As we near Year’s End, time is on our minds. Shakespeare was obsessed with time, and in his great tragedy, which came late in his career, Macbeth obsesses on it too:
If it were done, when ’tis done, then ’twere well
It were done quickly. If th’ assassination
Could trammel up the consequence, and catch
With his surcease, success: that but this blow
Might be the be-all and the end-all—here,
But here, upon this bank and shoal of time,
We’d jump the life to come.
—Macbeth, Act I, Scene vii
Macbeth’s ruminations involve his and Lady Macbeth’s plans to assassinate the King of Scotland. But aren’t there always unintended consequences?
Thus we have that lovely line ‘upon this bank and shoal of time’, where Macbeth wonders about this life and the next life. He’s on the verge of venturing into a kind of beyond. A shoal is a shallow, and a bank is a sand bank; to cross those shallows will take you into the ocean’s depths–from this life to the next life. Shakespeare begins his nautical imagery earlier in the speech with ‘trammel’ and ‘catch.’ A trammel in Elizabethan times was a fishing net. What’s really neat, though, is that trammel was also a word used to describe the binding up of a corpse!
Finally, with ‘be-all’ and ‘end-all’, Macbeth frets that his assassination of the King (this being the first ever recorded use of the word ‘assassination’) might not be the final act–but rather a catalyst to set off a string of unintended consequences.
Such a lovely little soliloquy, so simple on its face, but deep with imagery and foreshadowing. And if you read the entire play–or watch one of the several movie versions–you’ll see that Macbeth is thick with references to time. Shakespeare abhorred time, and how it slowly destroys everything we humans love. In the end, though, Shakespeare won: his plays and poetry have outlasted time, venturing well beyond the bank and shoal of anything any Elizabethan could’ve imagined.
The image is of Michael Fassbender as Macbeth in the latest film version of Shakespeare’s masterpiece.