“Knock, knock—who’s there?”
Whenever one of my tutorial students is assigned (or, let’s be honest, barely mentions) Macbeth, I go into a certain and by now well-rehearsed tangent on how Shakespeare’s arguably darkest play contains one of the most peculiar scenes in his canon—and the origin of what is now considered a passe pretext to employ a bad pun, the knock-knock joke. Mentioning that last part usually lands me at least a few minutes of fleeting teenage attention, wherein I talk about everything from Shakespeare, to dark humor, to how Shakespeare’s darkest tragedy produced one of our lightest joke forms.
Of course, the knock-knock joke, as we know it, owes less to Shakespeare than to the innovation of 1930s English radio host Wee Georgie Wood, with his turning the Porter’s words into his catch phrase of “knock, knock, who’s there?” By the middle of the Great Depression, when the average Joe and Jane were presumably in need of an easy laugh, the joke form was sufficiently popular in the US that a Columbus, OH, theater’s contest for the best knock-knock jokes was “literally swamped” with entries (I’m sure the $1 cash prize didn’t hurt the contest’s popularity). The popularity of the supposedly low-humor knock, knock joke amidst the depression (both economic and psychological) may not owe anything directly to Shakespeare, but I do think it relates back to the original Porter scene, which is the main subject of this article.
My purpose here is not to provide a definitive reading of the Porter’s monologue, nor to ultimately solve the puzzle of what, exactly, the scene is doing in the play; better scholarship is available for those interested than the motes I will, nonetheless, offer here. My aim is to consider what Shakespeare’s following arguably the least justified regicide in his canon with a comical drunk can tell us about humor’s role in helping people navigate tragedy. And, if it sheds light on why knock, knock jokes (or other seemingly low, tactless, or dark forms of humor) may grow especially popular in uncertain times, so much the better.
“Here’s a knocking indeed!”
Macbeth Act 2 Scene 3
[Knocking within. Enter a Porter.]
PORTER Here’s a knocking indeed! If a man were
porter of hell gate, he should have old turning the
The lone on-stage partaker in the carousing at King Duncan’s visit to Inverness, the drunken Porter is one of the play’s few examples of plebians not directly connected with the nobility. However, unlike Hamlet’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the Porter remains, like a latter day Falstaff, insulated against the intrigue that surrounds him by drink, imagination, and low jokes.
Brought onstage by the knocking of MacDuff and Lennox (as if in ironic answer to Macbeth’s present wish that Duncan might wake), the Porter shows that, like Macbeth, he has a very active imagination. In fact, since Coleridge’s dismissal and omission of the scene as an inauthentic interpolation, many 20th-century critical readings have safely secured it back in its rightful place by pointing out, among other things, the Porter’s not merely contrasting but paralleling his master. Presumably rudely awakened and hungover, he fancies himself the porter of Hell and in the employ of a devil. Of course, the supreme irony throughout the scene involves his ignorance of how close to the truth his fantasy comes.
(Knock.) Knock, knock, knock! Who’s there, i’
th’ name of Beelzebub? Here’s a farmer that hanged
himself on th’ expectation of plenty. Come in time! 5
Have napkins enough about you; here you’ll sweat for ’t.
The Porter imagines admitting three denizens, each of whom, scholars have noted, can stand as a metaphor for Macbeth and his actions. The first imagined entrant is a farmer who, having hoarded grain in expectation of a shortage, hangs himself at the price drop produced by a surplus. As the play, if not the tragic genre, itself, is about the ends not aligning with expectation, the image of the farmer of course foreshadows the results of Macbeth’s betting too much on the Weird Sisters’ presentiments. Although in the end it is Lady Macbeth who commits suicide, Macbeth’s language near the end becomes more fatalistic the more vulnerable he gets, with his final fight with the prophesied MacDuff amounting to arguable suicide (to see an excellent rendition of the swap of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s psychologies by play’s end, see Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth—and my review of it). Adding to the irony of the scene is the fact that, according to Christopher Jackson, Shakespeare, himself, was an investor in and hoarder of grain against shortages. One wonders how many times he had thought of the image before writing this scene—and if he smirked while employing it.
