Thomas De Quincey Questions and Answers

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In "On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth," why is De Quincey so puzzled at the scene of comic relief? What is his basic argument in the essay?

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De Quincey says that ever since he was a boy, he has always felt that the knocking on the gate of Macbeth’s castle immediately after the murder of Duncan “reflected back upon the murderer a peculiar awfulness and a depth of solemnity.” He endeavored to understand the reason for this effect over many years, but was never able to account for it.

The essay then digresses into a general argument about the inadequacy of the understanding, which is applied once more to this particular question of the knocking in Macbeth when the author observes that he made a mistake in trying to understand Shakespeare’s stagecraft, when he ought to have been guided by what it made him feel. The urgent knocking caused him to sympathize with Macbeth (in the sense of being aware of his feelings and reactions) rather than dwelling on Duncan, the victim of the murder, which would otherwise be the natural reaction.

Even more vitally for the drama, however, there must be a sense that when Duncan is murdered,...

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Thomas de Quincey argues that an audience must feel a "sympathy of comprehension" for Macbeth and Lady Macbeth in order for the play to be effective. He does not intend nor expect the audience to applaud them for their murderous actions but rather to try to understand the feelings of the characters. The knocking at the gate is a call to the audience to come back to reality, back from the depths of evil in Macbeth's hellish world. The knocking has a jarring effect on the audience, summoning them back into the everyday world, so they can become keenly aware of the gravity and horror of the actions of Macbeth and his wife.

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