by Stuart Sherman
"When shall we three meet again?"
First line; weird move: Shakespeare opens Macbeth at just that point where an ordinary scene might end (conversation finished, meeting adjourned). The witches’ question is all next, no now.
As, of course, is their pivotal prophecy: “All hail, Macbeth! That shalt be king hereafter.” Hereafter: the word, ordinary enough, accomplishes extraordinary things. It muddles space (here) with time (after), and performs upon Macbeth a paralyzing temporal takeover. “Nothing is,” he says to himself, “but what is not”; or as Samuel Johnson explained the line, “Nothing is present to me but that which is really future.” Here is nothing, after is all in all.
In Macbeth’s dark music, hereafter works as both time signature and tonal center. It establishes the shapes of time through which we’ll move, and the idea of time to which we’ll restlessly return. Eerily, Lady Macbeth repeats the word even though she has not heard the witches speak it (is she somehow their collaborator?) when she greets her husband at his homecoming:
Great Glamis! Worthy Cawdor!
Greater than both, by the all-hail hereafter!
Echoing the witches, she also outpaces them in forward thrust. They hailed her husband; she hails the future itself:
Thy letters have transported me
Beyond the ignorant present, and I feel now
The future in the instant.
For her this is liberation, ecstasy; for Macbeth, shaken by these new tricks of time, the inescapable ignorance of the present remains intermittently worth clinging to. “We will proceed no further in this business,” he declares, shortly before surrendering his stasis and colluding in their now-copular momentum. Macbeth’s marriage scenes, among the most profound in any play, track the tensions and torments of two lovers differently disordered by the ways in which they have come unstuck in time.
It is a harrowing measure of their intimacy that, at play’s midpoint, they switch derangements. He hurtles towards the future (the next desperate murder, the next deluding prophecy); she stays stuck in the past (“Out, out, damned spot”), with an obsessiveness that quickly draws her down to madness and annihilation. In the nightmare word-music with which Macbeth receives the news of her death, Shakespeare orchestrates the whole play’s terrifying vision of what the mortal mind can do with time. He starts by tapping his keyword (once more, and for the last time) as though it were a tuning fork:
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.
Macbeth here mourns not his wife so much as her mind’s timings, which, in the hypnotic overlap and shuttle of the lines that follow, he will not only remember but relive. The ecstasy that Lady Macbeth savored at her husband’s homecoming (“I feel now / The future in the instant”) is here horrifically fulfilled: in Macbeth’s merciless reckoning of ordinary time, the future perpetuates the blank ignorance of the present, invading each instant in an ongoing usurpation, an endless, empty repetition. Though he mentions his wife only at the start, his soliloquy is nonetheless their marriage’s monument: her all-hail hereafter has become first their shared and now his solitary hell.
And by the logic of his language, ours too. Tomorrow is after all hereafter’s everyday incarnation. Repeating the word as relentlessly and obsessively as his wife once spoke of spots, Macbeth makes it encompass all the everyday processes of deferral—procrastination, hope, ambition, worry, fear, desire—by which we invite the future to distort, dissolve, or paralyze the present, transforming time’s abundance into the vacancy of “all our yesterdays.” “I have supped full of horrors,” Macbeth declares, and by play’s end so have we: witches, apparitions, murdered parents and slaughtered children. But running under all of these is a phenomenon perhaps more frightening because more familiar: the havoc wrought by the human mind as it makes its tortured way through ordinary time.
For this core horror, the stage itself (Macbeth and Shakespeare know) can serve as apt and painful proving ground:
Life’s but a walking shadow; a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more...
Time always works strangely at the playhouse. Attending a new play, the audience dwells (like the characters) mostly in the here and now; only the actors know (scene by scene, line by line) what comes next. But Macbeth’s long run (four centuries and counting) has intensified our susceptibility to its tragedy of time. Deeply schooled in its plot, we too know what happens next. Taking our seats, we enter willingly and even eagerly (this is one of the mighty mysteries of theatergoing) into a peculiar temporal contract: we will inhabit the here and the after simultaneously; we will bear the burden of foreknowledge as we watch Macbeth and his Lady make their agonizing way from all-hail to all hell; we will feel the force and terror of their future in the instant that the first witch speaks.