Dramatic Significance of the Porter Scene of Macbeth

The porter scene (Act II Scene III) in Macbeth comprises of two climaxes – the comical porter’s apparently irrelevant and tipsy comments; and the discovery of the treacherous murder of Duncan.

Often criticized as un-Shakespearean, the porter’s drunken rambling in earthly prose is considered by most critics as a comic relief in the grim tragic atmosphere. But, critics like De Quincey finds the scene all Shakespearean and denies the part of comic relief. In fact, in his views it intensifies the tragic impact in the play.

In Act II, Scene 2, Lady Macbeth comes back from the crime scene with blood all over her. The knocking she hears against the gate obviously frightens both her and Macbeth for they have just committed a horrendous crime. The porter obviously hears the knocking, but instead of opening the door, he mocks the knocking with his drunken comedy. When he cries, “Who’s there, i’ th’ name of Beelzebub?” the analogy between hell and Inverness becomes quite apparent. The porter may be a drunken idiot and a fool, but Shakespeare utilizes his character to slip in some important comments.

In a private game with the audience, the porter engages in a piece of stand-up comedy in which he imagines himself as that beleaguered servant, opening and closing the gate on the damned. The first two examples he uses (that of a farmer and an equivocator) have specific religious and historical connotations. Many examples of ambiguous language are heard throughout Macbeth, including, of course, the words of the Witches. So the porter's examples are not entirely without significance.

The humor continues when the porter unbolts the door to Macduff and Lennox and offers a series of bawdy jokes, momentarily distracting the audience from the fact that Macbeth must at this very moment be washing his hands of the blood of the previous scene. Then Macbeth enters, apparently at ease, to direct Macduff to the king's room.

While Macduff goes to wake the king, Lennox remarks upon the extraordinary weather of the previous night. His catalogue of unnatural events — high winds, screaming and wailing voices, the calling of birds, and tremors in the earth — is apocalyptic in character and suggests a direct connection between the events of the universe at large and the events within the castle. Macbeth's response — "'Twas a rough night" — is as anticlimactic as to provoke incredulity.

At this moment, horror breaks out. The literal truth of Macduff's announcement — "Our royal master's murdered" — is preceded by several lines in which the murder is depicted in a figurative or metaphorical fashion, almost as if Macduff dare not name the deed: "Murther hath broke ope / The Lord's anointed Temple," "destroy your sight / With a new Gorgon," and "see / The great doom's image!" It's interesting to compare these lines of Macduff's, spoken in all innocence, with those of the all-too-guilty Macbeth, who also approaches the matter metaphorically: "The wine of life is drawn . . . " and "The spring, the head, the fountain of your blood / Is stopp'd . . . ."

Excusing his own outburst of passion in killing the guards of the king's chamber, Macbeth explains that he could not act otherwise when he saw the king: "And his gashed stabs looked like a breach in nature / For ruin's wasteful entrance" (113-116). That Macbeth cannot refrain from the use of metaphor may be an indication that he, too, cannot bear to consider the bloody truth. His words are at once highly poetic and, at the same time, enormously revealing of the deep ironies of which Macbeth must be aware. Not only has he "murdered sleep," but he has destroyed the actual fabric of nature.

Lady Macbeth faints, and as soon as she is carried from the stage, the pace changes. There is no more time for speculation: Macbeth and the other thanes rapidly swear to meet "in manly readiness" to avenge this act of "treasonous malice." Malcolm and Donalbain alone remain to voice their understandable concerns. Their semi-proverbial sentences "To show an unfelt sorrow is an office / Which the false man does easy" and "Where we are / There's daggers in men's smiles" both uncomfortably recall the language of earlier scenes.

(To be concluded )

Last modified: Thursday, 4 June 2020, 8:49 AM