Glossary Home Shakespeare Quotes

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player

“Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player” is an interesting Shakespearean quote that is used in his tragedy, Macbeth. It appears in Act V, Scene 5 and is spoken by the title character. 

The quote is used near the end of the play and features Macbeth’s reaction to the news that his wife, Lady Macbeth, has committed suicide. He knows his own life is near its end, as the armies of his enemies approach, and through this quote and the longer soliloquy it appears in, he expresses his new, nihilistic approach to his life. 

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player Shakespeare quote

“Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player” Meaning

“Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player” is Macbeth’s description of the nature of life towards the end of the tragedy. He knows his wife, Lady Macbeth, has committed suicide and is imagining what his future will be like. Life, to him, is meaningless. It is a “poor player” who features on stage for a few moments, expressing passion, suffering, and longing, and then exits without meaning or purpose. 

Where Did Shakespeare Use “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player?” 

William Shakespeare used his quote in Act V, Scene 5 of his tragedy, Macbeth. It is spoken by the title character after learning that the Queen, Lady Macbeth, is dead. Here is the quote in context

She should have died hereafter. 

There would have been a time for such a word. 

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.

This is one of the most famous short soliloquies from the play. It includes several well-known lines, including “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow,” as well as the lines which follow “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player.” Here, readers get a fantastic glimpse into Macbeth’s psyche. His guilt is intense as his victims haunt him and his death nears. His enemies are closing in, his wife has committed suicide, and these short lines are his response to everything that’s going on in his life. 

In these lines, he jumps from image to image, describing candles, theater, and death. Throughout, Shakespeare uses his most poetic language, ensuring that readers understand that life has lost its meaning for Macbeth. 

Throughout, he uses contrasting images of light and darkness. These are combined with the image of an actor walking on stage, feeling and expressing all of life’s emotions in a short period of time. They “strut” and “fret” their “hour upon the stage,” or short years of life, and then “is heard no more.” This is a euphemism for death, a death that comes at the end of a “tale / Told by an idiot” (a metaphor for life). It is a story filled with “sound and fury” or passion, aggrandizement, and emotion but then signifies nothing. 

All of Macbeth’s scheming, his longing, greed, and murder mean nothing in the end. It has brought him to his death and has forced him to see the loss of everything he ever cared about. 

Why Did Shakespeare Use the Quote?

Shakespeare has Macbeth describe life as a “walking shadow” in order to emphasize how meaningless it has become to him. It is a “poor player,” or actor, who lives through all the emotions one can experience on stage within an hour and then walks off (or dies). He goes on to say that life is a story “told by an idiot.” It is filled with passion, suffering, pride, and more but in the end, it signifies nothing—it is meaningless. 

Macbeth proves just how weary he is of life and the choices he’s made in this passage. It’s likely going to be hard for readers to feel sympathy for his character at this point, considering that his suffering is his own doing. 


Who says, “Life’s but a walking shadow?” 

This line is spoken by Macbeth in William Shakespeare’s tragedy of the same name. He uses this line in Act V, Scene 5, line twenty-seven. It is part of one of the most famous soliloquies in all of Shakespeare’s writing. 

What does Macbeth’s “Tomorrow” soliloquy mean?

The soliloquy is delivered after Macbeth learns the news that his wife, Lady Macbeth, has committed suicide. Through its lines, Macbeth expresses how meaningless life feels to him at this moment. It is absurd, short, and signifies nothing.

Why does Macbeth say, “Life’s but a walking shadow?”

Macbeth uses this line in order to express how meaningless and brief life is. He sees it as a walking shadow, a “poor player,” or an actor, who walks on the stage, pretending to be someone and feel something for a short period of time, and then exits.

Other Quotes from Macbeth 

Other Resources 

The Best-Kept Secrets of Poetry

Discover and learn about the greatest poetry ever straight to your inbox

Share to...