of the reasons we laugh is that Burbage is deriding what is now generally held to be one of the most beautiful passages ever written in the English language. But there is something else, and it is not a laughing matter. We can see that, in this new speech, Shakespeare has moved out of the scene, has left the specific of the lady's death for a larger universal insight -- a perception of futility and inevitability. Burbage makes more of a point than he knows. He objects to the speech in narrow actorish terms; he hasn't seen what Baring arguably implies -- that Burbage's purely professional objections are unwitting reactions to a profound change.

The new speech, which Shakespeare scribbles in a few minutes, is utterly unlike almost all the rest of Macbeth in idea and diction. Burbage's comic disgust has stayed in my mind for decades because, willy-nilly, it underscores the resonant strangeness of that speech. Macbeth is one of Shakespeare's most wondrous plays, packed with poetic marvel in almost every line, continually near bursting with the power of its imagery. Yet I can't find another passage in this play that seems to have been written by the author of this "new" passage. The closest to it comes in Macbeth's first scene, where he says that his thought of the murder yet to come

Shakes so my single state of man that function
Is smother'd in surmise.

That phrase, "smother'd in surmise," is by the man who wrote "tomorrow and tomorrow." The rest of the play was written by a certainly equivalent but somewhat different genius.

Consider the changes in the "tomorrow" speech. Up to now we have had a Macbeth who has faced an enemy in battle and has, with his sword,

Unseam'd him from the nave to the chaps
And fix'd his head upon our battlements,

and who has then murdered his way to a throne. This man, in all regards a creature of his age with warrior values, this fierce sword-wielding warrior, now tells us that "Life's but a walking shadow . . . a tale/Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,/Signifying nothing." This is a quite different Macbeth from the unseaming swordsman, different even though we know that he has been altering through the play, that blood seeps through his mind continually like a spreading stain. ("It will have blood they say; blood will have blood." "I am in blood /Stepp'd in so far that, should I wade no more,/Returning were as tedious as go o'er." ) Stark as those lines are, they do not have the freezing-thrilling bleakness of the "tomorrow" speech.

A. C. Bradley says that, at the moment when Macbeth hears of the lady's death, "he has no time now to feel. Only, as he thinks of the tomorrow when the time to feel will come -- if anything comes, the vanity of all hopes and forward-lookings sinks deep into his soul with an infinite weariness, and he murmurs" the tomorrow speech. The word "murmurs" may or may not be apt, but the fact that Bradley could even think to use it reveals that Macbeth has changed. Could the earlier Macbeth have "murmured" anything?

The moment in which he speaks these words is a lull in a huge battle, yet this speech is not that of a man in the midst of such a battle. And it is the very words of the speech that escape Frank Kermode's notice in Shakespeare's Language. He says of the "tomorrow" speech that Macbeth is "at last confronting the mere successiveness of time," but, though this is a book on language, Kermode says nothing about the words in which the warrior Macbeth does the confronting.

This linguistic contrast in Macbeth is soon emphasized. His next substantial speech, his reaction to the messenger's news about Birnam Wood, returns to the earlier Macbeth, the soldier.

Ring the alarum-bell! Blow, wind! Come, wrack!
At least we'll die with harness on our back.

Far, far from the tenor of the "tomorrow" speech.

Baring's Richard Burbage, in a comedy meant to show how an actor's ego blinded him to the arrival of majesty, at least had the instinct to discern that the new speech was not in character, the character he had been playing. Perhaps -- pure fantasy -- the speech that Shakespeare scribbles so quickly offstage during the rehearsal was in fact something that was left over from Hamlet, done five years earlier.


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