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THE STORY - SUMMARY AND NOTES
ACT II, SCENE III
The previous scene of horror and murder is followed by a comic scene. The Porter, one of Macbeth's servants, is awakened by the same knocking at the gate which sent Macbeth and his wife scurrying off to clean up. The Porter is still drunk from the feast. As he weaves his way to the gate, he talks to himself as if he were the porter at the gates of Hell.
The comedy of the Porter provides a contrast to the gruesome murder. By allowing the audience to relax a little, Shakespeare makes the scenes of horror even more effective.
The Porter also has a serious purpose. The little routine he makes up about being porter of "hell gate" reminds the audience of the spiritual consequences of the murder that has just been committed.
Audiences in Shakespeare's time would recognize the "Porter of Hell-Gate" as a stock character in the so-called morality plays of the time. Morality plays were simple stories in which good was rewarded and evil was punished. So Shakespeare is, in effect, hinting that Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are not going to get away with what they have just done.
Let's take a moment to examine one of the imaginary sinners the Porter says he lets in: "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" (lines 8-11). Equivocation means lying, and we will soon see Macbeth and his wife doing a lot of that. But remember the Porter's speech: the liar cannot "equivocate to heaven."
Tired of his game, the Porter opens the gate. Macduff and Lennox enter, annoyed at having been kept waiting. Their scene with the Porter is classic Shakespearean "low" comedy. Low comedy is delivered by low-class characters. It is generally concerned with what we might call "bathroom humor." In this scene the Porter jokes about how liquor makes a man want to have sex but prevents him from being able to perform with a woman.
Even in this Shakespearean "dirty joke," an important theme
is being developed. The Porter's talk about liquor foreshadows what we
will see about Macbeth's ambition. The more liquor a man drinks, says
the Porter, the more lecherous he becomes. At the same time, he becomes
less able to do anything about it. As the play progresses, the more Macbeth
tries to secure his power by murder, the less secure he becomes.
Macbeth enters and learns that Macduff and Lennox have come to wake Duncan. Macbeth lies like an expert. He behaves as if it were an ordinary morning, and shows Macduff to Duncan's door. Macbeth stands aside and lets Macduff go in alone.
Lennox tells Macbeth some of the things that happened during the night. Chimneys were blown down; strange screams were heard. In fact, "Some say, the earth / Was feverous and did shake" (lines 62-63).
These strange events illustrate the theme of nature reflecting the state. While Macbeth committed this horrible murder, which was against the laws of human nature, and which wrecked the God-sanctioned order of things, the earth itself trembled and shook.
Macbeth's reply is humorous, though Lennox does not know it. After hearing about all the bizarre events, Macbeth says simply, "'Twas a rough night" (line 63).
The murder is discovered. Macduff sounds the alarm and wakes everybody in the castle. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth do an excellent job of pretending to be innocent.
Macduff responds to the murder as an act of supernatural magnitude. Attempting to convey how horrified he is, he uses imagery from two different religions. First, Christian:
Most sacrilegious murder hath broke ope The Lord's anointed temple, and stole thence The life o' th' building.
Act II, Scene iii, lines 9-11 Then Pagan: Approach the chamber, and destroy your sight With a new Gorgon... (lines 73-74)
There is irony in the way Macduff treats Lady Macbeth. He calls her "gentle Lady" (line 85) and says that his news is too harsh for a woman to hear.
Expert liar though she is, Lady Macbeth slips a bit. Her first response when she "learns" that Duncan is dead is "What, in our house!" (line 90). That is not really the response of a loving subject. Banquo scolds her, saying the murder would be "Too cruel anywhere" (line 90).
Macbeth actually seems more convincing than his wife. Could that be because he really is shocked and revolted by the murder he has committed? We cannot be sure, but what he says to the group is right in line with what he said in private (at the end of the last scene): "Had I but died an hour before this chance, / I had lived a blessed time" (lines 93-94).
But when Duncan's sons, Malcolm and Donalbain, enter, Macbeth goes too far. He waxes poetic: "The spring, the head, the fountain of your blood / Is stopped" (lines 100-101) until Macduff cuts in and tells them that their father has been murdered.
NOTE: We are beginning to see that Macduff is a direct, no- nonsense sort of person. That is the most dangerous type of person to have around when, like Macbeth, you are trying to cover the truth.
Macduff seems suspicious when Macbeth says he killed Duncan's servants, who appeared to be responsible for the murder. Modern police would call that "destroying evidence." By questioning Macbeth's action, Macduff implies that things may not actually be the way they appear.
Macbeth flounders, and his wife comes to his rescue. Trying to explain why he killed the servants, Macbeth goes on at great length about how upset he was. In order to take attention off her husband, Lady Macbeth pretends to faint.
The atmosphere of suspicion is strengthened by Malcolm and Donalbain, who keep apart from the group. They stay behind when the others go to meet and decide what to do.
Malcolm and Donalbain realize that they are in danger. They decide they cannot trust anybody, and that it's wisest to run. Malcolm will go to England; Donalbain will head for Ireland.