Friday, February 4, 2011

Poem - Life's Brief Candle by William Shakespeare

A flickering candle
(Source of picture:

The origin of this poem
In my humble opinion, in order to understand and appreciate this poem, we need to know the origin of this poem. The poem is actually a famous soliloquy made by Macbeth, the main fictional character in Shakepeare's play Macbeth. (A soliloquy is a speech made by a character in a play when he is alone, speaking aloud to himself. Click to hear the pronunciation of soliloquy.)

William Shakespeare (the "Flower Portrait")

The Brief Story of Macbeth
Macbeth is one of the generals in the Scotland army. Macbeth is a relative to King Duncan of Scotland. One day, he receives three prophecies from three witches. One of the witches informs Macbeth that he will one day be the King of Scotland.

The three witches inform Macbeth about the prophecies
The three witches inform Macbeth about the prophecies

Macbeth, who is power hunger, schemes with his wife, Lady Macbeth to kill King Duncan. 

Lady Macbeth influences Macbeth to carry out their sinister plans

One night, King Duncan visits Macbeth. Macbeth uses this opportunity to take King Duncan's life.

Macbeth kills Duncan in his sleep.

After Duncan's death, Macbeth secures the throne as the new King of Scotland. 

Macbeth and Lady Macbeth as the King and Queen of Scotland.
(Source of picture:

Despite his success, Macbeth feels uneasy that the rightful heir might turn up and grab the power from him. In order to keep the throne, he continues to kill more people that he thinks will get in his way. After the merciless events of killing Duncan and other innocent people, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth feel guilty and tortured from the crime that they have committed. One night, Lady Macbeth sleepwalks and falls to her death. Some claim that she committed suicide.

File:Johann Heinrich Füssli 030.jpg
Lady Macbeth sleepwalking by Henry Fuseli.

Macbeth is grief-stricken upon learning of Lady Macbeth's death. He feels that life is not worth living and is unpredictable. To make things worse, his position is under threat. Trying to make sense of things, he reflects aloud on the meaning of life. He cries aloud his thoughts by saying the following lines:

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
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 shadows, 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.

The movie clip below is taken from the controversial movie Macbeth (1971). Watch Macbeth saying the soliloquy. The movie may contain disturbing graphic images of the dead Lady Macbeth and the battle scenes.

Meanwhile, a loyal nobleman to King Duncan named Macduff, accuses Macbeth of treason. Macduff wants to confront Macbeth. Macbeth feels even more hopeless and disappointed with his life. He knows that he cannot run away from the coming battle with Macduff. Finally, Macduff beheads Macbeth. That's the end of Lord Macbeth's life.

The battle between Macduff and Macbeth.

The meaning of the poem

Lines from the poem

(Barisan ayat dari sajak)
Literal Meanings

(Maksud tersurat)
Difficult words / Phrases from the lines
(Perkataan / Frasa sukar dari sajak)
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow, 
Time in the future
(Masa di waktu akan datang)

Creeps in this petty pace from day to day 
Time moves very slowly & quietly
(Masa bergerak sangat perlahan dengan senyap)
Creep – to move forward very slowly
Petty – not important
Pace – footsteps / movement
petty pace – movement is slow
To the last syllable of recorded time, 
To the last breath of a person’s life
(Sehingga saat terakhir seseorang bernafas)
The phrase “The last syllable of recorded time” also means “the end of time”
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools 
Our past has tricked us; we have foolishly believed in the wrong things, which now lead us to our downfall & death
(Perkara lampau telah memperdayakan kita; kita sangat jahil & bodoh kerana percaya kepada perkara yang tidak benar, yang kini membawa kepada kejatuhan & kematian kita)
lighted - shown / lead

The word “fools” in this poem refers to people who forget that they will die one day
The way to dusty death.
Death turns our body into dust.
(Kematian akan menukar badan kita kepada debu)
Dusty – covered in dust
Out, out, brief candle! 
The persona wishes that his life would end
(Persona mengharapkan kehidupannya akan berakhir)
Brief – lasting only a short time
Life's but a walking shadow,
Life is temporary like a shadow. Life is meaningless.
(Kehidupan hanya sementara umpama bayang2. Kehidupan tak bermakna.)
A shadow only appear when there is light. A shadow is dark, meaningless and has no purpose.
a poor player 
Life is like “a bad actor”
(Kehidupan seperti “Pelakon yang tidak berbakat & teruk lakonannya")

