'Beyond this Ignorant Present': The Poverty of Historicism in Macbeth

Although Macbeth is not stricto sensu a history play, its dominant concern with the paralogisms of time forces the reader to reconsider its relationship with history. Moreover, the scarcely noted fact that the debate for and against historicism — encouraged by thinkers like Hegel, Lukács, Strauss, Aron or Popper — tends to capitalize on the hermeneutic affordances of a play like Macbeth, brings the historical (perhaps historicist) provocation of the play all the more sharply into focus. Self-validating prophecy emerges, in this reconsideration, as the pivotal, paralogic speech act in a play that reads like a parody of verification. By exposing the logical complicity between providentialist prophecy and historicist interpretation, this article contends that Shakespeare obtained, in Macbeth, ironic-critical distance from contemporary historiographic teleology, and that he thus sheltered himself in advance from the progressive-moralist, at bottom apocalyptic, arrogance of neo-historicist critics like Stephen Greenblatt or Richard Wilson. In the final analysis, Macbeth gets the last word, one no oracular predictive or postdictive consummation is able to efface. This article is published as part of a collection to commemorate the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death.