Macbeth Questions and Answers
by William Shakespeare

Macbeth book cover
Start Your Free Trial

Analyze the significance of the role of the porter in the play Macbeth. Explain in detail using evidence from the text as examples.

The significance of the Porter within Macbeth is twofold. Primarily, the Porter functions as comic relief by lessening the tension in the audience following the murder of King Duncan. The Porter also functions thematically by indicating that the gates to Macbeth's home are synonymous to the gates of hell.

Expert Answers info

Colin Cavendish-Jones, Ph.D. eNotes educator | Certified Educator

briefcaseCollege Professor, Lawyer

bookM.A. from Oxford University

bookPh.D. from St. Andrews University

calendarEducator since 2019

write2,273 answers

starTop subjects are Literature, History, and Social Sciences

Shakespeare’s tragedies generally contain comic scenes and characters to provide light relief for the audience. Macbeth, Shakespeare’s shortest play and one of his darkest, has very little comedy and only one purely comic character, the porter. The porter’s main function is to come between two of the most intense and harrowing scenes in the play, the murder of Duncan and the discovery of that murder, interposing his plebeian humor and down-to-earth persona to make the peaks of high tragedy stand out by contrast.

Further contrast is provided by the topical references in the porter’s remarks. The interpretation of these is a matter for dispute, but the number of references to equivocation, for instance, seems very pointed:

Faith, here's an equivocator, that could swear in both the scales against either scale; who committed treason enough for God's sake, yet could not equivocate to heaven: O, come in, equivocator.

This appears to be a reference to the Jesuits, who were in considerable danger in Protestant England at the beginning of the seventeenth century, and who were taught to equivocate as a way of avoiding questions without actually lying, in such works as Henry Garnet’s “Treatise of Equivocation” (1598). Garnet followed his own advice and equivocated when questioned about the Gunpowder Plot in 1606, whereupon he was executed. Some critics have claimed that these comments are a direct reference to Garnet’s execution (and entrance to hell) and date the play accordingly.

Despite these contrasts, the porter also provides some continuity of subject matter by likening Macbeth’s castle to hell, varying the topical references and vulgar descriptions of drunkenness and its effects with more fantastical, supernatural material.

check Approved by eNotes Editorial

Regan Cole eNotes educator | Certified Educator

calendarEducator since 2009

write424 answers

starTop subjects are Literature, Science, and Social Sciences

I agree with kimfuji, but there is more:

I'll devil-porter it no further: I had thought to have let in some of all professions that go the primrose way to the everlasting bonfire.

The Porter scene is a reference to an English Mystery Play called the "Harrowing of Hell." In the play (which was enacted throughout the British Isles in the 14th-16th centuries), Christ comes to hell to save those souls who came before his time.

The Porter is the devil who opens the gates of hell. And who is it that was knocking and woke up the Porter and wants to gain admittance? It is Macduff who will eventually leave and return from England to save Scotland.

Thus the Porter scene is a major turning point in the play: it adds humor which intensifies the horror of the murder that has just taken place, it reminds us of the contradictory nature of the entire play (the Porter's lines swirl with opposites), and it points to the the punishment of evil doers and the coming of a time of salvation.

check Approved by eNotes Editorial

kimfuji eNotes educator | Certified Educator

calendarEducator since 2009

write289 answers

starTop subjects are Literature, History, and Science

In Shakespeare's Macbeth, the porter scene that comes after the killing of Duncan makes the reader laugh. The porter is a strange gatekeeper. It is also a metaphor for the gates of hell. When the porter enters, it is a  transition from a supernatural story to a more dramatic story.

Macbeth's porter scene functions as a comic relief after King Duncan is killed. The troll-like gatekeeper makes the audience or reader laugh with his drunken banter, and relieves the tension of the killing in the prior scene. He casts light on Macbeth's internal torment. For example, in the manner of dark comedy he makes fun of Lady Macbeth's fears. This scene makes people laugh because of the porter's soliloquy.

On a more serious side, the porter's drunken state gives rise to one of the second act's main metaphors - the house of Macbeth as the gates of hell. The Porter's soliloquy contains  satanic images, and he views himself as gatekeeper. Shakespeare views Castle Macbeth as the home of death and corruption, because of the Lady and the murderous acts of its Master. The porter scene symbolizes that everyone who comes into the castle and tries to stop Macbeth ambition have entered hell. Even though this scene makes audiences laugh, it also shows how Shakespeare feels about Macbeth's murderous behavior.

check Approved by eNotes Editorial

madhusudan32 | Student

The porter scene plays a very vital role in Shakespeare's play Macbeth. It serves the purpose of dramatic relief in the play, as  it figures immediately after the gruesome murder of Duncan by Macbeth. While reading the play, the tension in the mind of the reader shoots up to a high degree till the point of the cold-blooded and well-planned murder of Duncan. The way the porter talks and receives the visitors to the castle of Macbeth creating the impression of the porter being at the hell gate symbolically suggests the conversion of Duncan's castle into a virtual hell and creates a certain amount of humour in the play which the reader is in dire need of. A similar stance providing the reader with dramatic relief figures again later in the play through the prattling of children prior to the murder of Macduff's wife and children.

Thus the role of the porter is structurally integral to the play providing the reader with a much-needed scene that lessens the tension in the mind of the reader.