Study Guide

Macbeth Time

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Act 1, Scene 3

                         Come what come may,
Time and the hour runs through the roughest day. (1.3.163-164)

After hearing the witch's prophesy that he'll become king, Macbeth pushes thoughts of "murder" from his mind and says he won't lift a finger against the present king —instead, he'll leave his future to "chance." Too bad that resolution doesn't last.



                        My noble partner
You greet with present grace and great prediction
Of noble having and of royal hope,
That he seems rapt withal. To me you speak not.
If you can look into the seeds of time
And say which grain will grow and which will not
Speak, then, to me, who neither beg nor fear
Your favors nor your hate. (1.3.57-64)

We kind of love this metaphor of time being like a field of seeds, full of many possible futures. Which ones will grow? And can we affect it, through fertilizer, hoeing, watering, or neglect?

Act 1, Scene 6

                                  My dearest love,
Duncan comes here tonight.

                                 And when goes hence?

Tomorrow, as he purposes.

                                  O, never
Shall sun that morrow see!
Your face, my thane, is as a book where men
May read strange matters. To beguile the time,
Look like the time. Bear welcome in your eye,
Your hand, your tongue. Look like th' innocent
But be the serpent under't. He that's coming
Must be provided for; and you shall put
This night's great business into my dispatch,
Which shall to all our nights and days to come
Give solely sovereign sway and masterdom. (1.6.67-82)

Yeah, King Duncan is not getting out of this castle alive. What caught our attention about this passage is the way the couple talks about the planned murder in terms of time —"Duncan comes here to-night"; "when goes he hence"; "never / Shall sun that morrow see!" The pair talk about their plans as though time will come to a complete halt for King Duncan. Lady Macbeth also puns on the word "time" when she suggests Macbeth should suit his demeanor to the occasion ("To beguile the time, / Look like the time") in order to make Duncan believe he's happy to see him.

Lady Macbeth

Thy letters have transported me beyond
This ignorant present, and I feel now
The future in the instant. (1.6.64-66)

When Lady Macbeth reads her husband's letter (bearing news of the witch's prophesies), her thoughts immediately turn toward the "future" that she imagines for herself and her husband. Her dreams of being the wife of a king are so vivid and so real to her, it's as though time has completely collapsed, and she feels the "future in the instant."

Act 1, Scene 7

If it were done when 'tis done, then 'twere well
It were done quickly. If th' assassination
Could trammel up the consequence and catch
With his surcease success, that but this blow
Might be the be-all and the end-all here,
But here, upon this bank and shoal of time,
We'd jump the life to come. (1.7.1-7)

Even if Macbeth isn't caught after he murders King Duncan, he'll be punished in the afterlife (the "life to come"). So why does he decide that temporary, earthly power is worth eternal damnation?

Act 4, Scene 3

                       Boundless intemperance
In nature is a tyranny. It hath been
The untimely emptying of the happy throne
And fall of many kings. (4.3.80-83)

Note that the problem isn't the king's death—it's that the king's death was "untimely," thanks to Macbeth's boundless intemperance. In other words, Macbeth simply didn't have the patience. Maybe if he'd waited he would have become king in due time—and not at the wrong time.

Act 5, Scene 5

Hang out our banners on the outward walls.
The cry is still "They come!" Our castle's strength
Will laugh a siege to scorn. Here let them lie
Till famine and the ague eat them up.
Were they not forced with those that should be
We might have met them dareful, beard to beard,
And beat them backward home. (5.5.1-8)

Macbeth's strategy during the siege is to hole up in the palace and bide his time "till famine and the augues" (starvation and illness) destroy the enemy soldiers. What's creepy about this is that he's still acting like he has all the time in the world, when in fact his borrowed time is just about up. (Fun fact: plays are bound by time in the way that other works of literature aren't. You can read a novel as fast or as slowly as you want, but when you're watching a play you only get the amount of time that a director has assigned. Almost—we're just saying—as though you're being controlled by fate.)

She should have died hereafter.
There would have been a time for such a word.
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. (5.5.20-26)

You can interpret this speech six ways to Sunday, but it seems pretty clear that, however he feels about his wife, Macbeth is pretty sure that he no longer has a future.

Act 5, Scene 8

Hail, King! for so thou art. Behold, where stands
Th' usurper's cursèd head. The time is free.
I see thee compassed with thy kingdom's pearl,
That speak my salutation in their minds,
Whose voices I desire aloud with mine.
Hail, King of Scotland! (5.8.65-70)

When Macduff says "the time is free" he means that Macbeth's reign has come to an end and the people of Scotland now live in freedom from tyranny. But there's also the sense that time had somehow come to a halt when Macbeth murdered Duncan and became king. Now that the rightful heir, Malcolm, will be crowned monarch, linear time (which was disrupted by Macbeth), is back on track, just as lineal succession (also disrupted by Macbeth) is reestablished. And—this might be a stretch, but you know who else is now free, or almost? The audience. Their time is back on track, too. Given how much Shakespeare liked to talk about plays and acting, we think it's a reasonable interpretation. Do you buy it?

                           Despair thy charm,
And let the angel whom thou still hast served
Tell thee, Macduff was from his mother's womb
Untimely ripped. (5.8.17-20)

Hey, "untimely"! We just saw it in the "untimely emptying of the happy throne" (4.3.7), so there's definitely something going on with that word. Is an untimely birth the only antidote to an untimely death?

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