(Knock.) Knock, knock! Who’s there, in 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 10
sake yet could not equivocate to heaven. O, come in,
Next in the Porter’s fantasy is an equivocator, one whose ambiguous use of language can help him with earthly scales but not heavenly. Historicist critics point to this moment as an allusion to the Jesuit father Henry Garnet, executed in 1605 for his participation in the Gunpowder Plot (to which 1606’s Macbeth can be read as a reaction). In his trial, Garnet was criticized for equivocating to keep from revealing details of the plot without explicitly lying; he was subsequently hanged, drawn, and quartered in May 1606.
While said reference is informative, if nothing else, about Shakespeare’s possible view of the Gunpowder Plot (unsurprising to anyone who knows what happens to regicides in his canon), one’s reading should not stop there. The Porter’s landing an equivocator in Hell points, again, to the play’s titular character. It should be remembered that before he commits the play’s central tragic act, Macbeth goes through a rigorous process of thought to spur himself to the deed, often playing on or completely omitting language—that is, equivocating—to justify the assassination (which, as a word, is first used in English in his “If it were done when ‘tis done” speech in I.7; not carrying the weight it does today, the coinage was an example of Macbeth distancing himself from the reality of the murder).
Furthermore, the Porter’s focus on equivocators here and later in the scene (he displays some comic equivocation of his own on the virtues and dangers of drink, unknowingly stalling MacDuff and Lennox long enough for Macbeth and Lady M. to cover up Duncan’s murder) foreshadows Macbeth’s beginning “To doubt the equivocation” of the Weird Sisters’ prophecy about Birnam Wood’s coming to Dunsinane (V.5). Indeed, the infernal dangers of ambiguous language (or of trusting one’s initial interpretation thereof) constitute one of the play’s primary themes. Among other things, Macbeth’s pointing this out establishes a further parallel between the Porter and himself.
(Knock.) 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.
The last of the Porter’s imagined wards has landed in Hell for cheating English courtiers while providing them with French fashion; whether he played on his customers ignorance of how much the new fancies cost or whether Shakespeare—err, the Porter—is making a joke about French fashion being worthy of eternal damnation, I’ll decline to decide. Perhaps both readings (or one I’m missing entirely) are meant, offering sympathetic humor to both courtiers who have been gulled with exaggerated prices and to the commons who might enjoy a good skewering of the foppish trends of their betters. The dual metaphor of the roasted goose—referring both to a tailor’s hot iron called a “goose” and to the idiom “his goose is cooked”—continues the play’s theme regarding the dangers of trying to succeed through proscribed means, besides adding to the dramatic irony of the Porter’s describing his own boss’s trajectory.
(Knock.) Knock, knock! 15
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 th’ everlasting bonfire. (Knock.)
The Porter, like Macbeth, seems to have an imagination as limitless as it is abysmal—such that he could presumably find a place in it for individuals of all professions. Also like his master, he fantasizes about a position higher (or, rather, lower) than he currently holds. That he stops not for lack of imagination but for the prosaic physical discomfort of being cold contrasts with how Macbeth eventually gives up all comforts in trying to achieve the crown. However, even here he parallels Macbeth, as both are ultimately unable to keep reality—whether the cold or the vengeance of the prophesied MacDuff—from interrupting their fantasies.
And yet, that the Porter identifies Inverness, itself, as too cold to sufficiently imagine Hell is, itself, a possible nod to the, under James I, verboten Catholic-Thomistic-Aligherian view of Hell’s lowest levels as being the frozen lake of traitors. However, Shakespeare skates past the Protestant censors, for it is not Hell the Porter is describing, but Scotland, and at its center at the very moment preceding this scene is not Satan, or the traitors Judas, Brutus, or Cassius, but Macbeth—who is, of course, all of these.
