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Welcome to my web site, now under development for more than twenty years.   
-- Philip Weller, November 13, 1941 - February 1, 2021
Dr. Weller, an Eastern Washington University professor of English and Shakespearean scholar for more than 50 years.

Detailed Summary of Macbeth, Act 2, Scene 3

Page Index:
Enter a Porter:
In the previous scene, a repeated knocking frightened Macbeth. In this scene, the knocking continues, louder and more impatient.

[You might be interested in reading Thomas DeQuincey's famous comments on the significance of the knocking, in his essay, "On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth."]

A Porter comes to the gate, but he doesn't seem to be in much of a hurry. Perhaps that's because he is -- as Lady Macbeth was at the opening of the previous scene -- still a little drunk. It occurs to him that if he were the gatekeeper of hell, he'd have plenty of opportunities to turn the key. He says, "Here's a knocking indeed! If a man were porter of hell-gate, he should have old turning the key" (2.3.1-3). Then, instead of turning the key and opening the gate, he describes some people he might welcome to hell.

First there is a farmer who hanged himself "on the expectation of plenty" (2.3.6). Because everyone was going to have plenty of food, the farmer's prices were going to go down, and he couldn't stand it. Next, there is an equivocator, the kind of person who thinks it's not a sin to tell a lie, if what he says is somehow true. (Later in the play, the witches equivocate with Macbeth when they tell him that he cannot be killed by man "of woman born." That sounds like it means that Macbeth cannot be killed by any man, but he is killed by Macduff, who wasn't "born," but from his mother's womb "untimely ripped.") After the equivocator is let into hell, there's an English tailor who steals cloth by making his customer's pants smaller than he should. Finally, the Porter just gets tired of himself and opens the gate.

[We may be a bit tired of him, too. We've seen all the blood on Macbeth's hands, and then on Lady Macbeth's hands, and we've heard the knocking at the gate, and we're wondering if they're going to get caught, but then comes this cursed Porter with his dumb jokes. We could justify the passage by calling it comic relief, but the jokes are all of the "you-had-to-be-there" variety. For example, if you were an Elizabethan Englishman and had a bad experience with a tailor who had sold you baggy pants instead of the extra-baggy ones you really wanted, you might laugh at the tailor joke. Then again, you might not, because there were as many tailor jokes then as there are lawyer jokes now. Stage directors generally understand that the audience is unlikely to get the jokes, so they often give the Porter supposedly funny stuff to do, such as peeing, or talking in an accent so thick that you can't understand a word. The result is generally just boring.]

Enter Macduff and Lennox:
Ironically, when the Porter finally does open the gate, he has the cheek to beg a tip, saying, "I pray you, remember the porter" (2.3.21). It doesn't seem likely that the Porter gets his tip. Macduff asks him if he was up late, and the Porter answers "'Faith sir, we were carousing till the second cock [3 a.m.]; and drink, sir, is a great provoker of three things" (2.3.24-26). Macduff plays along, and asks what the three things are. The Porter answers, "nose-painting, sleep, and urine" (2.3.28-29). Sleep and urine don't need explaining; "nose-painting" merely alludes to the fact that drinking a lot makes your face flush.

This supposed joke falls flat, and the Porter adds, "Lechery, sir, it provokes, and unprovokes" (2.3.29). He explains that drinking increases the desire for sex as it takes away the ability to perform. Therefore, it can be said that "much drink may be said to be an equivocator with lechery" (2.3.31-32). This, like most drunk jokes, might be funny to other drunks, but Macduff is not impressed. He remarks that the Porter has had too much to drink, and asks if Macbeth is up.

Enter Macbeth:
Just as Macduff is asking for him, Macbeth appears in his nightshirt, as though he had been awakened by the knocking. Macduff asks "Is the king stirring, worthy thane?" (2.3.45). Macbeth says that he's not, and leads him to the door of the King's chamber. When Macduff goes in to see the King, Lennox comments on what a terrible night it's been. The wind has blown chimneys down and it howled so terribly that it sounded like "Lamentings heard i' the air; strange screams of death" (2.3.56), and prophecies of some unknown terror. The owl, bird of darkness and death, was heard all night long, and some said that the very earth shook like a man with chills and fever.

Macbeth doesn't make much of an answer. He's probably preparing himself for the moment when Macduff discovers the King's murder, and it comes soon enough. As Lennox starts to speak again, Macduff rushes in, crying "O horror, horror, horror!" (2.3.64).

The next few moments are often hard for readers to "get." The important thing is not to understand that King Duncan is dead, but to feel how the characters feel. They may sound a bit melodramatic to us, but of course most of us have never seen the bloody corpse of a someone we loved, and none of us have Shakespeare to help us express our feelings.

For Macduff, King Duncan is "the Lord's anointed temple" (2.3.68), which has been vandalized and destroyed. He tells Macbeth and Lennox that they must see for themselves. It will make them blind and turn them to stone, but then they will feel and speak as he does. Macbeth and Lennox go, and Macduff calls out to all those sleeping in the castle, "Awake, awake! / Ring the alarum-bell. Murder and treason!" (2.3.73-74). He calls upon Banquo, Donalbain, and Malcolm to rise from the apparent death of sleep and confront real death, to rise up like ghosts, because the King's death will be too much for living men.

