Macbeth ambition. After proving himself in war, the
Macbeth is one of William Shakespeare’s most famous plays-a story of murder, betrayal, and uninhibited ambition. After proving himself in war, the titular character is rewarded by Duncan and given the title Thane of Cawdor.
Unsatisfied with his new position, Macbeth (partially due to temptations from the witches and his wife) decides to assassinate King Duncan and claim the throne for himself.The Porter scene in Macbeth occurs at the beginning of Act 2, Scene 3, just after Macbeth’s offstage murder of Duncan. The Porter is the keeper of the Gate at Inverness Castle, and he occupies the stage while Macbeth, who hears the knocking at the end of the second scene, wishes that that the knocking could bring Duncan back to life (II.ii.
88-89). Though the Porter scene is only 40 lines, it is quite memorable and also one of the most debated scenes in Shakespeare. The Porter is a special character; he speaks in prose rather than verse. His scene is also notable because it is a dividing point in the play. After his scene, Macbeth’s thirst for power worsens, and his wife becomes more and more mentally unstable.
The Porter imagines himself as keeper of the Gate to Hell. It is a suitable analogy, as he is the porter of a castle which holds a great, ambitious evil that will soon send a nation to war. He imagines himself admitting three men into his castle: a farmer, an equivocator (a Jesuit priest), and a tailor. The farmer hangs himself “in the expectation of plenty,” the equivocator equivocates, and the tailor cheats his customers by using generic hose instead of high-quality French hose.
The Porter also remarks that the castle is “too cold for Hell,” perhaps implying Macbeth’s inherent evil and sinister lust for power.The scene also advances the themes of equivocation and deceptive appearances. Each of the men mentioned by the Porter has somehow equivocated, and the Porter later speaks of alcohol and sex with Lennox and Macduff. He tells the men that such things are catalysts for equivocation.
Drink, the Porter says, “equivocates him in a sleep, and giving him the lie, leaves him,” meaning that drink creates a false illusion of sexual pleasure in a dream (II.ii.34-35). His dialogue, while humorous, reinforces some of the broader themes of the play.There are numerous scholarly articles written on Macbeth, each an in-depth study in the play. John B. Harcourt’s “I Pray You, Remember the Porter” examines the 40-line Porter scene and deciphers Shakespeare’s motives for writing it.
The scene, Harcourt argues, is not purely comic relief. The Porter’s dialogue has great thematic importance that can only be seen when one disregards the simplistic notion of comic relief and considers the meaning and implications of the Porter’s words. At the same time, the greater symbolism of the actions taking place also reinforces Christian symbolism in the play.Harcourt lays the groundwork for his thesis by discussing the history of the Porter scene itself. Before the twentieth century, he says, scholars such as Alexander Pope and Samuel Coleridge did not believe that Shakespeare had even written the scene; another man exorcised it completely from his edition of the play. For many, the scene was seen as pure comic relief, a concept still taught today. For a Shakespearian scholar like Harcourt, this is “thought-paralyzing” blasphemy; the scene is meticulously layered (Harcourt 393).
Harcourt argues that the Porter’s Hell-gate fantasy gives the play’s audience a moral compass and undermines audience sympathy for Macbeth, “deglamorizing” him. At the beginning of the scene, the Porter is approaching the castle’s gate, pretending to be the keeper of the gate to Hell. He pretends to admit three men to the underworld: a farmer, a priest, and a tailor. Though the Porter’s selection of these men seems random, each man provides a “reference point” to Macbeth while he washes his hands offstage (Harcourt 394).These reference points also place “the action unfolding before usin a universe of ordered moral values.” By “hoarding” his crops, the farmer has acted purely in self-interest and ignored the common good of the state. The equivocator is treasonous, and the tailor has stolen clothing, just as Macbeth has taken the robes of the king (Harcourt 394).
The audience, having seen Macbeth struggle with committing the murder, must begin to associate Macbeth with evil (Harcourt 394-395). This has to be Shakespeare’s intent, as by the end of the play the Bard shows no sympathy for Macbeth or his lady; after the two die, they are referred to as “a dead butcher and his fiend-like Queen” (Harcourt 402).These three figments of the Porter’s imagination also have other purposes: they are examples of the potential outcomes of Macbeth’s treasonous crime. The farmer and equivocator die, and should the tailor be caught, he should expect a similar fate. Like Macbeth, none of these men will make it to Heaven. They also are reminders of the play’s continuing theme of ambiguity (equivocation): the farmer trusted the gloomy outlook of his almanac instead of the fruitful yield of his crop, the equivocator defended himself ambiguously in the court of law, and the tailor steals fabric from his customers (Harcourt 395).
