Monday, January 31, 2011

Of Time & the Dagger

31 Jan / 01 Feb 2011

Welcome!  The goal of this project is to provide a (close to) daily reflection on a passage from the works of Shakespeare.  Our inaugural talking point comes from Macbeth.    

One of the most compelling speeches in the play is the dagger speech in Act 2.1, which contains an interesting use of the past tense:

I see thee yet, in form as palpable 
As this which I now draw.
Thou marshal’st me the way that I was going
And such an instrument I was to use.

As Macbeth imagines not a bare, but a bloody bodkin with which he himself might Duncan's quietus make, he pulls out his own dagger to make a comparison with the imaginary one.  In doing so, Macbeth lets out a use of the past tense that provides additional interesting insight into his psyche: his concept of time.  The dagger represents an action that will likely take place in the future.  Macbeth, however, speaks to the dagger as if though it is leading him to a place he's already been--to the performance of the fateful, be-all and end-all blow--and as if though the action already happened! 

So why speak in the past tense about something that is going to happen in the, albeit very near, future?  I would say that Macbeth’s mind and concept of time are operating similarly to Billy Pilgrim’s in the Kurt Vonnegut novel Slaughterhouse Five.  When Billy meets the alien Tralfamadorians, his concept of time changes; he begins to understand time as resembling a “span of the Rocky Mountains,” as the Tralfamadorians dumb it down for him.  Measuring time in moments is a human, and frankly limited, method.  Understanding that all things are happening at once—birth, death, war, love, and everything in between—is much more advanced.  To Macbeth, then, all things are happening at once: the thought of killing Duncan, killing Duncan, and the aftermath of killing Duncan.  The moment that Macbeth even gave thought to it in the first place is the moment that he killed Duncan.  The very moment that he lusted in his heart, as Christ says, he broke the commandment.

Despite of all controversy, as Lucio says in Measure for Measure, this is a great moment for Macbeth; a moment in which in his madness he has a superhuman mental experience.