As the days grow lighter, I decided lawyers and those who must deal with them could use some lighter fare. Therefore, I commit this month’s blogging to looking at the lighter side of Shakespeare, some of his riotously funny bits.
When thinking of scenes that fit that description, the drunken porter scene in Macbeth springs to mind. I used to think that that scene was evidence that someone—perhaps Will’s demented half-brother, someone with a 14-year-old boy’s obsession with fart and erection jokes—was responsible for this and other interpolations throughout Shakespeare’s cannon. I mean, how could the artist who had drafted a play as unrelentingly dark and intense as The Scottish Play really have meant for the most unsettling scene in the play to be followed immediately by an inebriated servant bantering about how drink is “a great provoker of three things … nose-painting, sleep, and urine”? Is the plot really advanced by the porter explaining in choice detail that “lechery” is a thing that drink both “provokes and unprovokes” because it “provokes the desire, but it takes away the performance,” makes a man “stand to, and not stand to,” etc. (II.3)?
The porter scene only seems to fit in because the end of the scene before it is interrupted with urgent knocking and a porter is the person whose job it is to respond to knocking. (“Here’s a knocking indeed! If a man were porter of hell-gate, he should grow old turning the key.”) But the knocking that interrupts Lord and Lady Macbeth has an ominous quality; and, after the little diversion with the porter, we find out that the knocker was Macduff. Macduff is the guy who will eventually topple Macbeth. So the knocking that interrupts Lady Macbeth—as she describes having smeared the warm blood of King Duncan all over the young grooms who sleep in the King’s chambers after the Macbeths drugged them so “that death and nature do contend about them,/ Whether they live or die”—that knocking serves as foreshadowing; it is the bell tolling for Macbeth; it is an immediate indication that his dark course is not going to turn out so well. The knocking agitates Macbeth and induces him to express regret about stabbing the King to death; and even as Lady M brags that she has no regrets, she too is unsettled by all the knocking—the hand of fate pounding out its disapproval for all the world to hear.
Is that message lost or heightened by the porter’s entrance and all his hilarious talk about the knocking of an “equivocator”—i.e., a lawyer—who “could swear on both the scales against either scale”?
Well, I don’t know. It would be fun to see a production that takes the porter scene out one night, and puts it back in the next night. A kind of active equivocation regarding Shakespeare’s artistic intentions. In any case, once a person gets a grip on all the earthy references, the porter’s scene, as a stand-alone piece, is pretty damn funny. No equivocation necessary.