Not Just for Laughs: Remembering the Porter Essay

This essay has a total of 1775 words and 7 pages.

Not Just for Laughs: Remembering the Porter

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, "deglamoriz[ing]" 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 us…in 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
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