“I Pray You, Remeber the Porter”
In Shakespeare’s tragedy Macbeth, the Porter, or gatekeeper who has appeared only once throughout the whole play is undoubtedly the outsider. One would not even think of him if he is not being mentioned—this is how insignificant a role he plays in this book. The uncomfortable joviality and seeming discord of the porter scene even led some famous critics like Coleridge to believe that Shakespeare did not write the soliloquy: “…
not one syllable has the ever-present being of Shakespeare” (“Shakespeare: An Address”). He is, however, an integral part of the play, and for this reason, the porter is predestined to become the outcast. The Porter in Macbeth is a complete outsider character due to his sole function as a comic relief to the intensity of the action and for his low social status shown in the play. The Porter is an outsider based on his sole function in the play. In fact, if readers were asked to recall Macbeth characters, few would likely to remember the Porter. He speaks only some forty lines but still provides the much-needed comic relief within Shakespeare’s tragedy.
Fittingly, the Porter scene appears right after the first climax of the story, where Macbeth and Lady Macbeth have just committed the murder of King Duncan and the audience are strained to the utmost of their frightful excitement—this is when the Porter enters the scene. Instead of leaving viewers high-strung in their seats, relaxation is required to lighten the audience’s mood and bring them laughter between two highly intense scenes. According to Shakespearean scholar Kittredge—— “the spectators needed relief. Their emotions had just been strung to the highest tension… There was but one method of filling such a gap: by comic relief. And the comedy had to be low, so that the laughter might be full-throated” (28). And this is where the Porter’s comic personality is put into use.
Ultimately, his appearance in the scene is nothing but an instrument to achieve the desired effect of lessening the tension built by the intensity of the murder tragedy. Just like how the masque has its antimasque, the Porter creates a stark contrast with all other characters in the play. And this means of artistic expression, known as “tragi-comedy” or “comi-tragedy”, puts him in such a place where he does not truly belong. To him “there is nothing shocking or abhorrent in the inter-proximities of things apparently alien to each other” (Hales 281). When the other characters are gravely talking about the dark horror of blood and death, he light-heartedly babbles on and on about drinking and lechery.
When others are weeping, he laughs. When you look at him you cannot say whether his eyes are filled with tears or with smiles. It is all infinitely comic, and infinitely sad. The Porter is doomed to be an outsider in this overwhelming sadness—his comic relieving function in Macbeth is his predetermined destiny. The Porter is also an outsider considering his low social status in the play. As a porter, he earns only a pittance, and he gains a meager livelihood by guarding the entrance of the castle.
All those luxuries, festivities, and extravagance at the banquets on the other side of the castle walls are unattainable to him; he can merely afford a cheap feast with the indulgence of fetid liquor. His appearance also adds a realistic touch to the whole play, bringing all the other characters down to the ground as he speaks to them. “What three things does drink especially provoke?” says Macduff (2.3.27-28); and then the Porter delivers himself of his ignobleness: “Marry, sir, nose-painting, sleep, and urine. Lechery, sir, it provokes and unprovokes.
It provokes the desire, but it takes away the performance” (2.3.29-32). Notice that his speech has an immediate significance, as he “philosophizes on human society as he rubbed the sleep from his eyes” (Kittredge 28), he splatters out the very truth of society with words plainest of all. Unlike the Macbeths who are afflicted by the struggle for political power, open and secret, unlike all other noblemen involved in the combat for the throne, unlike the already “incarnadined multitudinous seas” brought about by careerists’ wild ambitions (2.2.
81), the Porter leads an ordinary life, a life that seems too unimpressive to appear in Shakespeare’s work. Power, social status, ambitions and aspirations are pointless to him because these are already way beyond his expectation for life. Macbeth reveals his ambition in Act One Scene Four: “Stars, hide your fires;/ Let not light see my black and deep desires” (1.4.57-58). It should be obvious that the “desire” Macbeth has mentioned is a completely different concept from the “desire” that the Porter has in mind.
Macbeth is a nobleman in pursuit of spiritual satisfaction while the Porter is fettered to the bottom class struggling to meet his physiological needs, fighting for his right to exist. They are people from two different worlds. Sad to say, the Porter’s ordinariness has already determined his standing as the incompatible outsider in Macbeth. “I pray you, remember the porter” — he humbly asks for his tip when Macduff and Lennox open the door to him (2.3.
21). The fact that he speaks this line himself shows the world’s denial of his existence, as the outsider in Macbeth. His main function as a comic relief to the intensity of the action and his low social status makes him inevitably the outsider. However, the Porter is not only different and out of place for the comedian he has to play. Shakespeare, in fact, is showing the audience members the wisdom in those who are overlooked.
Only with him the play Macbeth is complete. His existence is a perfect demonstration of how even the most unimpressive people of society make great contribution to entirety. Society needs outsiders like the Porter to bring people novel viewpoints. Sometimes, those who don’t fit in are in fact the ones most needed by a society. Outsiders should never be overlooked.