Ah the Porter. There’s a lot that can be said about this often misunderstood monologue. To better understand it you really need to understand what was happening in old Blighty (England) first. So Queen Elizabeth the 1st has just died and everyone in England was like ‘oh well let’s get a new monarch ey?’. Well there was just one problem: there was no one to take her place and so England was like ‘hey Scotland can we borrow your king and perhaps also maybe share him?’ and Scotland weirdly was ‘ok’. And so bing bang boom ya got yourself King James the VI/I of The Union of England and Scotland. This play was most likely a direct response to that and written with King James in mind. The other thing you have to know about is the persecution of Catholics in England during this time and the rise of ‘Equivocation’ which was born from folks using equivocal language to get around telling the truth of what religion they were. Anyway I could write a book about that but all you need to know is that people lied about their religious beliefs and that was either a sin or not a sin depending on which church you belonged to. Lastly and most important for the actor is to know that the language and jokes in this monologue are hard to pull off because to a modern audience they just don’t make much sense. But we’ll get to that. For now let’s take a look at the text.
Now it’s not often that I find myself giving context for Shakespeare in regards to what’s happened before the play even starts, but this is quite an important thing to know when it comes to this monologue. Before we meet the weird sisters, King Duncan, or Birnam Wood, let’s briefly chat about who these people are. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are an upstanding, courteous and dutiful military power couple of sorts. Macbeth is an incredible warrior who is celebrated for his achievements, and Lady Macbeth is a strong, smart and efficient stateswoman, who is incredibly well liked in their community and circles. Long story short, they’re all around legends, and everybody likes them! They’re good people, who are good at what they do. Like most couples in that day and age they want to bring a child/heir into the world and they succeeded in doing so. However, as was quite common in that day and age, it sadly died in infancy, and left the Macbeths reeling, and grieving for their lost child.
Now to the start of the play In this scene, Macbeth is returning home from a bloody but victorious battle. On the way home from this battle he came across three weird sisters, or witches, who told him of a prophecy in three parts. First, that he would be Thane of Cawdor, a promotion! Two, that he would be King, an even better promotion! And three, that one of his comrade Banquo’s children would also be King, maybe not so good, but oh well what do these weird sisters know?
Either way he decides to tell his amazing wife about the prophecy by writing her a letter and sending it ahead to their home Dunsinane. Upon receiving this letter, Lady Macbeth becomes increasingly excited at the prospect that she could one day be Queen, and Macbeth could be King. She summons spirits to give her strength, make her cunning, and take away her ‘womanly’ qualities, so that she can do whatever it takes to become Queen.*
Fast forward, and Macbeth returns home from the war, and gee wiz are they happy to see each other, but Macbeth has some interesting news. He tells Lady Macbeth that King Duncan is on his way to Dunsinane to stay with them, and she tells him exactly what they should do and that she will take care of everything, but Macbeth dismisses the idea and simply says they will discuss it further at another time.
A few days later, King Duncan has arrived at the castle and Macbeth begins to question whether or not to really kill the King in this monologue*. But just as he finishes going over it with the audience, in comes Lady Macbeth wondering why he’s left the dinner table. He tells her he won’t go through with their plan to kill the King, but Lady Macbeth convinces him otherwise by calling him a sissy. So that night they enact their plan. Some things go right and others go wrong but ultimately they do kill the King. As the castle stirs and tries to figure out what’s going on, there’s a lot of knocking going on… enter the Porter…
Here’s a knocking indeed! If a man were porter of Hell gate, he should have old turning the key.
Knock, knock, knock! Who’s there, i’ th’ name of Beelzebub? Here’s a farmer, that hanged himself on the expectation of plenty: come in time, have napkins enow about you; here you’ll sweat for’t.
Knock, knock! Who’s there, i’th’ other devil’s name? Faith, here’s an equivocator, that could swear in both the scales against either scale; who committed treason enough for God’s sake, yet could not equivocate to heaven: O, come in, equivocator.
Knock, knock, knock! Who’s there? Faith, here’s an English tailor come hither, for stealing out of a French hose: come in, tailor; here you may roast your goose.
Knock, knock. Never at quiet! What are you? But this place is too cold for Hell. I’ll devil-porter it no further: I had thought to have let in some of all professions that go the primrose way to the everlasting bonfire.
Anon, anon: I pray you, remember the Porter.
Beelzebub: The devil
Equivocator: Someone who would use double truths in order to lie. A liar and trick.
That is certainly a lot of knocking! If one were the gatekeeper to hell he’d grow old with how much he’d turn that key.
Knock, knock, knock! Who’s there in the name of the devil? It’s a farmer who hanged himself waiting for famine to sell his hoarded grain. You’ve come on time! Hope you have enough napkins for all the sweating you’ll be doing in hell.
Knock knock knock, who’s there in the name of the other devil? Truthfully! Here’s a two faced trickster. Who lied in the name of God but couldn’t lie their way into heaven. Do come in liar!
Knock knock knock! Who’s there? Oh an English tailors come here who’s so cheap he doesn’t have enough cloth to make French clothes. Come in tailor, you may warm your iron in here.
Knock knock! It’s never quiet! Who are you? This place is too cold to be hell. I’ll be Hells gatekeeper no more. I wanted to let in one person from every profession who go the fun way to hell.
Someone’s coming! Someones coming! Please don’t forget to tip your porter.
Notes on Performance
Okay here’s where it gets tricky. This monologue, as you might have gathered is super duper outdated, and therefore hard to pull off. So to a modern audience a lot of these jokes just go way over our heads. Keep this in mind and try to find a way to make this amusing to a contemporary audience.
Keep in mind what’s happening just down the hall. The Kings just been killed and everyone is freaking out and so it’s important to be aware of the situation happening around you, even if the porter is making it into a bit of a joke. Obviously you should also be aware of the loud knocking.
Delve into the character! The porter can be really fun if you let it and there’s really no right or wrong. So jump in and have fun!