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Not Just For Laughs: Remembering The Porter

1718 words - 7 pages

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...

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