Summary and Analysis
Act II: Scene 3
The knocking continues, but the porter does not immediately open the door. Instead, he plays a game with himself in which he imagines himself as the porter of hell and jokes about the kind of sinners he might let in. Eventually, however, he opens the door to Lennox and Macduff, who have been commanded to call upon the king to arrange the royal departure. It is early morning, and most of those in the castle are still asleep. One who is not is Macbeth, and he directs Macduff to the king's chamber. Only a moment passes before the news breaks: King Duncan has been murdered.
On hearing the terrible revelation, the Macbeths' acts are beyond suspicion, but Macbeth admits to having killed the guards of the King's chamber — not part of the original plan — and Lady Macbeth faints. The assembled thanes of Scotland resolve to avenge the act of treason. Duncan's sons, Malcolm and Donalbain, thinking themselves open to the charge of murdering their father, plan to flee to England and Ireland.
This busy scene begins with a moment of light comedy, which serves to heighten the suspense. The porter of Macbeth's castle, drunk from the previous night's revels, complains that his job is worse than that of the porter of hell. In a private game with the audience, he engages in a piece of stand-up comedy in which he imagines himself as that beleaguered servant, opening and closing the gate on the damned. The first two examples he uses (that of a farmer and an equivocator) have specific religious and historical connotations. A few months before Macbeth was performed at court in front of the Protestant King James I, the infamous Gunpowder Plot (the aim of which was to murder the English king) took place. The conspirators, including Guy Fawkes, may have been encouraged by a Catholic convert called John Garnett, whose nickname was "farmer." The practice of lying in court about one's religion by employing confusing or ambiguous language was known as equivocation. Many examples of ambiguous language are heard throughout Macbeth, and of course the words of the Witches themselves are not entirely clear. So the porter's examples are not entirely without significance, even though they may be unintentional.
The humor continues when the porter unbolts the door to Macduff and Lennox and offers a series of bawdy jokes, momentarily distracting the audience from the fact that Macbeth must at this very moment be washing his hands of the blood of the previous scene. Then Macbeth enters, apparently at ease, to direct Macduff to the king's room.
While Macduff goes to wake the king, Lennox remarks upon the extraordinary weather of the previous night. His catalogue of unnatural events — high winds, screaming and wailing voices, the calling of birds, and tremors in the earth — is apocalyptic in character and suggests a direct connection between the events of the universe at large and the events within the castle. Macbeth's response — "@'Twas a rough night" — is so anticlimactic as to provoke incredulity. Is Lennox's subsequent line — "My young remembrance cannot parallel / A fellow to it" (64-65) — intended to be spoken with puzzlement at Macbeth's reaction?
At this moment, the dam breaks. Note that the literal truth of Macduff's announcement — "Our royal master's murdered" — is preceded by several lines in which the murder is depicted in a figurative or metaphorical fashion, almost as if Macduff dare not name the deed: "Murther hath broke ope / The Lord's anointed Temple," "destroy your sight / With a new Gorgon," and "see / The great doom's image!" It's interesting to compare these lines of Macduff's, spoken in all innocence, with those of the all-too-guilty Macbeth, who also approaches the matter metaphorically: "The wine of life is drawn . . . " and "The spring, the head, the fountain of your blood / Is stopp'd . . . ."
Excusing his own outburst of passion in killing the guards of the king's chamber, Macbeth explains that he could not act otherwise when he saw the king: "Here lay Duncan, / His silver skin laced with his golden blood; / And his gashed stabs looked like a breach in nature / For ruin's wasteful entrance" (113-116). That Macbeth cannot refrain from the use of metaphor may be an indication that he, too, cannot bear to consider the bloody truth. His words are at once highly poetic and, at the same time, enormously revealing of the deep ironies of which Macbeth must be aware. Not only has he "murdered sleep," but he has destroyed the actual fabric of nature.
For whatever reason — perhaps because Lady Macbeth thinks that Macbeth's powerfully rhetorical speech is the precursor to an admission of their combined guilt — she suddenly faints. Certainly, as soon as she is carried from the stage, the pace changes. There is no more time for speculation: Macbeth and the other thanes rapidly swear to meet "in manly readiness" to avenge this act of "treasonous malice." Malcolm and Donalbain alone remain to voice their understandable concerns: Their semi-proverbial sentences "To show an unfelt sorrow is an office / Which the false man does easy" (138-139) and "Where we are / There's daggers in men's smiles" (141-142) both uncomfortably recall the language of earlier scenes.
old (2) frequent
napkins (6) handkerchiefs
equivocator (9) liar
hose (14) trousers
made a shift to cast him (40) with effort I overpowered the drink
Gorgon (71) hideous monster than turns beholders to stone
lees (93) dregs
vault (94) wine cellar, punning on grave
pauser (109) restraining force of
auger-hole (120) the tiniest crevice
scruples (127) doubts
undivulg'd pretence (129) undisclosed plot of treason
the near in blood . . . bloody (142) close relations are more likely to be suspected of murder
warrant in that theft (143) this kind of stealing (away) is justified