Take a Moment to Reflect, Macbeth

We all get ahead of ourselves sometimes. And Macbeth most of all, the renowned literary critic Harold Bloom argues in his essay on Shakespeare’s play. It’s his imagination that’s at fault, Bloom writes, turning him into “an overanxious actor always missing his cues.” As soon as he imagines something, he’s already there–unable to exist in the present, forever confronting an imagined future before it happens, rendering him incapable of really living.

Of course he winds up dead.

That is where all our imaginings of the future must inevitably lead.

But I think maybe this is the great epidemic of our age. We are all of us always somewhere else, with someone else. If Shakespeare was addressing it 400 years ago, then it’s likely always been a problem. But now technology makes it so much easier. Macbeth could have sat down at his iPad and plotted and re-plotted his route to Duncan and his other murder victims on Google Maps, researched murder methods, read up on kingship since he was aiming high, and chatted with people online who were also thinking out murders.

He need never have paused for even a moment and thought, “Huh. Why the hell do I want to be king anyway?”

So it goes with us. Our ambitions outstrip the time. Our imagination leaps ever further from our present place and moment. And technology is often the magic carpet that whisks us away.

Is it any wonder that so many of us are anxious, frazzled, tired, depressed? Macbeth was visited not by conscience for plotting to kill the king, but for the many ways he could imagine it going wrong, the many individuals he could envision hunting him down and taking revenge.

A “heat oppressed brain” is right (II, 1). So why do we spend so much time feverishly trying to outsmart time? Imagining contingencies, locating ourselves elsewhere? While right now, right in front of us, life is going by, and we don’t see it at all.

Humanity has been trying to figure out for millennia how to be more present, more mindful. Less like Macbeth and more like Buddha. It’s a problem that we haven’t solved yet.

But sometimes I do get past the constant “What’s next” and land with a thump in the present. I find it’s in the details.

And I can’t help but wonder if Macbeth might have been less anxious, less murderous if now and then, he had taken up his wife’s braid and rubbed the silky strands between his fingers and told her, “Darling, you look lovely tonight.” If maybe cleaning his dagger before the murder, he had paused and noticed the craftsmanship of the blade, the beauty of the polished pommel, and realized the uselessness of killing another human being in the greater scheme of things. What if he had taken a moment to pat a friend on the back and noticed the creases around the man’s eyes when he smiled and thought of how happy he felt to have such a good man as Macduff for a friend?

It may sound stupidly simple. But often, the best solutions are. 🙂

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2 thoughts on “Take a Moment to Reflect, Macbeth

  1. Love this, I’ve read Macbeth (and Bloom on the play) many times, but never came away with this acute observation. Bloom wrote in an early book “we are our imaginations and die with them.” Of course the imagination is also a rather destructive force that can tear apart the would be poet.

    1. Agreed. But for that reason, I think imagination must be disciplined. Macbeth certainly lacked discipline, as Lady Macbeth frequently reminded him. So maybe it isn’t imagination per se that’s destructive, but allowing it to get out of hand.

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