Daniel Johnston – Gathering Temporality in Macbeth: Shakespeare’s Phenomenology of Time


Daniel Johnston

University of Sydney

Gathering Temporality in Macbeth: Shakespeare’s Phenomenology of Time

There is an essential ‘doubleness’ in Macbeth. The witches equivocate through their prophecies of the future, while the fictional world of the play has a temporal double on the early modern English stage in performance. Drawing on phenomenology, Matthew Wagner (2012) suggests that Shakespeare places the internal subjective experience of time on stage. From a theoretical perspective, rather than understand time as a series of ‘nows’ this approach examines one’s lived experience of time. Wagner also examines a number of Shakespeare’s texts in terms of temporal dissonance, thickness, and materiality. But when we take an existential context into account—the idea that time stretches from birth to death— Macbeth’s given circumstances involve a set of possibilities for action experienced within time and a relationship of self towards those possibilities. This can be faced authentically or inauthentically. Macbeth resolutely chooses his course of action by seizing power, but he fails to take into account the structure of existence, or rather has it handed over to him. He believes that he no longer has a choice and that all choices ultimately have no meaning. The doomed soldier’s rise to the throne is a lesson for the audience in authenticity. It has been argued that Shakespeare was living through an historical age emerging from a medieval world view into the modern epoch—including and understanding of history and time. This paper tracks a phenomenological interpretation of temporality in the text of Macbeth. But there is also a third time stretched stretching out to our own epoch – as a gathering of doubleness. The task of the contemporary actor approaching the play is to bring these worlds together. 

Daniel Johnston is the author of Theatre and Phenomenology: Manual Philosophy (London: Palgrave). He is Honorary Associate at the University of Sydney and lectures at The University of Notre Dame, Sydney. Previously, he was a Principal Lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University, UK., a Lecturer at The University of Sydney, an Associate Lecturer at the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA), and Lecturer at Macquarie University. He holds a PhD in Performance Studies (University of Sydney) and MA (Cantab) in Philosophy (University of Cambridge).