in Macbeth, Acte III -scene 6,

In this portion of the scene: «  Lennox- Sent he to Macduff?

Lord - He did, and with an absolute 'Sir, not I,' The cloudy messenger turns me his back, And hums, as who should say 'You'll rue the time That clogs me with this answer.' »

Why does Shakespeare use present tenses : « turns » and « hums » to narrate a past event ?

Thanks by advance,



2 Answers 2


The "historical present" is meant to give a sense of immediacy, used when painting a details you-are-there picture of the action. See this thoughtco.com article and the Wikipedia article on this topic.


There are two instances where the present tense is used to narrate past events: live commentary and the historical present. Live commentary can be seen as a generally spoken form of the historical present, but one scholar suggests that the roles might actually be reversed:

The historical present is probably to some extent an imitation of the present tense used in live commentary. We are all familiar with people who change abruptly from the past tense into the present tense when recounting a dramatic experience:

I'd hardly opened the door when she comes out of the kitchen, screaming loudly…

Here the speaker pretends a moment to be reporting directly from the scene as an eyewitness, inviting the listener to step in the role of one who is listening to an on-the-spot reporter. The speaker is in fact asking the listener to participate in a role-playing game. — Geir Farner, Literary Fiction: The Ways We Read Narrative Literature, 2014.

In spoken conversation and dramatic dialogue that imitates it, however, the invitation implied in the present tense is not merely to imagine oneself in the role of an eyewitness, but to see narrated events through the eyes of the narrator as they were happening, quite literally adopting the narrator's point of view.

Macbeth wants Lennox to experience the “cloudy messenger's” impertinance through Macbeth's eyes. The present tense would, like an implied stage direction, encourage the actor playing Macbeth to accompany this bit of dialogue with motion and gesture to accentuate the "you are there" effect, especially after the two rather long speeches that precedes this dialogue with Lennox.

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