PORTER SCENE According to George Meredith, “the true test of comedy is that it shall awaken thoughtful laughter. ” In other words, the best examples of comedy lead to laughter but also contribute to the meaning of the work and contain some degree of subtle commentary. In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the porter scene following Duncan’s heinous slaying evokes this brand of “thoughful laughter. ” Although the grotesque gatekeeper character immediately prompts comedy, it also hints at a deeper significance.
This “thoughtful laughter” primarily provides comic relief, but it also contributes to the meaning of the work by serving as a metaphor for the gates of hell and as a transition from the murders to the continuation of the drama in a less supernatural setting. Macbeth’s porter scene functions above all as slapstick comic relief following the slaughter of King Duncan. The grotesque, troll-like gatekeeper dissipates the tension with his drunken banter, presenting a raucous parody of Macbeth’s internal torment.
For example, he paints a darkly comic caricature of the suspense that now pervades the Macbeth household by making light of the sudden knocking at the gates that so startled Lady Macbeth. Yet this also serves as a paradox – the parody also furthers the tension by prolonging the time between Duncan’s murder and the continuation of the plot. This scene immediately prompts laughter with both the porter’s light soliloquy and the heightening of the suspense. However, the character’s drunken stupor also gives rise to one of the second act’s central metaphors – the house of Macbeth as the gates of hell.
His speech refers to satanic images, and he views himself as Beelzebub’s gatekeeper. In this act, Shakespeare sees Castle Macbeth as the central dominion of death and corruption, evidenced by the sadistic machinations of its Lady and the bloodthirsty acts of its Master. The porter scene emphasizes the fact that all who enter the castle and stand in the way of Macbeth’s ambition might as well have enteredHell, as they will certainly find a fiery demise within. While this scene elicits laughter, it also contributes to Shakespeare’s condemnation of Macbeth’s escapades.
Macbeth’s porter scene also furthers the drama’s structure. The previous deeds in Act II have all transpired in a fantasy netherworld – these shocking murders could not have occurred with Shakespeare’s normal tone. The porter scene, by evoking laughter, serves as a transition from the supernatural world of murder to the more mundane realm of political plotting. TheBard accomplishes this suddenly – the trollish porter’s maniacal hilarity contrasts sharply with the portentous tone of the previous scene, thereby snapping the audience back into the real world.
Thus, the scene provides a dramatic transition into normality. Shakespeare’s porter scene causes “thoughtful laughter” in Macbeth because of its immediate comic tone, yet it also illuminates one of the play’s central metaphors and transforms the macabre aura into a more earthly one. This scene passes George Meredith’s “true test of comedy” with its blend of slapstick and meaning. Macbeth receives both a break in the incessant suspense and an expansion of Shakespeare’s dramatic modus operandi. Thus, the “thoughtful laughter” prompts both exaggerated comedy and a deeper understanding of the play’s symbolism.