There be dragons!

Monday, December 10, 2007

Macbeth the Damned


To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
Macbeth Act 5, scene 5, 19–28

Note here the repetitive use of the word "tomorow"; thrice is a charm and just as the three weird sisters speak their charms in three, so too does Macbeth speak his own damnation thrice. He thus confirms the damnation as an inevitable reality. The repetition borders on tedious monotony (one more and he'd seem daft) and thus conveys the hopelessness that the next day will be different from the present and the insanity that drives one to see each day as identically devoid of hope. Further, the cadence of the line is thus daDUMdum, ba daDUMdum, ba daDUMdum; or in poetic terms it is a series of iambic + anapestic + anapestic, sort of. In actuality the line follows no set rhythmic form of poetry (breaking Shakespeare's normal use of iambic pentameter) but is itself a series of stressed and unstressed syllable which act like waves crashing into the reader. Macbeth has "so far waded into blood that it would be as tedious to turn back as it would be to go o'er." He is a man drowning in his own damned fatalism. So his vision of the morrow consists of one day after another hitting like breakers against the drowning swimmer.

Additionally, the days seem to "creep on by" for him. They do not run or jump or gallop, they do not gambol or lunge or lurch. Creeping is a slow, monotonous action that again bespeaks the perpetuity of damnation which the future now seems to hold for him. But creeping also has two other connotations; first, animals on the prowl creep toward their prey. In this first sense, the future is like a carnivore stalking Macbeth, waiting to devour him. He endures a sense of impending doom from the future as though he will eventually be found out and the great crime he has committed will be revealed. Second, though, is that creep is normally associated with weird or uncanny things (as in "that's creepy"). For Macbeth the future has become something fraught with terror of the unknown and stalked by horrors and creatures from the other world. He sees ghosts and moving forests. His future has become nothing but a long Creepshow.

Also note, the creeping is done in a "petty pace." Indeed, pettiness means something small, mean, and unbecoming of noble men. To be petty is to be pusillanimous, small souled. It carries with it the connotation of claustrophobia and being trapped in one's own self. But why not "petty track"? or "petty gait"? or "petty cadence"? Shakespeare seems to have chosen the alliteration of the "p" sound for some intentional purpose. For one thing, the formation of the p sound involves a puffing of the lips, an action done to express frustration or juvenile disdain. For all its horrors and pain, the future may seem to Macbeth to be a frustrating series of base or ignoble trials to be endured without purpose and without cessation. For another thing, the puffing out of the lips involves an exhaling of breath, as though the final exhaling of breath, death, is the inevitable end of all this wearisome toil.

The petty pace ultimately leads "to the last syllable of recorded time." How is time involved with syllables? Why does Shakespeare use here a word, "syllable", associated with poetry and story to delineate time? And who is doing the recording? "Recorded time" is either backward looking or forward looking; that is, either time is being recorded after events happen and thus is retrospective, or it is already recorded and men are merely fated players on the stage. The syllables that compose the story of our lives are written either by a benevolent god who creates story in tandem with his creatures (thus allowing our free will to remain operative) or they are written by dark and severe god who has set down the story in stone from which no created being may deviate. The latter possibility seems to confirm the fatalism of Macbeth and suggests that he sees the future with nothing but horror for when the last syllable is spoken the tomb will be shut and Macbeth's life will be thoroughly and completely damned.

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