Thursday, 6 September 2012

What's The Purpose of The Porter Scene in Macbeth?

Comic relief or time killer - what is the role of the
porter in Macbeth?
The porter scene in Macbeth is, on the face of it, rather out of place; sandwiched as it is between the murder of Duncan and the discovery of his body. And what's a bawdy bit of comic relief doing in such a dark, tragic work anyway?

Unsurprisingly, Macbeth's porter scene has attracted a great deal of critical commentary over the years.

It's also the subject of much conjecture. For example, is it a purposeful piece of comic relief or is it an imperfect, but necessary stage-filler; giving the actors playing Macbeth and Lady Macbeth time to wash and change clothes?

An Uncomfortable Mix of Tragedy and Comedy

The only comedic scene in Macbeth follows one of the
darkest and most tragic - the murder of Duncan
Although it is clear that there needs to be some time for the Macbeths to prepare themselves for the 'discovery scene', I find it difficult to believe that Shakespeare would just ham-fistedly stick any old crap in there to fill time.

It also goes against what we know from Shakespeare's other plays to suggest that he wouldn't add a comedic scene in a seemingly inappropriate place. We see very similar occurrences in Hamlet, with the gravedigger scene that follows Ophelia's suicide and there is also 'inappropriate' comedic moments with Lear's Fool in King Lear.

In short, it is certainly not beyond Shakespeare to use this mix of tragedy and comedy. So, the question becomes not whether he would do so, but why?

Well, firstly, there is no law stating that tragedies can't have funny moments. And secondly, a little light relief may actual be beneficial to the play as a whole. Not only does it offer a respite from the otherwise unrelentingly dark material of Macbeth, but it may, in fact, heighten the drama and tragedy of the preceding scene by comparison.

What's The Porter Talking About? 

It may, at first, seem that the porter is railing nonsensically. There can be no denying he is very, very drunk. However, his words do have some interesting relevance to the play.

The porter, who is the keeper of the gate at Macbeth's castle, imagines himself to be the keeper to the gate of hell. Although this can be easily dismissed as the rambling hallucinations of an inebriated man, it's actually quite poignant given what's just occurred within the castle walls.

The nature of the porter's humour moves onto satirical ground as he envisages three callers at the gates of hell:  A farmer, who has committed suicide; an equivocator, who was denied access to heaven; and a tailor, who comes to warm his iron in the fires of hell. 

And then, when he, eventually, gets around to letting the actual callers at the gate (Macduff and Lennox) in, he waxes lyrical about the advantages and drawbacks of alcohol.

The Tone of The Porter's Speech

I think we have to assume that Shakespeare
knew exactly what he was doing
with the porter scene
The whole speech is discordant and somewhat disjointed, which is, let's be honest, very unshakespearean. Even Shakespeare's idiots and drunkards are, usually, poetic or, at the very least, quick-witted.

The porter, on the other hand, has a much more earthy, vulgar tone, which is quite unlike anything else Shakespeare wrote. Unsurprisingly, therefore, there are those who suggest this scene wasn't written by Shakespeare at all.

But is it beyond Shakespeare to alter his style? My guess would be, 'no'. And the markedly different voice he gives to the porter may be a very deliberate measure.

For instance, think for a moment about the contrast between Macbeth and his employee. The loyal, valiant soldier, who is beautifully poetic and has just brutally murdered his king, and the vulgar lacky, who is blind drunk and tells dirty jokes, but who has not (as far as we know) harmed a soul.

Whether Shakespeare intended the porter scene to be a much needed piece of light relief following the heavy and dark murder scene, or if he believed that it was a way to compound the tragedy by sharp comparison, we'll probably never know. But I do think it's unlikely that the scene was crafted for the exclusive purpose of giving Shakespeare's actors an opportunity to wash the blood from their hands.

If you'd like to learn more about Shakespeare's Macbeth, take a look at What's It All About Shakespeare? A guide to Macbeth.


  1. William shakespeare is so hard to understand

    1. Hello there,

      Well, my aim is to try and make him less hard to understand. I've got several posts on particularly tricky words and how to make Shakespeare easier in general. I've also got a couple of eBooks accompanying the blog - What's It All About, Shakespeare? An Introduction to The Bard of Avon and What's It All About, Shakespeare? A Guide to Macbeth. You can find both on Amazon for a reasonable price.

      Hope that helps, but feel free to ask a question if it doesn't.