Enter Lady Macbeth:
As the alarm bell rings out, the stage fills with people. First comes Lady Macbeth, asking why the terrible bell is ringing. Macduff tells her that the news is not for her to hear, because it would kill a woman, but then Banquo appears, and Lady Macbeth hears Macduff tell Banquo that the king has been murdered. At this point, Lady Macbeth strikes a false note. Her response to the news that her king has been murdered is, "Woe, alas! / What, in our house?" (2.3.87-88). After just two words of mourning, the "What, in our house?" comes very quickly, and it sounds defensive, as though someone had hinted that the sheets weren't clean.

Luckily for Lady Macbeth, what she says is hardly noticed in the atmosphere of crisis and outrage. Banquo pleads with Macduff to tell him it didn't happen, and then Macbeth returns, saying that "from this instant, / There 's nothing serious in mortality: / All is but toys: renown and grace is dead" (2.3.92-94). Despite the fact that he is the murderer, this doesn't sound entirely like play-acting. It really does seem that Macbeth feels that the death of King Duncan has made the world meaningless.

Enter Malcolm and Donalbain:
Just behind Macbeth comes Lennox, now joined by Ross, who was apparently sleeping in the castle. On their heels come Malcolm and Donalbain, the King's sons. Donalbain, the younger son, asks what's wrong, and Macbeth answers with a metaphor, "The spring, the head, the fountain of your blood / Is stopp'd" (2.3.98-99), while Macduff says simply, "Your royal father 's murder'd" (2.3.100).

Malcolm asks who did the murder. Lennox replies that it seemed that the grooms did, because of the blood on their hands, on their faces, and on the daggers which were lying on their pillows. He says, "They stared, and were distracted; / No man's life was to be trusted with them" (2.3.104-105). We know the truth that Lennox doesn't. The grooms were staring at all that blood, and they were distracted because they were still feeling the effects of the drug that Lady Macbeth slipped into their drinks. In that state they weren't any good as bodyguards, but they didn't appear guilty of premeditated murder, either, so it's a shock when Macbeth says, "O, yet I do repent me of my fury, / That I did kill them" (2.3.106-107).

We understand Macbeth's motivation. When he was doing the deed he had heard noises. Maybe the grooms had made those noises, and maybe the grooms, even in their stupor, might have seen or heard something. And even if they hadn't, it was just better to shut them up for good. When Macduff asks why he killed the grooms, Macbeth speaks as though he is his own defense lawyer, and says that anyone would have done the same thing. He describes how Duncan was all covered with blood, and how the grooms were all covered with blood, and then asks rhetorically, "Who could refrain, / That had a heart to love, and in that heart / Courage to make's love known?" (2.3.116-118).

So Macbeth depicts himself as a man of love and courage. Before anyone can ask just how much courage it takes to kill two dazed and defenseless men, Lady Macbeth punctuates Macbeth's performance by calling out, "Help me hence, ho!" (2.3.118), and falls down in a faint. [Perhaps her faint is real, but it certainly a distraction—Macduff doesn't ask any more questions of Macbeth.]

As Macduff and others tend to the lady, we see that Macbeth and his wife have not fooled everyone. Malcolm asks his brother why the two of them aren't grieving as loudly as everyone else, and Donalbain says what they are both thinking: "What should be spoken here, where our fate, / Hid in an auger-hole, may rush, and seize us?" (2.3.121-122). Now is not the time or place to express their grief, because they could be murdered at any minute. They need to get out of there as quickly as possible. Malcolm adds that when they do express their grief, their "strong sorrow" will be "Upon the foot of motion" (2.3.124-125). In other words, they will express their sorrow when they are able to do something about it, such as take revenge on their father's killer.

Meanwhile, Banquo appears to be taking charge of the situation. He makes sure that someone carries away Lady Macbeth, and then proposes that the men hold a meeting "when we have our naked frailties hid, / That suffer in exposure" (2.3.126-127). This reminds us that everyone, except Macduff and Lennox, are in their nightclothes. They're not really "naked," but night in windy Scotland must be cold enough to make them feel frail and exposed. Banquo wants to discuss the murder, because they have all been shaken by "Fears and scruples" (2.3.129). "Scruples" are doubts and suspicions. Banquo will not just accept the idea that the murder was the work of two drunken grooms, and he assumes that no one else will, either. He says, "In the great hand of God I stand; and thence / Against the undivulged pretence I fight / Of treasonous malice" (2.3.130-132). An "undivulged pretence . . . of treasonous malice" is a secret conspiracy by the evil forces of treason.

Of course everyone agrees to put on their clothes and come to the meeting that Banquo proposes, but as soon as the rest have gone, Malcolm and Donalbain make their plans to escape the place where their father was butchered. Malcolm doesn't point the finger at anyone in particular, but he feels that someone is faking grief for King Duncan. As he says, "To show an unfelt sorrow is an office / Which the false man does easy" (2.3.136-137). He's going to England. Donalbain agrees that "There's daggers in men's smiles" (2.3.140), and he's going to Ireland. That way, they'll have a little additional safety, because no one will be able to kill them both at once.

In a moment they're gone into the night, without saying goodbye to anyone, not even each other.