And I feel now the future in the instant

A small observation as I read Macbeth after rewatching the Ian McKellen and Judi Dench version yesterday. One atmospheric element of the play that I never feel in performances – because they move too fast for the ramifications to sink in – is what I, for lack of any better term, think of as cognitive time slippage. I guess you could also call it a sort of prolepsis but it would then need distinguishing against (my quite possibly poor understanding of) Gerard Genette’s narratological definition. What happens here is not a narrative sequence displacement (a looking forward to a future moment) but a cognitive displacement where the character’s mind seems genuinely to ‘slip’ out of the present and into the future. There are a few potential instances of this throughout the play but the first two will illustrate the point. First is Macbeth responding to the prophecy of the witches (1.3.132-43):

MACBETH
This supernatural soliciting
Cannot be ill, cannot be good: if ill,
Why hath it given me earnest of success,
Commencing in a truth? I am thane of Cawdor:
If good, why do I yield to that suggestion
Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair
And make my seated heart knock at my ribs,
Against the use of nature? Present fears
Are less than horrible imaginings:
My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical,
Shakes so my single state of man that function
Is smother’d in surmise, and nothing is
But what is not.

The flow of grammar and sense are tough – and my commentaries are hesitant to commit to explanations – but the italicized lines seem to me a three-step mental movement in which the character’s mind shifts from an anchoring in the real present to one in the not real/imagined future. In performance the concluding ‘nothing is / But what is not.‘ sounds a sophism of sorts but in a leisurely reading the paradox of Macbeth’s present/is being replaced by the future/is not establishes a particular type of time-based mental disturbance – one that immediately infects Lady Macbeth as well. At their first meeting in 1.5.54 she greets him:

Great Glamis! worthy Cawdor!
Greater than both, by the all-hail hereafter!
Thy letters have transported me beyond
This ignorant present, and I feel now
The future in the instant.

All this is very different from Brutus’ lines in Julius Caesar (2.1.63-69) that my Arden edition calls up as comparison since Brutus there doesn’t lose sight of the act of imagining (and focuses on the interim anyway, which is a different issue of time):

Between the acting of a dreadful thing
And the first motion, all the interim is
Like a phantasma, or a hideous dream:
The Genius and the mortal instruments
Are then in council; and the state of man,
Like to a little kingdom, suffers then
The nature of an insurrection.

Brutus understands his activity as purely mental/internal while Macbeth (nothing is but what is not) and especially Lady Macbeth (transported me beyond … I feel now) seem to insist on having crossed a line into (imagined) physical manifestation.

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