“…it provokes and unprovokes…”
But why does the Playwright link the worst regicide in his canon to a comic scene? Of course, as I mention above, plot-wise the Porter stalls the discovery of the play’s central crime. Furthermore, thematically the Porter both contrasts and mirrors Macbeth, which in different eras has been interpreted as alternatively demonizing the latter by the monologue’s subject and humanizing him by stressing a congruence with the common man.
The impropriety of the scene—joking about souls lately gone to Hell, when the unshriven Duncan, himself, has just entered the afterlife—highlights the very tension from which the Jacobean audience may have needed relief. As has been pointed out, an assassination plot against James I and Parliament had just the year before been foiled. Moreover, set in a medieval context where the death of a monarch had cosmic repercussions, the choice to distance the focus from the play’s main action may have been meant to increase the suspense—here, not merely the suspense before an expected surprise, but also the chaotic metaphysical suspension between monarchs—rather than comically relieve it. And this is assuming the comic relief does not fail due to its utter tactlessness, or to a high number of Malvolios in the audience determined to see the scene as an interruption of the play’s sombre pathos.
And yet, even being outraged by dark humor accomplishes the humor’s possible goal of helping one navigate a tragedy. For that is what I believe this scene—and most dark humor—is meant to accomplish: facilitate the audience’s psychological survival of the author’s darkest tragedy. Both inappropriate laughter and rage at impropriety—and even confusion about the scene’s strangeness—are preferable to the despair that leads eventually to Macbeth’s nihilism and Lady Macbeth’s suicide.
The Porter is not a good guy; indeed, his humor, like Falstaff’s, inheres in his being disreputable. Similarly, the scene is not openly funny, nor does it offer any kind of saccharine “everything will be alright” triteness. I, myself, am not satisfied to read it the way the play at large has conventionally been interpreted, as an implicit promise that divine justice will prevail and Macbeth will get his comeuppance like the farmer, equivocator, and tailor do; there are too many questions about Scotland’s future left unsatisfied by play’s end to settle on such a reading, just as there are arguably as many parallels between Macbeth and the play’s hero MacDuff as between Macbeth and the Porter. Rather, the scene’s salutary power paradoxically lies in its pushing the horror of Duncan’s murder even farther—by joking about souls lately knocking at Hell’s gate, with the Porter standing in as a kind of anti-St. Peter at the Pearly Gates. In so doing, the Porter scene lampoons the Macbeths’ expectation that they can somehow cheat fate, and his scene, more than the one before it, foreshadows the trend of the rest of the play.
As with the subtext of other examples of ironic humor, the Porter is not mocking the sympathetic Duncan, but implicitly commiserating with him and other victims of fate, fortune, or perfidy. By following Macbeth’s crime with a drunken Porter utterly disconnected from it who, nonetheless, perfectly names and exagerrates the themes involved, Shakespeare subsumes the play’s tragic act into the absurd, at least for a moment—and a moment is all that’s needed. By pointing out the reality of the play’s horror while safely containing it within a hyperbolically ironic, almost Chaucerian, tableaux, Shakespeare sets the standard for how well-placed instances of low and dark humor—from knock-knock jokes to self-deprication to suicide memes—can help contextualize tragedy, depression, and trauma in manageable ways.
One might balk (quite rightly) at the idea of telling a joke right after a tragedy like the assassination of a beloved king, considering it too soon and not the time for humor, but Shakespeare? Apparently he thought that was exactly when to employ humor—especially of a certain darker yet therapeutic type. It’s taken a few centuries, but scientific studies, so far as they go, have caught up with and confirmed Shakespeare’s using such humor as a way to help his audiences regulate their emotions in his plays’ more dreadful moments. Far be it from us to censure what the Playwright thought within the pale—and how dare we dismiss even the humble knock, knock joke as anything but profound and, sometimes, just what we need.