A porter moves through the hallway, going to answer the knocking. He grumbles about the noise, mocks the person doing the knocking and, after comparing himself to a porter at the gates of hell, asks ‘Who’s there, i’ th’ name of Beelzebub?’. Macduff and Lennox are revealed as the knockers and complain about the length of time needed to answer them; the porter reveals this was due to his being up late, which leads to a humorous ramble about the effects alcohol can have (these include red noses, sleepiness, urination, that it ‘provokes and unprovokes’ lechery, brings about lustfulness but can also create an inability to have sex). Macbeth enters and brings Macduff to Duncan’s chamber as the king declared a wish to see Macduff early that morning. After he enters, Lennox speaks to Macbeth of the storms from the night previous, claiming they were unparalleled to anything he can ever remember; chimneys were removed from the tops of houses, birds cried out throughout the night, the earth moved, and ghostly voices were heard issuing prophecies. Suddenly Macduff flees the room, crying ‘O horror, horror, horror!’, revealing that Duncan has been murdered. Macbeth and Lennox enter the chamber, while Lady Macbeth appears and speaks of the horror that the murder of a king could be committed in her own home. Malcolm and Donalbain arrive and are told their father has been murdered and that the murderers seem most likely to be the chamberlains, who were found with bloody daggers; Macbeth reveals in his anger he killed the chamberlains. Macduff is suspicious of Macbeth’s actions that Macbeth attempts to justify by remarking that such was his anger at the death of the king that he could not control himself. Lady Macbeth then faints, causing Macduff and Banquo to call for help, while Malcolm and Donalbain declare to each other that they are not safe as it seems likely their father’s murderer will seek them out next. While Lady Macbeth is removed and Banquo and Macbeth organize a meeting of the lords to discuss the recent events, Malcolm plans to move south to England while Donalbain will go west, across the water to Ireland.
While the start of the scene is often seen as simple comic relief from the darkness of the rest of the play, it serves some important purposes. The porter’s ramble about alcohol is a useful analogy to consider Macbeth’s situation, as he comments of how alcohol creates confusion and lust, which is applicable to Macbeth as his ambition has distorted his position and state of being; it also has allowed Lady Macbeth to make taunts of a sexual nature due to his inability or unwillingness to carry out the actions so as for Macbeth to realize his ambitions. His reference to the door of the castle being akin to the gate of hell is accurate, as there are dark deeds being undertaken inside. Finally, his mention of Beezlebub is a reference to the devil in Christian and biblical sources, and his warning to those entering that they are at the mercy of the devil is an interesting and perhaps useful view of Macbeth; he has killed God’s representative on earth (the king), has sought out the help of another deity (Neptune) and thus can be seen as a devil of sorts, opposed to Christianity. Certainly, his betrayal of Duncan is alluded to when the Porter remarks that he and his friends were ‘carousing till the second cock’ when explaining his delayed response to Macduff’s knocking; this can be associated with the cock crowing in the New Testament when Peter betrays Jesus (this ties in with the idea of the tragic hero also; as mentioned the fall of the tragic hero serves a purpose of worth, similar to how Peter was forgiven for his betrayal).
This might be linked to the later events of the scene, when Duncan’s is found in his chamber. Macbeth reveals that when he found the body he killed the chamberlains who he assumed were murderers, which reveals two things. Firstly, it shows how Macbeth is beyond absolution; now that the murder is complete he progresses further in his descent from his original point of virtue, completing the final acts needed to become king. However while he seems quite composed in this scene, none of the other characters seem to believe him fully. Malcolm asks Lennox about the murder later and Lennox remarks that ‘Those of his chamber, as it seemed, had done’t’, with the ‘as it seemed’ suggesting a disbelief in Macbeth’s interpretation of events. Not even Macbeth’s closest ally Banquo is convinced, and suggests meeting to discuss what has happened further: ‘let us meet/ And question this most bloody piece of work,/ To know it further’. Similarly, Macduff questions Macbeth concerning his actions, and will tell Ross and the old man later that he does not believe the words of the new king. This, and the porter’s words earlier, immediately set the scene for the remainder of the play; Duncan was seen as a fair leader, revered by all, and as a result the majority of his kingdom accepted their place in the natural order of things (it can be seen that the Thane of Cawdor was either an exception or perhaps a foreboding of what was to come with Macbeth). Macbeth, who is to become king, does not have the support of any, not even his closest ally. This forebodes his rule as king when many abandon him to join sides with the opposing forces and also shows what sort of rule his kingdom will bring; whereas previously under Duncan the kingdom was unified, in the new Scotland under Macbeth the king cannot be trusted. This suggests anarchy will result as his rule will not be followed and people will act sporadically and chaotically as they see fit, which will presumably lead to disorder, immorality, corruption, deception, and other negative influences.