As Harcourt says, these men will soon discover “the promise of the present is not to be realized as the future unfolds,” a prominent theme in Macbeth. After the farmer’s expected low-yield year becomes a year of plenty, he hangs himself. Macbeth himself is fighting the same futile battle against the future; the witches have already told him that the kingdom belongs to Banquo’s descendants. His destiny will not conform to his desires, and he will eventually lose the battle against Time (Harcourt 396).
Upon the entrance of Macduff and Lennox, the Porter ceases his game and becomes a “castle functionary in the course of his ordinary duties”. Harcourt notes that it is expected that the conversation should turn to “drink and sex,” as the Porter is a member of the uneducated lower class. For Harcourt, however, the conversation has other peculiar significance. Harcourt points out that at the end of his earlier monologue, the Porter calls Macbeth’s castle “too cold for Hell.” He then notes that Malcolm, hen asked by Macduff to rule the kingdom, fears his own avarice.
While the Porter’s sins of drinking and fornication are more innocent, the activities in the castle are far colder and dangerous. The Porter’s “simple vicesestablish an ethical distance betweenordinary humanity and Macbeth” (Harcourt 397).Harcourt then connects the Porter’s words to disease. Some of the Porter’s phrases, he says, are innuendos. The line “Here napkins enow about you; here you’ll sweat for’t” may not only refer to the temperature of Hell; it could also be connected to the “seating-tub,” Elizabethan England’s medical solution to venereal diseases.
Building on this, Harcourt connects other lines to sexuality and venereal disease (Harcourt 398). Shakespeare uses “the pathology of disease” to show “the disgusting quality of evil” (Harcourt 399).To make his final argument, Harcourt builds on the idea of the Gate to Inverness as the Gate to Hell. It is an equivocation, he says, to assume such a thing-the audience becomes aware the castle is an evil place after the Porter abandons his game. For Elizabethan audiences, the castle represented order; now this order has disappeared (Harcourt 400).
At the same time, Macduff’s entrance suggests “the Harrowing of Hell by the triumphant Christ-figure of early Christian and medieval legend.” Like in the holy creeds, he has “descended into hell” to save the souls of the worthy (Harcourt 401). While not completely a Christ-like figure, he “appears in apocalyptic power and glory” at the end of the play, during its climactic scene.
Holding up Macbeth’s head at the end of the play is “a symbolic function” of Macduff’s status as the “Harrower of Hell” (Harcourt 402).This article greatly enhanced my understanding of the Porter scene. At first glance, the Porter scene seemed to serve its dramatic purposes of division and comic relief quite well. However, I was confused by the Porter’s references to the Farmer, the equivocator, and the Tailor.
While I knew that Shakespeare picked them because of their equivocations, I could not explain these equivocations to anyone. Harcourt had a good point; it is too easy to simplify the scene and call it simply “comic relief;” the 40-line scene’s implications on the themes of the play demands it a closer study.Harcourt’s ideas on the Porter’s entrants to Hell were quite interesting. While I had spent a while trying to figure out their purpose, I could never really connect the dots. However, Shakespeare’s careful planning of the scene created an incredibly layered forty lines.
It can be read on multiple levels, all with important thematic significance to the play. Tying the castle to venereal disease never occurred to me; however, I have little knowledge of Elizabethan language. The author, however, makes a plausible case. Shakespeare tends to refer to Macbeth as a great evil, and with a play on words, he associates the horrors of venereal disease (especially terrible during this time of primitive medical knowledge) with the usurper.
The Porter scene’s connection to Christianity also was not readily apparent to me. While obviously the references to Hell are Christian, the idea of Macduff as a Christ-like figure is also Christian. Though I say the Nicene Creed every Sunday at church, the idea of Macduff “descending into Hell” never occurred to me.
If anything, he simply seemed nothing more than Duncan’s loyal servant. I never made the connection to the end of the play, when Macduff brings about Macbeth’s downfall. It is an expansion on Shakespeare’s use of Christianity in the play. Macduff found Malcolm and an army to defeat Macbeth at the court of Edward I, a man believed to have the power to cure people with the touch of his hands. The Church provided redemption for Scotland, and by associating Macduff with a Christ-like figure, this motif is continued.The Porter scene is not as simple as it appears.
A close, scholarly analysis produces a scene that is more layered than originally thought. Scholars of earlier centuries ignored the scene because of its seemingly crude, prose style; however, it becomes obvious that without the scene, Macbeth loses some of its thematic significance.Works CitedHarcourt, John B. 1961.
“I Pray You, Remember the Porter.” Shakespeare Quarterly 12: 393-402.