• Peter Byrne

Knock, Knock! Who’s Not There?

Very old Americans whose memories are still turning over might recall it. In 1936, the trade magazine Variety reported that a craze was sweeping the nation. In months it crossed the Atlantic and erupted on British radio. ‘Knock knock’ was followed by ‘Who’s there?’ and then a joke, a pun, or some lame attempt to be funny that in the lingo of the time was simply corny. The contagion of juvenile exuberance was probably suggested by a play of 1606, Macbeth, and the so-called porter scene, Act 2, Scene 2.


That scene is slippery in modern productions of Macbeth, often partially or even entirely cut. Nothing new there as the Bard’s plays have always been subject to cutting as the idea of what matters changes with the years. Cuts are made today to fit the plays into time slots, often for TV, or because of the director’s agenda or his taste, not to say whim. The porter scene remains a prime target for omission as does Act 4, Scene 3, the conversation between Malcolm and McDuff at the English court.


Seasoned playgoers can be startled by new Shakespeare productions. A director will be more attentive to and take more care with a passage usually passed over in a hurry or ignored and it will suddenly shine forth as a revelation. Rich and rewarding. This is true of both the porter and the English court scenes and is a good reason to be circumspect with the directorial scissors.

One understands the motive for cutting the porter’s scene. It’s funny, near slapstick. Modern taste sees laughter as out of place in a dark drama and follows Aristotle who in the fourth century BC set down the rules of tragedy taken from Greek drama. The three essentials were wholeness, completeness, and limited magnitude. In other words, nix on guffaws and no loose ends or wise-acre off-target riffs. But Shakespeare had no taboo about mixed-bag content. He had other ways of achieving unity.

The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge so disliked the porter scene that he made the wrong-headed claim that it had been interjected by rogue actors. In our own time there isn’t a hint of a smile in Orson Welles’ remarkable Macbeth film of 1948. The porter has one rushed knock-knock routine and is limited to simply opening the castle door. The porter scene gets in the way of our contemporary urge to get on with the action. The modern audience knows that the Macbeths have just murdered King Duncan and his two attendants. It can’t wait to know what will happen when the crime is discovered.


The porter scene does more than build suspense. Our popular art trivialises death by making it the result of slight pressure on a trigger or the soundless throwing of a switch. There’s less violence on view than in the shooing of a fly. The change of pace and flavour of the porter’s scene allows the crime to fester and swell in the back of our minds for a spell. The killing of an anointed king was more in 17th-Century thinking than just another redskin hitting the dust. Macbeth himself trembles at killing a guest and a kinsman to whom he owes fidelity.


The scene of Malcolm and McDuff at the English court is not ignored because it’s a laughing matter. The final part survives in the most skeletal productions. McDuff’s learning that his wife and children have been murdered is a highpoint of pathos in universal theatre. It’s the first part of the scene that’s considered disposable. It begins with Malcolm, dead Duncan’s heir, enumerating why he is not worthy to be king of Scotland. His interminable self-accusation not only stuns McDuff but makes us wonder what Shakespeare is on about. Malcolm has not appeared in this light before. Few believed Macbeth’s attempt to blame him for his father’s death.


McDuff has come from Scotland to bring Malcolm back to replace Macbeth on the throne. He’s at first non-plussed by the young man’s self-doubt and insists it’s youthful exaggeration. But when Malcolm goes on and on about his sins McDuff throws up his hands in disgust. He believes the lurid details and loses heart. Malcolm will be no better a king than Macbeth. Upon which, Malcolm blurts out that he has only been kidding, trying the tale on to test McDuff’s own steadfastness against Macbeth.


At this point, we poor spectators feel we have been taken for a ride by the Bard. He has been playing a game of self-indulgence. He let Malcolm paint a picture of himself, all lust and avarice, because as a writer he enjoyed doing so. Then he calls a sudden halt to the long confession and invokes what, writerly speaking, is a cheap trick to change the subject. Have not generations of directors been right to cut this bit of doodling auctorial vanity?


No. There’s a very good reason to let it stand. McDuff’s attempt to play down Malcolm’s imaginary sins gives us an incisive portrait not only of McDuff himself but of courtly morals of the time. When Malcolm says that, if king “Your wives, your daughters/ Your matrons and your maids could not fill up/The cistern of my lust, and my desire,” McDuff tells him not to worry. Scotland has more than enough celebrity-hungry “willing dames.” But when Malcolm says his avarice would lead him to grab the nobles’ lands and wealth, McDuff admits it’s a more serious matter but nevertheless can be arranged. The country is rich enough not to miss what the new king will steal.


Cutting Malcolm’s wild talk is much less of a loss than excising the porter scene. The insistent knocking shakes the Macbeths out of their trance of introspection. Reality has arrived. The porter’s monologue is all gallows humour and a mocking accompaniment to the satanism that the three witches introduced. The knocking and the tension continues. He imagines himself the devil-porter at the gates of hell, overwhelmed by the work load as he lets in suicides and thieves. As he staggers along to the doorway, he indulges in a couple of knock-knock jokes. His musing on the “equivocator” or deceiver through ambiguity connects to the witches’ hollow assurances to Macbeth. Finally opening the door, he greets those come to wake Duncan with the venerable joke about alcohol and male impotence. Doing without that laugh would be like exiling Falstaff from Henry IV.


“Banish plump Jack and banish all the world.”


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