Act II.iii of Macbeth is a source of discussion at all levels. To some the base humour of the scene and its jarring of tone suggest an interpolation; to others it is light relief to diffuse tension. To others it is the setting up of a metaphor which will colour the rest of the play and give depth to the character of Macbeth. Far from diffusing tension, it serves to ratchet it up and provides a suggestion of location too good to be ignored by some later writers.
One of the joys of Macbeth is the speed with which the early scenes unravel. It is too much to suggest an Aristotelian unity of time, but there is little lapse in these scenes as we hasten towards the regicide and the defining moment in Macbeth’s life. This scene begins, in a sense, 20 lines before the end of II.ii when the first knocking is heard. The knocking becomes more frequent and persistent throughout the end of that scene before leading straight into the scene in question. The location changes, but no time is lost as, on the bare stage of the Shakespearean theatre, the Porter responds to the knocks. As II.ii closes Macbeth taunts the knocks themselves wishing them to “wake Duncan… I would thou could’st” II.ii 74.
The stage is left to the Porter – presumably in part designed as a set piece for whichever of the great clowns was in Shakespeare’s company at the time of writing. His monologue is played for laughs, conventionally, but it is worth looking very closely at this scene.
We should consider the effect of the placing of this scene. In the previous scenes speed has been maintained, driving towards the death of Duncan. The tension has been worked up by a series of soliloquies and dialogue between the Macbeth’s in which Macbeth is driven to the murder by his wife. Her language is harsh and full of power, in contrast to the seeming uncertainty of Macbeth. She chides him for his weakness and in a shocking outburst wishes to find “murthering ministers” to “unsex” her and feed from her breast milk which has turned to “gall” I.v.40ff. In short she calls on Night to bring forth a kind of Hell to ensure the deed takes place. The language of both repeats references to birds of ill omen and to the Hellish world of the Spirits which would horrify a contemporary audience, even if a modern audience with no acute terror of Devils can find the whole effect overdone.
The speed of the murder serves to help us to forget this detail, focusing on the gender issues raised and now we arrive at the moment she craved. A Porter moves to open the doors. It is no accident that Shakespeare has named this character the Porter since he establishes a direct link with the cycles of Mediaeval Mystery plays in which the Porter is the Porter of Hell’s Gate. This naming is unlikely to have been missed and there is a delicious irony in his speech if he actually is this character – “If a man were Porter of Hell’s Gate…” II.iii 1. As he continues his grumblings, he swears by Beelzebub and by “th’other” devil, and it is unlikely that Shakespeare was using this semantic field if he were not trying to establish something special in this scene. If this is the Porter of Hell’s Gate, then the gate is the gate of Hell and, to follow the metaphor to its conclusion, Inverness Castle is Hell and the ruler of the Castle – Macbeth – becomes the ruler of Hell.
In this reading, Shakespeare has managed to establish a clear character shift for Macbeth with little unnecessary exposition. It helps to explain the certainty with which he follows his path through the rest of the play and helps to create further examples of the good/evil antithesis which dominates the scene and the play itself. The list of the effects of drink in II.iii 23ff shows clearly the balances which dominate the play – ambition is referenced in the ideas linked to Lechery – “it persuades him, and disheartens him” II.iii 34 as the Porter balances his ideas with a dose of coarse humour to leaven the mix.
When Macbeth arrives, his first speech of any length is the potentially ironic “had I but died an hour before this chance” II.iii 88ff in which he seems to show a genuine awareness of his changed state. Milton will later describe Hell as a state of mind in Paradise Lost. Here Shakespeare is presenting Hel as a metaphorical reality brought on in part by the agitation of the Macbeth’s at the close of the previous scene. The knocking serves to link the two scenes aurally and following this idea, the symbolism of the supernatural – “ I heard the owl scream…” – and the unstable utterances of Macbeth – “they pluck out mine eyes”, “Macbeth has murther’d sleep” all assist in creating Hell in his mind. The idea of plucking out the eyes relates to the idea of Hell via the biblical reference of Matthew xviii.9 where it is “better to enter life with one eye, than having two eyes to be cast into hell-fire”. These echoes serve to create a further link between the two scenes when Macbeth is found in his true personal hell.
Macduff and Lenox enter Hell, just as Christ is said to have done after his crucifixion (http://www.creeds.net/ancient/apostles.htm) although this may be stretching a point. They are, however, ill at ease in addition to their obvious horror at what they find and at the end of the scene recognise clearly the falseness of Macbeth and his wife. They recognise the danger they are in and hurry away. From this point, Good can not survive in the castle. Banquo is killed, returning to haunt the banquet, yet failing to move Macbeth, however much he frightens him.
As writers of the Gothic created settings for their works, it is little surprise to see Macbeth’s castle revisited. Look at both The Castle of Otranto and The Monk, to name but two, and note the use made of the same conceit – the Castle as a private Hell, where Good is perverted to Evil and The rulers of the individual Hells thrive until defeated by the forces of Goodness. Interestingly, the Monk requires visits by officers of the Inquisition as an attempt to introduce Historical reference into the Gothic story telling. The forces of Southern Catholicism are rarely portrayed kindly in the writing of the English Gothic, and here there is no exception. My link is to the clear references throughout the Porter’s speech to the recent events in England and the Catholic plot of Guy Fawkes. The Porter refers to admitting both a “farmer” and an “equivocator” into Hell. Both link to the trial of a key conspirator – “farmer Garnet, a Jesuit priest. This creates another layer to the scene since there is now a direct correlation between Macbeth and the traitors who sought to destroy government in 1605. Shakespeare is playing with direct cultural reference to clearly show the nature of traitors as evil. Later writers will look to this scene as a source of inspiration both for similar use of local colour and a setting which allows for a private Hell to be constructed with no great attempt to develop a mythology to accompany it.
Far from reducing tension, this scene increases it – why on earth would a playwright as sophisticated as Shakespeare wish to lessen the tension he has taken pains to create? We never forget that the murder has happened and the bodies await discovery; we wait to find out whether Macbeth has recovered his wits in time to pretend innocence and we are introduced in metaphorical terms to a private Hell in which the ruler will thrive as the play continues.