“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,
(Macbeth, Act V, Scene V)
These words of Shakespeare’s Macbeth summarize interesting ideas about the nature of life. The first line expresses two of the three marks of existence as per Buddhist thinking, Anicca, impermanence, and Anatta, non-self: a “walking shadow” is as insubstantial and impermanent as anything imaginable; a “poor player” neither creates nor directs his role, and the character being played only exists because of an author. Macbeth’s entire statement, particularly the last sentence, expresses the third Buddhist mark of existence: Dukkha, dissatisfaction.
The stage metaphor in the second line represents boundaries or limits. Scientific research into the nature of life often focuses on the material, energetic, and temporal limitations within which life can exist. The temporal limit of life is known as death. In the spirit of this interpretation, the idea of being “heard no more” could imply that life constantly evolves new forms while discarding older ones.
Macbeth hints at the wisdom of mystery traditions while anticipating the revelations of genetic science by stating that life “is a tale”. Now, this refers to the language-based, or code-based, nature of life. Readers may consider this in relation to DNA and RNA, and also in relation to John’s Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (The implications of the phrase “told by an idiot” exceed the scope of this inquiry.)
In five concise and poetic lines, Shakespeare defined life as an impermanent, non-self-directed, unsatisfactory, limited, ever-changing, and ultimately insignificant code.