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
Jumping the Life to Come (1.7.7)
Bill Long 8/2/05
For Lisa Stolley Miller
Macbeth's opening speech in 1.7 is a prime example of his indecisiveness, his reluctance to go ahead with the plot his wife is developing to kill King Duncan. It is a long (28 lines) and complex speech, drawing on images from the piscatory to the equestrian, from zephyr's breezes to the life of the world to come. Some of the thoughts are expressed with blinding clarity and not a little eloquence, while one of the images seems to fall flat (pity's flight in 21ff.). Early in the speech he explores his mixed feelings about going through with the deed, and does so with a mixed image, which is the focus of this mini-essay. My thesis is that his use of "jump" in line 7 actually confuses rather than clarifies, and cannot be saved even though the editors of the OED put a separate entry for "jump" in their dictionary largely because of this passage.
The Flow of the First Seven Lines
Macbeth is preoccupied with the possible consequences of killing the king. "If it were done when 'tis done, then 'twere well/ It were done quickly" (1.7.1-2). The first use of "done" is significant. He is saying that if the matter were over and done, so that no consequences attended Duncan's killing, it would be best to do the deed right away. "Whatever your hand finds to do, do it quickly." Then he introduces a bicipital image in one word: "If th' assassination/ Could trammel up the consequence" (1.7.2-3)... The word trammel had two meanings in Shakespeare's day: (1) to use a trammel net, which is a long narrow fishing net of three thicknesses (the putative Latin derivation is tri-macula or "three mesh") or (2) to fasten together legs of a horse with a hobble to hamper it and to prevent it from straying or kicking.
Shakespeare tries to use both of these images, mostly successfully, as the speech proceeds. If the assassination could either 'trap' or 'hinder' the consequences, it would "catch/ With his surcease, success." A small exclamation point for ingenuity here. So he gives another 'if' clause, with reference to the 'fishing' part of the trammel image: " If the assassination "Might be the be-all and end-all--here,/ But here, upon this bank and shoal of time..." You fish, casting your trammel net from the banks and the shoals of the river. If he was assured of this kind of success, "We'd jump the life to come" (1.1.7). Two explanations of the meaning of this clause, neither of which is satisfactory, suggest themselves.
Meaning One: Jump as "Hazard"
The standard rendering of the meaning of "jump" here is "hazard" or "risk chances." Definition 11 under the word in the OED so renders it, but the only two examples of this purported usage are from Shakespeare (one of which is this passage). But what would the sentence mean if we took this otherwise unattested meaning of "jump" as "hazard"? Macbeth then would be saying that if he was assured of success by murdering Duncan now, he would hazard or risk his chances of (salvation?) in the life to come. The thought would be that the prospect of unassailed kingship would be such a welcome one, such an enticing hope that he would be willing to give up (take his chances on) eternal life to get this temporal pleasure. But even though this interpretation has some allure, it doesn't really square with the rest of the speech. In the remainder of the soliloquy, Macbeth is painfully aware of how noble and virtuous Duncan is. It would be even more painfully obvious to him that if he were to kill Duncan in cold blood that he had no chance of escaping the judgment of God. Macbeth is cautious throughout the speech, not wanting to take on something that will have terrible consequences. Risking a confrontation with God on the day of judgment would be the essence of lack of caution. Jump as "hazard," then has this weaknesses.
Meaning Two: Jump as "Leap Over"
This is the natural meaning, the meaning of "jump" for almost all of the definitions in the OED. It makes sense because it would be an indication that Shakespeare was consciously using the equestrian as well as the fishing image. And, it fits nicely with the closing words of the soliliquy, where Macbeth talks about his "vaulting ambition" which may, rather than place him right in the saddle, "o'erleap(s) itself/ And fall(s) on th' other side" (1.7.27-28). But if the meaning is "leap" or "leap over," then what might it mean to "jump" the life to come? Macbeth then would be saying that if the consequences of his action would be trammeled (cut off), he would jump over the life to come. Though Shakespeare isn't very clear here on what the life to come consists in, Christian theology usually divided it into two things: the final judgment and the life with God (or without God). So, jumping the life to come would suggest here that if all consequences of his action were removed, he would jump right over the judgment of God and into blessedness. This would be the only way to make sense of this meaning of "jump." But this, too, is unsatisfactory for there is no indication that Shakespeare intends us to slice and dice the Christian eschatological vision in order to interpret one word.
I conclude that Shakespeare used the word in line 7 to try to develp the equestrian as well as the piscatory image (which he had done in line 6), but that the word "jump," the best word at his disposal, didn't quite fit what he wanted to say. He really doesn't want to take his chances with salvation after murdering Duncan--anyone knows that a regicide, especially of a just king, will get no mercy from God. Nor does he want to leap over the life to come, as if he is either dispensing with the Christian symbols or splitting it into judgment and blessedness. The word 'jump' may leap off the page at us, but it really does hamper our understanding of the passage.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long