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As Act 5 proceeds, Macbeth finds himself wifeless, friendless, & with his enemies' army bearing down on him. He is forced to reflect on what life ultimately means, & does so in one of Shakespeare's most famous soliloquies.

In this final soliloquy we uncover the ultimate tragedy of Macbeth. "It is the tragedy of the twilight and the setting-in of thick darkness upon a human soul" (Dowden 66). Macbeth's heinous acts throughout the play have resulted in his last, horrible conclusion about life: it is utterly meaningless. Our days on this earth serve no purpose other than to thrust us toward "dusty death." Life is a seemingly endless and depressing succession of bleak days creeping along at a "petty pace." Our time on this earth is so unsubstantial that it can only be compared to a shadow; so unreal that it can only be compared to a stage on which frets a pitiful actor. When the play is over his character disappears into nothingness, and has left nothing significant behind.

In these words is embodied a degree of combined bitterness and contempt which could only be wrung from a strong heart driven to the last extreme of desperation. The bitterness is that of a hopeless anguish which the victim feels has been drawn down by his own hand. To the natural grief for the loss of the wife whom he really loved, there is added, most probably, the stinging consciousness of his own selfish forgetfulness of her in the season when she needed him most sorely. The contempt is that of a man who has "supped full with horrors," and whom "the faint odour of blood has disgusted with all else." We behold in silence the unmistakable evidence of the inevitable but hidden workings by which justice will be satisfied.
In the entire dagger soliloquy he is clearly suffering from the realisation of the horror of the 'bloody business' ahead. He sees fully & painfully the wickedness of the course he has chosen, but not until after the deed, when the knocking has commenced, do we realise how terrifyingly alive his conscience is: 'To know my deed, 't were best not know myself. / Wake Duncan with thy knocking! I would thou couldst!' This is the wish of a 'good' man, still thinks & feels as a good man would.

Macbeth, after discussing the crime with Lady Macbeth, has decided to go through with the "terrible feat" (1.7.75). Now he sits alone, waiting for the bell which will summon him to murder Duncan, pondering his decision one final time. The focus of the soliloquy, the invisible dagger, is our first glimpse of Macbeth's powerful imagination - imagination that is largely responsible for his mental torment throughout the drama.

Although Macbeth knows that the dagger is an optical illusion, and suspects that it could be brought about by his potentially "heat-oppressed brain" (39), he nonetheless allows the phantom dagger, soon stained with imaginary "gouts of blood" (46), to affect him greatly. Enhancing the ominous and eerie atmosphere of the speech is the use of successive allusions to people and practices which conjure up images of satanic and earthly evil. Hecate, the goddess of witchcraft and a strong presence overall in Macbeth, is preparing her sacrificial victims, and Murder himself, summoned by his trusted watchman, the wolf, moves with the power and speed of evil king Tarquin towards his prey.
One must acknowledge a greatness visible in the very distortion of feminine nature which in others is tender, yielding, dependent, but which in her is iron-willed, masterful, dominant.

The only obstacle she sees lies in the character of her husband. He is ambitious, but is unwilling to play false to attain the objects of his ambition. Yet she is so sure of her influence over him that she prays he may return speedily, in order that she may inspire him to action and drive out any scruples that may bar the way to his goal. When she hears of Duncan's approaching visit, she realizes instantly that Fate has delivered the king into her husband's hands, and invokes the powers of evil to strengthen her for the terrible deed that must be done at once. On Macbeth's arrival she takes the matter into her own hands; she does not argue or persuade, but with quiet determination assures him that Duncan will never leave their castle alive, and that she will arrange all the details. Macbeth is, as it were, stunned by her decision. He has, indeed, meditated the murder of his master; but he has by no means decided upon it, and he would like more time for consideration. His wife, however, cuts the scene short, bidding him show a friendly face to his royal guest and leave all the rest to her. From the abruptness with which the scene begins, we must fancy that Lady Macbeth has already read a part of the letter before she comes on the stage. Perhaps, when she came to the prophecy of the witches, she felt that she must be alone, and withdrew from the hall of the castle to the chamber in which the scene takes place.