Like the talented actors who interact with Macbeth, renowned literary critic Frank Kermode also shines when dealing with this marvel of theater. [Although I recently read Kermode’s autobiography, and emphatically urge you to skip it on account of blithering conceit, I would emphatically urge you to the opposite for The Sense of an Ending.] In his essay “A World Without Beginning or End” within The Sense of an Ending, he writes:
Now Macbeth is above all others a play of prophecy; it not only enacts prophecies, it is obsessed by them. It is concerned with the desire to feel the future in the instant, to be transported beyond the ignorant present. It is about failures to attend to the part of equivoque which lacks immediate interest…. It is concerned, too, with equivocations inherent in language. Hebrew could manage with one word for ‘I am’ and ‘I shall be’; Macbeth is a man of a different temporal order. The world feeds his fictions of the future. When he asks the sisters ‘what are you?’ their answer is to tell him what he will be.
Macbeth, more than any other of Shakespeare’s plays, is a play of crisis, and its opening is a figure for the seemingly atemporal agony of a moment when times cross; when our usual apprehension of successive past and future is translated into another order of time.
Now Kermode begins to touch on the real power behind Macbeth, and indeed, the real power behind all the great Shakespeare. Here was no ordinary playwright, flopping around in the same sandbox as others of the age. No, here was someone getting at the very human condition itself.
Macbeth is saying that if an act could be without succession, without temporal consequence, one would welcome it out of a possible future into actuality. Nothing in time can, in that sense be done, freed of consequence or equivocal aspects. Prophecy by its very forms admits this, and so do plots. …
The act is not an end. Macbeth three times wishes it were: if the doing were an end, he says; if surcease cancelled success, if ‘be’ were ‘end.’ But only the angels make their choices in non-successive time, and ‘be’ and ‘end’ are only one in God. The choice is between time and eternity. There is, in life, no such third order as that Macbeth wishes for.
I wouldn’t be so sure there isn’t. If you think the high-falutin talk of time and eternity is only so much fluff, perhaps you find more in common with Richard Webster and his take on Kermode:
We might learn that literature is not about time, order, or contingency, but about love, pride, animality and human identity; about the kind of society in which we live and the kind of society in which we might live. It is more than a little disturbing that such a truism needs to be stated at all.
There’s no doubt that Macbeth contains those topics in abundance as well, and they make many of Shakespeare’s works compelling, but Kermode’s work is enduring despite Webster’s criticism because it succeeds in discerning the many layers of Macbeth’s profound agony, borne not of hormones, but of the human condition, which is uniquely concerned with the passage of time. Time impresses identity upon us and forces us to make choices from which we may never turn back.