Literature

A Short Analysis of Macbeth’s ‘If it were done when ’tis done’ Soliloquy

‘If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well / It were done quickly’: so begins one of the most famous and revealing soliloquies in William Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The words, spoken by Macbeth himself as he considers whether he can go through with the murder of Duncan, appear in act I scene VII of Macbeth and see Macbeth, in a room in his castle, meditating on whether to go through with his (and his wife’s) plan to murder Duncan, the king, and seize the throne of Scotland for himself. A number of features of the language and imagery require unpicking and analysis, but first, here’s a reminder of Macbeth’s words:

If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well
It were done quickly: if the 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. But in these cases
We still have judgment here; that we but teach
Bloody instructions, which, being taught, return
To plague the inventor: this even-handed justice
Commends th’ ingredience of our poison’d chalice
To our own lips. He’s here in double trust;
First, as I am his kinsman and his subject,
Strong both against the deed; then, as his host,
Who should against his murderer shut the door,
Not bear the knife myself. Besides, this Duncan
Hath borne his faculties so meek, hath been
So clear in his great office, that his virtues
Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued, against
The deep damnation of his taking-off;
And pity, like a naked new-born babe,
Striding the blast, or heaven’s cherubim, horsed
Upon the sightless couriers of the air,
Shall blow the horrid deed in every eye,
That tears shall drown the wind. I have no spur
To prick the sides of my intent, but only
Vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself
And falls on th’ other.

So, here’s a breakdown or analysis of the meaning of Macbeth’s ‘If it were done when ’tis done’ soliloquy, piece by piece:

If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well
It were done quickly: if the assassination
Could trammel up the consequence, and catch,
With his surcease, success;

Macbeth begins his soliloquy by saying that if the act of killing Duncan would truly be the end of it, and there would be no consequences, it is better to get it over and done with as quickly as possible (Shakespeare provides us with perhaps the very first use of the word ‘assassination’ in these lines, by the way). A ‘trammel’ was a net for catching partridges, although Kenneth Muir, in his annotations to the play in the Arden Shakespeare edition, “Macbeth” (Arden Shakespeare: Second Series), points out that ‘trammel’ also meant to fasten the legs of horses together so they couldn’t run off. When Macbeth says ‘his surcease’, he is probably referring to Duncan’s (‘his’) death (‘surcease’: a legal term meaning to stop something, but used elsewhere in Shakespeare with the suggestion of a euphemism for ‘death’).

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.

Another new coinage here: ‘be-all and end-all’, a phrase neatly encapsulating Macbeth’s wish that ending Duncan’s life would also mean an end to all this worry about it. Indeed, Macbeth says that he would gladly put his immortal soul and its fate in the afterlife (‘the life to come’) at risk if he knew that killing Duncan would prove the end of the whole business.

But in these cases
We still have judgment here; that we but teach
Bloody instructions, which, being taught, return
To plague the inventor: this even-handed justice
Commends th’ ingredience of our poison’d chalice
To our own lips.

But ‘here’ in this world, Macbeth says, there is ‘judgment’ too (such as the law, which punishes murder). If we ‘teach’ others how to commit bloody deeds, he continues, these others may commit such acts upon us, who taught them in the first place. Justice is equal for everyone and so the murderer who served up the poisoned drink ends up having to drink from it himself.

He’s here in double trust;
First, as I am his kinsman and his subject,
Strong both against the deed; then, as his host,
Who should against his murderer shut the door,
Not bear the knife myself.

There are two reasons (apart from the obvious) why Macbeth should think carefully about whether killing Duncan is a good idea: Duncan is Macbeth’s relative and his king, to whom he owes allegiance. But then there’s the added reason that Duncan is a guest at Macbeth’s castle, and so Macbeth should be providing protection against harm rather than harming Duncan himself. (Note here that Macbeth actually ends up offering three reasons why he shouldn’t kill Duncan, rather than the ‘double’ reason he initially mentioned: Duncan is family; Duncan is his king; and Duncan is a guest in his home.)

Besides, this Duncan
Hath borne his faculties so meek, hath been
So clear in his great office, that his virtues
Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued, against
The deep damnation of his taking-off;
And pity, like a naked new-born babe,
Striding the blast, or heaven’s cherubim, horsed
Upon the sightless couriers of the air,
Shall blow the horrid deed in every eye,
That tears shall drown the wind.

Duncan is such a humble and virtuous king, that if Macbeth were to murder him, heaven itself would cry out against the crime.

I have no spur
To prick the sides of my intent, but only
Vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself
And falls on th’ other …

I cannot spur myself on to commit this act: all I have to motivate me is my ambition, which makes me rush so hastily into things that I’ll end up falling over myself.

This summary/paraphrase of Macbeth’s soliloquy gives a sense of its meaning, on a line-by-line (or chunk-by-chunk) basis. But what does it mean in the context of the play?

A key word in Macbeth as a whole is ‘done’. The word comes at us three times in the first two lines here, and elsewhere, numerous characters, including Macbeth himself, use it liberally. When Duncan had first arrived at Macbeth’s castle, Lady Macbeth had greeted him:

In every point twice done and then done double
Were poor and single business to contend
Against those honours deep and broad wherewith
Your majesty loads our house;

And later, once the deed is ‘done’ against Duncan (whose name, like the castle of Dunsinane, happily hides a homophone for the word), Lady Macbeth tells him ‘what’s done is done’ and, alter, ‘What’s done cannot be undone’. Balanced against such a simple monosyllable as ‘done’, we have the more formal Latinate complexities of ‘assassination’, ‘consequence’, and ‘surcease’; compare shortly after this, when Macbeth confronts his bloody hands after the deed, and says:

Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood
Clean from my hand? No, this my hand will rather
The multitudinous seas in incarnadine,
Making the green one red

Where the monosyllables of that final line are balanced by the two expansive, polysyllabic words in the previous one, mirroring the spreading of the blood throughout the green ocean. The effect in this soliloquy, however, is more to suggest Macbeth’s vacillation between simple action (just get the deed done) and more thoughtful, even philosophical doubting and considering (especially when such a thing as ‘consequence’ is concerned).

One aspect of this soliloquy that’s often overlooked is how much of it relies on language and imagery derived from horse-riding: ‘trammel’, as already noted, summons the idea of binding a horse’s legs together, while ‘I have no spur / To prick the sides of my intent’ suggests a rider kicking his horse into a gallop, and ‘Vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself / And falls on th’ other’ calls to mind an over-hasty horse which trips because it is jumping too far too fast. Shakespeare doesn’t hammer home this motif, but it is there, loosely threaded through Macbeth’s thought-process and suggesting both the perils and the cost of rushing in to a course of action too quickly. As the two old axioms have it, ‘He who hesitates is lost’ but at the same time, ‘Look before you leap.’

One Comment

  1. Great idea for a post – well
    Done

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