Last Updated on February 25, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 811
Act 2, Scene 3
The knocking at the gate continues, and the castle porter goes to open the gate. He is a coarse, curmudgeonly character, still drunk from the previous night’s revels, and complains incessantly about the knocking as he slowly moves to open the gate. When he opens it, he finds Macduff and Lennox, whom he treats with little respect, telling coarse jokes about drinking and sex.
Macbeth enters, and Macduff explains that the king asked them to come to him early, as they are due to depart together. Macduff goes up to the King’s chamber to wake him, while Lennox talks to Macbeth about how strange and stormy the night has been, full of frightening noises, “Lamentings heard i’ the air; strange screams of death…” They are interrupted when Macduff returns, raving about the horrible sight he has witnessed. Lennox does not understand what Macduff is trying to say, and Macbeth must pretend that he does not, but they both run to the king’s chamber to see for themselves. Macduff raises the alarm and a bell is rung, waking everyone in the castle. Lady Macbeth enters, followed by Banquo, Lennox, Ross, and finally, Malcolm and Donalbain, the king’s sons. Macbeth makes an overwrought speech about how life without the king is meaningless, and Macduff bluntly tells the two princes that their father has been murdered.
It is Malcolm who asks the essential question: who killed Duncan? Lennox, taking the view Lady Macbeth hoped someone would take, blames the now-dead servants who are covered in Duncan’s blood. Macbeth claims that, in his fury at seeing the king’s dead body, he killed them. When Macduff suspiciously asks why, Macbeth launches into another highly emotional speech, filled with proclamations of his love for Duncan. Lady Macbeth then cries out, suggesting that she is about to faint. While the others are distracted, Malcolm and Donalbain quietly agree that they should leave as quickly as possible, for whoever is behind their father’s murder may still come for them. Malcolm decides to go to England and Donalbain to Ireland.
Act 2, Scene 4
The thane of Ross is discussing the strange circumstances surrounding King Duncan’s death with an old man when Macduff enters. Ross inquires of him whether Duncan’s murderers have yet been found, and Macduff tells him it is suspected that the guards were ordered to kill the king by the king’s own sons, Malcolm and Donalbain, who have since fled. Ross says that their departure means Macbeth is likely to be crowned king, and Macduff confirms that Macbeth has already gone to Scone Palace, the ancient seat of the Scottish kings, for his coronation.
Shakespearean tragedies usually contain at least a little comedy, but Macbeth perhaps has the least of any of them. Most of the comedy in the play is concentrated in the monologue of the porter as he grumbles about having to open the gate at the beginning of act 2, scene 3, and in his subsequent brief dialogue with Macduff. Macduff attempts to rebuke the porter for failing to open the gate more quickly. The porter, however, with no regard for rank or propriety, takes this as an occasion to ramble on about the effects of alcohol on lechery, musing that drink increases desire but inhibits sexual performance. The porter would have likely been played by a Shakespearean clown, a comedic actor skilled in improvisation who would have used extravagant gestures to highlight the comical contrast between the plebeian porter and the reserved, aristocratic figure of Macduff.
Aside from the entertainment value of the porter’s vulgar jokes, he fulfils an important dramatic function in separating two of the most sensational scenes of the play with a brief period of normality. As soon as Macduff has returned from the king’s chamber, the atmosphere of “horror” (a word Macduff himself uses) and high drama is restored. Macbeth’s behavior in this scene is clumsy, and his effusive professions of devotion to King Duncan are unconvincing. It is probably to divert attention from his hyperbole-laden excuse for killing the bodyguards that Lady Macbeth pretends to faint.
The sudden departure of Malcolm and Donalbain is entirely understandable, since they have no idea who murdered their father and every reason to assume that the same person will want to kill them. However, their flight plays directly into Macbeth’s hands, not only removing his rivals for the crown, but also giving him scapegoats on whom to blame the king’s murder. Throughout these two scenes, there is an undercurrent of suspicion, particularly from Macduff, who barely manages to contain his skepticism at Macbeth’s explanations for his erratic behavior. However, Lady Macbeth’s earlier view proves correct in that whatever they think privately, no one has the courage or the certainty to mount a public challenge against Macbeth.
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