Knocking on Hell Gate: The Porter Scene in ‘Macbeth’

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: How to Read and Understand Shakespeare

By Marc C. Conner, Ph.D., Washington and Lee University

Macbeth is full of dark, tragic, and horrific elements, but there is one short, bizarre scene right in the middle of the play that doesn’t fit with this mood—or does it? This is the famous ‘Drunken Porter’ scene, often described as providing ‘comic relief’ in the play, but does it really do so?

This painting is a scene from the theater, appropriately lit against a black background. Macbeth stands with bloody daggers in hands, as Lady Macbeth looks at him.
The porter scene is preceded by arguably the darkest scene of the entire play, that of the murder of King Duncan. (Image: Henry Fuseli/Public domain)

The Precursor to the Porter Scene

What immediately precedes the porter scene? Well, it is the killing of King Duncan by Macbeth—the most grisly and horrifying scene of the play. Macbeth has just brought the blood-stained daggers to his wife, declaring that he has “done the deed”, but that he finds himself unable now to say “amen” and he has heard a voice saying, “Sleep no more! Macbeth does murder Sleep.”

Lady Macbeth chides him and says, prophetically, “These deeds must not be thought / After these ways: so, it will make us mad.” She must take the daggers back to the bodyguards herself, and as she’s doing so, the first knock, knock, knock at the gate is heard.

The image shows Lady Macbeth snatching the daggers from Macbeth's hands as he despairs.
Macbeth’s reaction to the murder is that of fear and despair. (Image: W.J. Morgan & Co. Lith./Public domain)

At this point, the theme of blood enters the play. While she’s gone, Macbeth looks at his hands and realizes that they can never be washed clean: “Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood/ Clean from my hand?”

Lady Macbeth returns, her hands now bloody, too, but, she says, “A little water clears us of this deed: / How easy is it then!” Macbeth is not persuaded—he states, “To know my deed, ‘twere best not know myself”. At this point, the knocking begins.

So the prelude to this scene is extreme horror—the stark images of bloody hands, the terrible sense of guilt and wrongdoing, and the knocking associated with that guilt, as if the knocking is not external, on the door of the castle, but internal, knocking within the mind of the guilty murderer.

Learn more about the tragic woman in Macbeth.

The Porter of Hell Gate

So then we switch, and it’s a jarring switch, to the porter. He comes out apparently hung over, or perhaps still drunk, from the festivities of the night before, and he’s not that happy to have to get out of bed to answer the castle door. “Here’s a knocking indeed,” he proclaims, and then throughout his speech he utters the refrain, “knock, knock, knock”—and this has the effect of reminding us of that guilty knocking of the prior scene.

The porter then makes an act of the imagination: “If a man were Porter of Hell Gate, he should have old turning the key.” And he proceeds to imagine himself the porter of the gate of hell itself. And the previous scene has already suggested to us that this castle is indeed hell, the place where both human and divine order are overturned. So the porter does indeed keep the gate of hell.

The Farmer, the Equivocator, and the Tailor

An ancient castle gate, which the porter fancifully imagines as another type of gate.
The porter imagines the gates of the castle as the gates of hell, as he tries to choose the key to open the door.
(Image: grafvision/Shutterstock)

He then imagines three different candidates coming to the gates of hell: a farmer who killed himself when he despaired of his harvest; an equivocator or a skillful liar, that is, someone who “could swear in both the scales against either scale; who committed treason enough for God’s sake, yet could not equivocate to heaven”; and lastly a tailor who tries to stay ahead of fashion but ultimately fails. These are three very unusual figures. But what unites them?

The farmer is a figure of despair, which was seen as a crime against God. The equivocator has committed treason, a crime against the state. The tailor is a figure who constructs outward appearance without substantial reality. These are a veritable list of the great themes of Macbeth—despair, treason, deception—all buried within the porter’s drunken imagination.

This is a transcript from the video series How to Read and Understand Shakespeare. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The Porter’s Final Farewell

In fact, the whole “fair is foul, foul is fair” idea is precisely equivocation— wanting to have both truth and untruth together. And for all his efforts to let these people in and find peace and quiet, the porter is unable to do so, because the knocking will not cease. “Never at quiet!” he complains.

His final question, “What are you?” could certainly be directed at the audience itself, as we wonder about our own position within the horrifying world we are witnessing.

Finally, he turns away and calls over his shoulder, “I pray you, remember the Porter.” This is a play on words: on the hand it is an everyday reminder—don’t forget to tip the porter. On the other, it is a grim acknowledgement that everyone in this play, and indeed everyone reading or watching this play, will some day, sooner or later, see the porter at the gate again.

Put differently, the gate of hell is a threshold we all must cross, the porter suggests. It’s a suggestion of universal damnation, and indeed that’s a negative theology that is one of the central ideas of this play.

So our investigation into the uses of the comic, so called, in this scene actually reveals that in many ways the comic relief is even more horrific than the horrors we have just witnessed. There is a parallel, or even a doubling, between the porter scene and the darker scenes of Macbeth. Thus, Shakespeare heightens the effect of horror and madness even through the use of apparently incongruous, humorous moments.

Learn more about Shakespeare’s theater and stagecraft.

Common Questions about the Porter Scene in Macbeth

Q: What happens in the scene just before the scene with the porter in Macbeth?

The scene before the porter scene is arguably the bloodiest scene in the play: the one in which Macbeth murders King Duncan. Macbeth appears with bloody hands to inform his wife of the deed, and wonders how the blood on his hands will ever be washed away.

Q: Why is the porter’s imagining of the gate of the castle as Hell’s gate appropriate?

Macbeth’s castle is the site of a gruesome murder, that too of a king, and can be viewed as Hell itself. Thus, the porter imagining that he is at the gate of Hell is rather appropriate.

Q: Who all does the porter imagine admitting through the gates of Hell?

The porter at Macbeth’s castle imagines three people entering Hell: a farmer who killed himself when he despaired of his harvest; an equivocator or a skillful liar, that is, someone who “could swear in both the scales against either scale; who committed treason enough for God’s sake, yet could not equivocate to heaven”; and lastly a tailor who tries to stay ahead of fashion but ultimately fails.

Q: What does the phrase “I pray you, remember the Porter” signify?

The porter’s parting words have two meanings: One, to remember to tip the porter; the second that everyone may some day, sooner or later, see the porter at the gate again.

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