Purpose of Life in “Out, Out” and The Tragedy of Macbeth


With the intention of referencing a person, place, movie, or play, authors commonly incorporate allusions in their works of literature. Authors use these references to these outside sources for a variety of goals. Oftentimes, the author includes an allusion to add to the overall meaning of their piece or to clarify a situation by comparing it to one in another work of literature. Typically, authors choose to allude to well-known works of literature and frequently reference works by William Shakespeare. In his poem titled “Out, Out,” Robert Frost alludes to one of Shakespeare’s plays, The Tragedy of Macbeth. In “Out, Out,” Frost talks about the concept of death through the telling of the story of a young boy who loses his hand in a buzz saw accident. Ultimately, the boy’s life comes to a tragic and untimely end as a result of his fatal wound. Shakespeare’s play The Tragedy of Macbeth focuses on Macbeth’s attempt to gain as much power as possible, which ultimately leads to his demise. By alluding to The Tragedy of Macbeth in his poem “Out, Out,” Frost is successfully able to provide clarity on the overall message of the poem, while at the same time providing a complication to the presentation of the message. 

Through the act of alluding to Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Macbeth, Frost clarifies the theme that life has no meaning as presented in “Out, Out.” This allusion refers to the soliloquy that Macbeth speaks towards the end of the play after hearing about the death of his wife. Frost is specifically alluding to the line where Macbeth states, “Out, out, brief candle!” (Shakespeare 5. 5. 26). In this line, Macbeth is referring to the brief nature of human life and how quickly it comes to an end, much like the flame of a candle. Frost includes this idea of how fleeting life is through the death of the young boy in his poem. In the final lines of the poem, Frost states, “And they, since they / Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs” (31-32). Through his words, Frost conveys the idea that since death is such a common occurrence, people are no longer astonished or phased by it. Even though a young boy just lost his life, the people surrounding him continued as if nothing significant had transpired. Since they were not the ones that died, they were able to continue living their lives and going about their own business. This in turn presents the idea that life is not worth living and that since the boy died at such a young age, his life had no purpose. Even if the boy would have had the opportunity to live a long life, he ultimately would have died anyway, so all of the misery and suffering he experienced in his life would have been for nothing. 

Furthermore, this thought process that Frost uses to describe the boy’s death echoes ideas from the allusion Frost makes to The Tragedy of Macbeth. After he first hears the news of his wife’s death, Macbeth speaks, “She should have died hereafter / There would have been a time for such a word … And all our yesterdays have lighted fools / The way to dusty death” (5. 5. 20-26). Much like the people in the poem, Macbeth is not phased by the death of his wife since everyone dies eventually. He also presents the idea that each day a person is alive is merely bringing them one day closer to their death and this once again brings about the notion that there is no purpose in living. As Macbeth is reflecting on this idea, he states, “It is a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing” (5. 5. 29-31). Much like Frost’s take on life, Macbeth thinks that there is no purpose behind living. The situations filled with pain and suffering that a person has to go through each day serve no purpose in their life and are only used as a means to progress their life until it comes to a close. By echoing Macbeth’s ideas involving life, Frost draws parallels between The Tragedy of Macbeth and his work. These similarities ultimately aid readers in better understanding the theme and message Frost intends for readers to take away from his poem. 

Although Frost’s allusion to The Tragedy of Macbeth successfully provides clarification on the theme of his poem, it also provides a complication in the reader’s ability to understand the message. The allusion that Frost draws between Macbeth’s line about the brief nature of life does relate to his poem and the idea that the shortness of human existence results in life having no verifiable purpose. Despite the presence of this connection, readers must also consider the context of what Macbeth is referring to when he delivers this line. In this situation, Macbeth is referring to the death of his wife and the relatively short life she lived, but he is not the one whose life ceased to exist. Macbeth still has “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” (5. 5. 22) to continue living his life and to find a purpose to his existence. On the contrary, the juvenile boy in Frost’s poem no longer possesses this chance. Frost states, “They listened at his heart. / Little - less nothing! - and that ended it. / No more to build on there” (29-31). The young boy’s life came to an abrupt end at the closing of the poem, therefore immediately discarding any opportunity he would have had to figure out for himself the true meaning of life. When this idea is analyzed, the presentation of the theme in Frost’s poem instantly becomes exceedingly more complicated and ultimately muddles the clarification that the allusion to The Tragedy of Macbeth provides. 

Works Cited

Frost, Robert. “Out, Out” Poetry Foundation, 2017, www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/53087.

Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Macbeth. Folger Shakespeare Library, edited by Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine, shakespeare.folger.edu/downloads/pdf/macbeth_PDF_FolgerShakespeare.pdf, pp. 90-91.

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