Points of note
The confusing and conflicting world of the play is represented in the words of the characters such as the Porter, who speaks such words as ‘swear in both the scales/ against either scale, who committed treason enough for God’s sake, yet could not equivocate to heaven’ and comments of the castle and remarks that ‘this place is too cold for hell’. Elsewhere, Macduff speaks of ‘joyful trouble’ and how ‘confusion now hath made his masterpiece’ when speaking of Duncan’s death; such quotes represent a world once more where nothing is as it seems or should be.
Pathetic fallacy is used by Shakespeare to convey the mood of the scene; the mention that ‘’Twas a rough night’ refers not just to the weather but also the king and thus the kingdom. The rough night refers to the act of regicide and the upheaval that has already resulted, as the natural order of things has been disturbed.
Shakespeare does not allow us to forget about the gruesomeness of the act of regicide, with the frequent mentions of the blood in the aftermath reminding us of what has just occurred through such quotes as ‘the near’er in blood,/ the nearer bloody’ (Donaldbain), ‘the fountain of your blood, is stopped’ (Macbeth), ‘Their hands and faces were all badged with blood’ (Lennox), ‘silver skin laced with his golden blood’ (Macbeth) and ‘the most bloody piece of work’ (Banquo).
Macbeth seeks to deceive all around him that he killed the chamberlains out of anger at their supposed act of regicide, commenting ‘Who can be wise, amazed, temperate and furious,/ loyal and disloyal, in a moment? No man./ Th’ expedition of my love/ Outran the pauser, reason.’ However very few believe him; Malcolm shows his suspicion, remarking ‘to show an unfelt sorrow is an office/ which the false man does easy’, while Banquo comments that ‘when we have our naked frailties hid/ That suffer in exposure’. This might be seen to foreshadow that Macbeth will not be successful with his act of regicide, as Lady Macbeth convinced him would be the case earlier.
Banquo represents the moral barometer of the play. While others around him plot deception and immoral actions, he only considers the world in a good and just sense. He is not concerned so much with the circumstances surrounding the death but rather that a death has occurred, and focuses on the sorrow it brings by remarking death is ‘too cruel, anywhere’. There is a suggestion that he is suspicious of Macbeth and tells his friend ‘let us meet/ And question this most bloody piece of work,/ To know it further’, and he correctly forebodes that ‘fears and scruples shake us’; this is applicable to Lady Macbeth as her fainting foreshadows her decline into madness later.
Macbeth can be criticized here. Whereas before he showed some redeeming features as he struggled to counter his ambition, now that the act of regicide is complete he commits to this, acting brilliantly in an attempt to convince all that he killed the chamberlains as his ‘violent love/ Outran the passer, reason’ (even though some are suspicious, he does attain the crown soon after this). He shows no signs of remorse for what he has done, and despite his upsetting the natural order and creating ‘a breach in nature/ for ruin’s wasteful entrance’ he cares little that he has stopped the ‘fountain’ of royal blood. The quote at the end of the scene that ‘there’s warrant in that theft/ which teals itself when there’s no mercy left’ is applicable to Macbeth, as he has stolen Duncan’s life and title and has no mercy now. He has the cold callousness to declare ‘there’s nothing serious in mortality/ All is but toys’.
Lady Macbeth’s fainting may be seen as a foreboding of her eventual psychological decline.