How to Read Macbeth Again and Understand the Horrors of Climate Change

Recently someone asked me to write something about Shakespeare. Of course, I did it — they were an important person. But I think if you care about the Climate and Climate Crisis, maybe you can still tell your friends, “Hey, don’t think you can’t get something out of Shakespeare. I recently read this piece about Macbeth….”
Voila! See below…

Shakespeare’s Macbeth for Our Times?

One of the most famous monologues in literary history is the speech of Shakespeare’s distraught and tragic protagonist Macbeth, in his play Macbeth, first produced on the English public stage at the Globe Theater in 1611 (Williams 12). The monologue runs as follows:

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. (Macbeth 5. 5. 19–28)

These are the unforgettable lines spoken by Macbeth after he discovers his wife, the near-demented Lady Macbeth, has taken her own life once it becomes clear that her plan to have her husband usurp the throne of Scotland has failed miserably. However, these lines have a far wider significance for all audiences since Shakespeare’s time, and most certainly for contemporary audiences today.

Death, especially of those near and dear, is one of the greatest tragedies as well as greatest mysteries for all human beings. Thus, these lines from Macbeth most directly suggest that universal grief of losing someone to death, but also each individual’s own fear of death and annihilation of consciousness. Therefore, Macbeth’s searing monologue here triggers the fear all humans have of dying in the minds of contemporary audiences. However, there is another kind of annihilation or death that our world is fearing today that might also be awakened by hearing these words. This is the fear of a self-invited death or extinction caused by human overreaching and hubris. In some ways this is also quite parallel to the causal chain of events in Shakespeare’s play, since the tragic hero Macbeth is not simply a victim of Fate or the supernatural and other circumstances beyond his control. In some ways, aided by his diabolically ambitious wife, he has brought about his own destruction by becoming a traitor, murderer and usurper.

However, one might ask how modern audiences can collectively relate to the themes of loss, death and fear of a catastrophic unknown that humans sometimes ‘idiotically’ bring upon themselves. As Mark Sulzer and others have recently argued, the answer may be found in the role humans and their folly and arrogance have played in creating the present planetary climate crisis, which has made it conceivable that human beings may not have a ‘tomorrow’ (Sulzer 2021). If we read the monologue from that perspective, the following words stand out the most: “It is a tale/ Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury/ Signifying nothing.” To ‘signify nothing’ means a complete loss of meaning and purpose. As humans, we want to believe that our lives mean something, and that our days are not mere repetitive idiotic pantomimes.

Signifying Nothing???

However, faced by either individual extinction (death), or collective extinction (climate catastrophe), especially if self-propelled, humans find the idea of complete senselessness almost as terrifying as physical annihilation. In Shakespeare’s immortal lines, and through his tragic protagonist’s unavailing last-minute regret for what he has done out of pride, arrogance, and ambition, we hear the echo of humanity’s lament in the face of extinction, whether individual or collective.

Let’s not let it be like that.

Love's Garden front cover
Love’s Garden front cover

The itty bitties:

Folks, my first novel Love’s Garden was published in October 2020. Some nice people have said some nice things about it (Buzzfeed; Medium.com; Foreword Reviews; Goodreads). My short stories have been published or will be in in Oyster River Pages, Sky Island Journal, the Saturday Evening Post Best Short Stories from the Great American Fiction Contest Anthology 2021, the Good Cop/Bad Cop Anthology (Flowersong Press, 2021), the Gardan Anthology of the Craigardan Artists Residency, Funny Pearls, The Bombay Review, Meat for Tea: the Valley Review, Storyscape Journal, Raising Mothers, The Bangalore Review, PANK, OyeDrum, and more. I’ve attended the Bread Loaf Writers’ Workshop, the Vermont Studio Center residency, the VONA residency, Centrum Writer’s Residency, and others. I have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize (2021), was first runner-up for the Los Angeles Review Flash Fiction contest (2017-2018), long-listed for the Disquiet International Literary Prize (2019 and 2020), a finalist for the Reynolds-Price International Women’s Literary Award (2019), and received Honorable Mention for the Saturday Evening Post Great American Stories Contest, 2021.

In a related avatar, I’m Professor of English at Texas A&M University, USA and teach and write about English literature, South Asia Studies, Indian Cinema, Postcolonial Studies, Colonial Discourse Analysis, Gender Theory, Film Studies, and Critical Theory. I founded and directed (2007-2017) the South Asia Working Group of the Glasscock Humanities Center at Texas A&M University, and rom 2012 -2014 directed the Graduate Studies program of the English department at Texas A&M University. I’ve published three academic monographs and many articles on film, world literature, feminism and visual culture, colonial and postcolonial discourse analyses of literature from the eighteenth century onwards, gender in South Asia, and travel writing. The latest of these is Hindi Cinema: Repeating the Subject (Routledge 2012). I’ve received grants and fellowships from the Huntington Library Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Fellowship, the Regional Worlds Program of the Globalization Project (Ford Foundation) at the Chicago Humanities Institute, and the Lilly Foundation.

I also play at Youtube; Amazon; Author’s Guild; Twitter; Instagram; Facebook; Blog; LinkedIn; Goodreads; and Nandini’s Writing, Treehugging and Reading Outfit

I was sighted at these spots recently:

Featured Panelist on “Shapes of History” panel, 3rd Tasveer South Asian LitFest (TSAL), part of Tasveer Festival: Watch, Read, Talk; October 1st-24th, 2021; also available here with a ticket or pass; October 19th, 2021, 9 pm CST

Featured Reading of Love’s Garden, Bright Hill Press Reading, July 8, 2021

Invited Reading at Lit Balm: an Interactive Livestream Reading Series, February 27, 2021

Podcasts: Desi Books Episode 21

Interviews: Nandini Bhattacharya speaks on “Tell Me Your Story” Digital Conversation, April 10, 2021, 8 am CDT, on MONEY/MOOLAH/THAT THING THAT THEY SAY MAKES THE WORLD GO AROUND, and Colonialism, Gender and Writing; Oyedrum; Lois Lane Investigates; Tupelo Quarterly; Critical Flame

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