Like There’s No Tomorrow

Shakespeare is well-known for seamlessly introducing philosophical contemplation into his work, and Macbeth offers some of the bleakest. Hearing that his wife has died, Macbeth ponders, “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.” He compares life to a “a poor player/That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,/And then is heard no more.”

Any audience would be shocked at a production of Shakespeare’s play without this moment of uncharacteristic wisdom from the avaricious, driven king. But Verdi slices it cleanly away, retaining only Shakespeare’s “punchline.” (“it is a tale/Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,/Signifying nothing”)—and offering even that in a somewhat different tone.

In Track 21, hearing of his wife’s death, Verdi’s Macbeth spits bitterly “La vita… che importa?…/È il racconto d’un povero idiota; Vento e suono che nulla dinota!” [Life, what does it matter? It’s the tale of a poor idiot, sound and fury signifying nothing]—then starts to laugh. It’s an interesting choice—especially since operas typically pause for all manner of philosophizing. Perhaps Verdi preferred not to interrupt the momentum to the final battle. Perhaps he didn’t want to credit Macbeth with anything like insight. And perhaps your students can propose their own explanation.