Comic Relief in Macbeth
The Porter’s scene
Act 2, scene 3

A porter stumbles through the hallway to answer the knocking, grumbling comically about the noise and mocking whoever is on the other side of the door. He compares himself to a porter at the gates of hell and asks, “Who’s there, i’ th’ name of Beelzebub?” (2.3.3). Macduff and Lennox enter, and Macduff complains about the porter’s slow response to his knock. The porter says that he was up late carousing and rambles on humorously about the effects of alcohol, which he says provokes red noses, sleepiness, and urination. He adds that drink also “provokes and unprovokes” lechery—it inclines one to be lustful but takes away the ability to have sex (2.3.27).

The imagery of gatekeeper of hell
The porter refers to himself as the gatekeeper of hell. Even though it’s the blabbering of a drunken idiot, there is still some symbolic truth to it. A king has been murdered in his sleep inside the walls of the castle, and to Macbeth all hell broke loose with this murder. When the porter is letting Macduff and Lennox inside, he simultaneously let them inside the walls of hell on earth.

Main points and comments
  • The porter is pretending to be the gatekeeper of hell; taking care of different people with different occupations. It seems as he could go on all night, reel up different occupations, if he wasn’t disturbed by the cold weather.

  • He is really drunk after the party, and the topic of alcohol seems to interest him very much:
    • Marry, sir, nose-painting, sleep, and urine.(Line 24)
      • Alcohol does three main things to you: it makes your nose read, puts you to sleep and makes you urinate.

    • Lechery, sir, it provokes and unprovokes. It provokes the desire, but it takes away the performance. Therefore, much drink may be said to be an equivocator with lechery. It makes him, and it mars him; it sets him on, and it takes him off; it persuades him, and disheartens him; makes him stand to and not stand to; in conclusion, equivocates him in a sleep, and, giving him the lie, leaves him.(Line 25)
      • Furthermore, is makes you horny, but hinders performance.

    • That it did, sir, i' th' very throat on me; but I requited him for his lie, and, I think, being too strong for him, though he took up my legs sometime, yet I made a shift to cast him.(Line 34)
      • Earlier that morning, he had a fight with alcohol. And he won by throwing up, and thereby laying it flat on the floor!

  • Because of the alcohol, he talks back on Macduff, in a way no common man would dare. He even talks about his lust and missing erection.

medieval_pca-jug-man.jpgComedy/tragedy juxtaposition
Just before the porter’s scene, the murder of Duncan has happened, and the scene is dark and disturbing. The porter’s appearance interrupts this image of great tragedy and giving the audience a well deserved comic relief. The porter’s scene is followed by the scene in which Macduff and Lennox discover the body of the king, making the breathing space of the porter’s monologue even more necessary for the audience to keep focus throughout these important scenes. The juxtaposition accentuates the tragedy in the scene before and after the porter’s scene.

The role of the porter
The porter is totally unimportant to the overall plot of Macbeth. This appearance and monologue creates an insight into the common men in the play, giving the groundlings a character to indentify themselves with. To the audience his speech has seemed hilarious and daring, and because he isn’t talking in verse, but in prose his speech seems loose.

- Helene