Overview Act I
"Threes" in 1.1
"Threes" in 1.1 (II)
Weird Sisters I
Weird Sisters II
Act 1, Scene 2
I. 2 Images
Word Use in 1.2
Word Use in 1.2 II
Partial Lines (1.2)
Partial Lines II
Phrases and 1.3
The Future Now
The Chalice (1.7)
Sacking the Temple
Sack. the Sacred II
The "Chance" II
The Future in the Instant (1.5.58)
Bill Long 8/1/05
Lady Macbeth's Realized Eschatology
As you look into Macbeth, you can't help but notice the compressed language and hasty pace of the play's action. Indeed, one of the benefits of reading the play very slowly and mulling over it is that you allow your imagination and mind to fill in some of the gaps in narration which the play presents. Scholars have noted that an earlier scene of the play may have dropped out--Lady Macbeth's words in 1.7.49ff. can most profitably be understood if there was another time when Macbeth and his wife discussed Duncan's murder. Listen to the way A.C. Bradley describes the action in his magisterial work on Shakespearean tragedy:
"The other three tragedies all open with conversations which lead into the action: here the action bursts into wild life amidst the sounds of a thunderstorm and the echoes of a distant battle. It hurries through seven very brief scenes of mounting suspense to a terrible crisis, which is reached, in the murder of Duncan, at the beginning of the Second Act. Pausing a moment and changing its shape, it hastes again with scarcely diminished speed to fresh horrors."
In short, Macbeth is a tragedy on the move.
Jesus on the Move
As I was thinking about the rapidity of the action in Macbeth, I couldn't get out of my mind the way that Jesus is portrayed in the first chapter of the Gospel of Mark. We are told fairly early in the action that Jesus appears on the scene and announces: "The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near" (1:15). Every second-year student of New Testament Greek knows that the word translated "has come near," is engiken, a verb in the perfect tense. The perfect tense in Greek suggests an action which has begun in the past but whose effect continues in the present. An alternative translation of 1:15 would be: "the kingdom of God has arrived" or "is at hand." In the next five verses the word "immediately" appears twice; in the 20 verses after that the action tumbles over itself as Jesus calls disciples, casts out demons, heals a woman and speaks to and heals a huge crowd of people. This action all happens in a day. Reversing the words of Genesis, there was morning and then evening, one day.
Twentieth-century scholars of Jesus, led by Albert Schweitzer (of later missionary fame), argued that the Synoptic Gospel authors (Matt; Mk; Lk) portrayed Jesus as an "eschatological prophet," one who was on the move because of his belief in the imminent end of the age. There would barely be enough time for Jesus to go through all the towns of Judea and Galilee before the Son of Man came. Schweitzer further argued that the reality of Jesus's eschatological mission led to two kinds of writing in the Gospels: the apocalyptic imagery of the Synotics and the realized eschatology of John. An example of apocalyptic imagery is in Matt. 24-25, where signs and wonders attend the destruction of the temple and the end of the. An example of John's realized eschatology would be Jesus' frequent "I am" statements--communicating the fact that the fulness of God was already present in him. "What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The lights shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it" (John 1:3-5). "I am the way, and the truth, and the life" (John 14:6).
Returning to Macbeth
It struck me, then, that as Shakespeare portrayed the rapid action of Macbeth, this action, like that in the Gospels, had to have some resolution--and quickly. Heavenly portents (i.e., Shakespear's "apolcalyptic" language) certainly appear in Macbeth, as when Lenox says:
"The night has been unruly: where we lay,
Our chimneys were blown down; and, as they say,
Lamentings heard i'th'air; strange screams of death,
And, prophesying with accents terrible
Of dire combustion, and confus'd events,
New hatch'd to th'woeful time, the obscure bird
Clamour'd the livelong night: some say, the earth
Was feverous, and did shake" (2.3.53-60).
But what was more striking to me was the way that Lady Macbeth greeted her husband when he returned from battle. Her greeting, to use theological words, was a classic statement of "realized eschatology."
"Great Glamis! worthy Cawdor!
Greater than both, by the all-hail hereafter!
Thy letters have transported me beyond
This ignorant present, and I feel now
The future in the instant" (1.5.54-58).
Upon Macbeth's arrival to greet her, she is "transported" from this time to a future time, and the future is, as it were, brought back into the present. She can see, feel and become part of this future because of the awesome presence of Macbeth and the undoubted truth of the Weird Sisters' prophecies. It is no longer an "earnest" of a future inheritance; the reality of the prophecies is already true.
Macbeth's Realized Eschatology?
Macbeth, too, uses language that potentially partakes of this realized eschatology in 1.7, though I think that Shakespeare, in order to try to develop a catchy image (of ambition leaping over a horse while trying to saddle yourself--1.7.27-28), becomes unclear in his usage. In that scene Macbeth weighs the consequences that might follow upon Duncan's murder. If "th' assassination/ Could trammel up the consequence" (1.7.2-3; that is, trammel can be used to describe the "catching" of fish or the "fastening together" of legs of a horse)..."We'd jump the life to come" (1.7.5). The word "jump" is unclear here. The OED lists this word as a unique occurrence, meaning "to hazard," so that Macbeth's meaning would be, 'if assassination would eliminate (?)/hinder(?) the future consequences, we would take our chances with the life to come.'
But "jump," it seems to me, has to be given its clear meaning-- to leap over or to leap. Taken in this way, Macbeth would be saying that he would want to jump right to (or over?) the "life to come" (judgment day? or eternal life, which comes after the judgment?). The image is unclear, as Shakespeare has, I believe, tried to do too much with the image, but it does hint at the notion that Macbeth is thinking about wanting to get right to the life to come. He, however, is much more realistic than Lady Macbeth, as he proceeds to weigh the consequences of his actions (1.7.6-25). But, then again, his realism does not protect him from being badgered by her into going ahead with the plot to kill Duncan.
This essay has gone on slightly too long, but I hope it gives the flavor of Lady Macbeth's (and Macbeths's) eschatological longings.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long