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage 
Who plays his part on stage in the time given to him
(yang memainkan peranannya di atas pentas untuk satu tempoh masa yang diberikan)
strut – to walk proudly with your head up & chest out to show that you think you are important
fret – to be worried, unhappy & unable to relax
the stage” refers to the world which is just a platform for foolish people to do meaningless things
And then is heard no more:
This bad actor will quickly be forgotten once he leaves the stage
(Pelakon yg teruk lakonannya ini akan mudah dilupakan apabila dia meninggalkan pentas)

it is a tale 
Told by an idiot,
Life is a story told by a fool, a person who knows nothing
(Kehidupan adalah sebuah cerita yang disampaikan oleh seseorang yang bodoh & jahil, seseorang yang tidak tahu apa2)
a tale - a story

an idiot - a foolish person
full of sound and fury, 
Life is full of emotions & feelings
(Kehidupan penuh dengan emosi & perasaan)
Fury – extreme anger that often includes violent behaviour
Signifying nothing.
Life is actually short & worthless
(Kehidupan sebenarnya adalah pendek & tidak bernilai)
Signifying – a sign of something

The persona in the poem
The persona is the voice in the poem. Macbeth is the persona in the poem. As mentioned earlier, Macbeth says the lines of the poem in the form of soliloquy as he learns that Lady Macbeth committed suicide. He is in despair and feels lost over his wife's death.

Extra information about the poem in relation to the story of Macbeth
  1. Macbeth repeats 'To-morrow' three times to suggest that time moves very slowly from day to day.
  2. The words 'creeps' and 'petty pace' show that time moves really slow. Macbeth does not want to live anymore because he feels that his life is hopeless after the death of his wife. He wonders how many more days he has to live.
  3. When Macbeth says that "And all our yesterdays have lighted fools", he reflects on his previous life when he and his wife has committed evil crimes. Since they are so anxious in plotting sinister plans to save Macbeth's throne, they forget that they will die one day. Macbeth feels like a fool because his previous wicked life is the cause of his downfall and the death of his wife. His evil life has also lead him to his death.
  4. Macbeth compares life to a candle. A candle is a symbol of life because it has a short life span. A candle only burns for a short while and will die out sooner or later. After his wife's death, Macbeth starts to remember that people will sooner or later die. A candle can be put out anytime. Similarly, life can also end suddenly. Life does not last forever. Macbeth now remembers that people may die because of sickness, accident, by taking their own life or die in someone else's hands.
  5. Macbeth compares life to a poor player. Macbeth has done a lot of meaningless and senseless actions in his previous life. He kills King Duncan and a lot of other people just to make sure that he can keep his throne as a king. He achieves his ambition over other people's misery. In the end, he realizes that he has acted foolishly and selfishly. His previous life is worthless just like a bad actor. 
  6. Macbeth also realizes that life is too short just like a shadow because a shadow can disappear.


The Dunsinane Castle in Scotland.

Macbeth's Dunsinane Castle in Scotland

Tone of the poem
The tone of the poem is sad and frustrated. The poem shows Macbeth's anger and disappointment with life. He does not know how to face the predicaments that he himself incurs. He is bored and hopes to die.

  1. Life is brief, like a flickering candle blowing in the wind. The flame can extinguish anytime.
  2. Life is meaningless as there is no future to look forward.
  3. Life is temporary because death can happen anytime.

Moral Values
  1. Life is so precious. Value it and make the most out of it.
  2. Be optimistic about the future. Put the past behind.

To download the booklet on this poem, click the following link:
Form 1: Poem Booklet for PMR 2011

  3. Mac Yin Mee, & Dr. Malachi Edwin Vethamani (2006). Extreme Notes PMR Literature Component Bonus Book Form 1, Sasbadi, 1 - 3.
  4. Sarah M. Ganasegeram. Hotspots Literature Form 1 KBSM, Sasbadi, 1.
  5. Crescentia Morais, Grace Kay (2008). Light on Lit Selected Poems & Short Stories Form 1, Pearson Longman, 33 - 35.
  6. Anna Mathews, Senam Kaur, Leela Raju, Shamila Pathmanathan (2006). Overhead Transparency Learning English Literature Component Through Mind Maps PMR, PNI Neuron, 4 - 7.


Nath said...

wow this is a very detailed sharing for a poem, thanks for adding my understanding :)

Teacher Nuha said...

hi there Nath, you're welcome

Sol said...

Hello and greetings.

I'm not a student anymore currently 21 years old. This poem was one of my favourites. It's sad now that the current English syllabus doesn't include poems like this and previous syllabus.

It's a beautiful and yet melancholic poem. It's sad to say that in our education system, students don't really appreciate and reflect upon the meaning behind this poem in life. Like now, as was then, students then and now were probably too busy racking up As and good grades to fully appreciate the soul of this classic.

Nevertheless, a beautiful and remarkable piece.

Unknown said...

i love this :) thanks for sharing

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