In Shakespeare’s Macbeth¸ Shakespeare tells a terrifying tale of a respected noble and his wife driven mad by a supernaturally-charged prophecy which leads to multiple deaths, insanity, and the loss of the main character’s very humanity. Macbeth, a Thane in King Duncan’s service, plots along with his wife to kill King Duncan in order to assume the throne and quickly complete a prophecy. This immoral situation leaves Macbeth with an incredibly broken sense of self, turning him to nihilism, and forcing him to believe that over time, life means nothing.
In passage 1.3.127-142, Macbeth ponders the truth of what the witches have prophesied. He acknowledges that part of what the witches told him is true—that he is Thane of Cawdor. However, he mostly fears that the second part of the prophecy will become true, because he believes that for this to happen, he must murder King Duncan—a murder which is “fantastical” at this point in the play. Macbeth seems afraid of his own thoughts in this soliloquy. He is incapable of assuming that he can become king in other ways than resorting to murder (using less deadly methods, such as waiting for Duncan to die of old age and then assume the throne). Instead, Macbeth is haunted by his thoughts and is completely terrified by the prospect that this is his destiny. No one is telling him that he must kill Duncan. Macbeth has made this an ultimatum in his mind, even though he dreads the idea. The phrase “Present fears/Are less than horrible imaginings” encapsulates this. There is nothing there to be afraid of because there is nothing there of substance; Duncan’s death, as of now, is simply a terrible thought. The last line, “And nothing is but what is not,” expands this fear to the fear of the unknown. Macbeth fears, even when there is nothing to fear but his own horrible thoughts.
In passage 5.5.17-28, Macbeth reacts, without evidence of strong emotion, to his wife’s death. He posits that Lady Macbeth would have died anyway, because people live every day just to die. This nihilistic way of thinking continues as Macbeth translates his wife’s—now evidently meaningless—death into a metaphor for life. Macbeth says that life is just a “tale told by an idiot,” saying that life means ultimately nothing. Macbeth reflects this upon himself. His life used to be full of achievements, but it has since been depleted of meaning since his choices and actions have doomed him to death, like his wife. He connects life’s brevity to a candle and a play, both which are short and provide happiness while they are active, but also end and die out after a time. In this way, Macbeth dismisses the death of his wife and tries to make peace with his own demise. He knows his end is near, and that his life is falling apart. While he had his success in life, (being the Thane of Glamis and newly of Cawdor), as well as being loved by the King, the play of his life is ending, and Macbeth acknowledges this. Because he about to die, regardless of his achievements, status, wealth, or position as King, Macbeth reasons that life ultimately means nothing, because everyone eventually succumbs to death, even though they may have done great things.
In the first passage, Macbeth is afraid of his own thoughts, which mean nothing in the physical world. There are no physical ramifications to Macbeth’s thoughts about killing Duncan, until he actually kills Duncan—putting tangible results onto an intangible idea. In the second passage, Macbeth plays with the idea of time, specifically centered on the nature of human’s lives. These two soliloquys both occur in moments of self-reflection, one wondering about the consequences of his murderous thoughts, and the other about the briefness of life. Ultimately, Macbeth is afraid that he will eventually become nothing. He was frightened by the thought that King Duncan would become nothing after Macbeth killed him, and he was frightened after Lady Macbeth died, because he knew he would also die and become nothing. Macbeth puts heavy worth in life, which is why he doesn’t understand why Banquo doesn’t take his prophecy seriously, and why he is driven mad when he kills Duncan. The prospect of being dead and having your belongings, worth, or titles mean nothing depresses him. In a similar way, Macbeth has a very warped sense of time. Macbeth wants success and fame now, rather than waiting out his glory like Banquo. In a sense, he fast-tracks the prophecy. There is no way to know if the prophecy was meant to turn out that way or if Macbeth was destined to become king later, had he not killed Duncan. Macbeth takes the prophecy into his own hands and dooms himself quickly. So, the relation between time and nothing is simple: over time, one becomes nothing. It is a notion that Macbeth ignored when killing Duncan, and after Lady Macbeth died, it is the main emotion that Macbeth had to deal with: that he would become nothing, and another would rise in his place to gain power.
Fundamentally, it might seem that Macbeth’s ambition doomed him. However, in these soliloquys, it proves that even though Macbeth wanted the throne, he was explicitly trying to avoid becoming nothing. He was driven mad with the fact that he might escape what he already knew that power is not permanent, and that like a play, all players eventually step off of the stage, and the fantasy ends.