PLAYNOTE Comic Elements in Macbeth and King Lear


Comic Elements in Macbeth and King Lear

[演劇メモ] 2005/02/23 00:00

The genius of Shakespeare is most impressed to us by his conception of great tragic characters, who possess both enormous grandeur of, say, Greek tragedy's protagonist and psychologically convincing subtlety of human nature. In Macbeth and King Lear, the courses of both protagonists' tragic destinies forcefully lead us to the bleakest scenery of the world in which even the word 'absurd' seems to be appropriate. However, what astonishes and strikes me is not only his creation of gigantic characters, but the details he gave which provide another depth and dimensions to dramatised world and stimulate our poetic imagination, although they do not seem of much significance at a glance. The significance of this essay's topical characters, the Porter in Macbeth and the Fool in King Lear, are often considered as marginal characters by the audience, readers and even directors and critics until very recently. Nahum Tate completely omitted the Fool in his notoriously famous 'happy-end' Lear and the Fool had not appeared on stage until 1868 when Macready "ventured to restore the role",1 and the instances of that "the Porter's rowdy interlude was cut" can be found as late as 1927.2 Added to these miserable treatments in productions, the Porter has been suspected of being interpolated by other hand than Shakespeare, because the language is "low". However, if looked at closely and precisely, the effectiveness of these two characters can not be insignificant or irrelevant; or rather I dare say each role can be regarded as one of the most brilliant theatrical inventions done by Shakespeare in these plays. Thus, this essay will try to illustrate the necessity and effectiveness of the roles in the plays by uncovering the underlying meaning, poetic power of their speeches and dramatic functions contrived by Shakespeare.

The Porter in Macbeth

The Porter scene used to be considered as of little importance, or even as unnecessary scene which causes disharmony to rest part of the play. Pope and Hanmer relegated the scene to the margins in their edition of Macbeth,3 and Coleridge asserted that "not one syllable has the ever-present being of Shakespeare" except for a single sentence, "everlasting bonfire".4 However, the idea to assume the interpolation of the scene does not have convincing argument other than the style of the Porter's speech. On the contrary, a number of grounds to deny the possibility of the interpolation have been remarked by critics in the 20th century.

To examine the Porter's theatrical necessity and effectiveness, it might be better to start off with Capell's comment on the scene. The first point Capell remarked is rather matter-of-fact, but strong; "without this scene Macbeth's dress cannot be shifted nor his hands washed."5 The arrival of the Porter follows immediately after the murder of Duncan, so something must be inserted here to delay the discovery of the deed to buy time for changing clothes. Secondly, Capell pointed out that the scene functions to give "a rational space for the discharge of these actions".6 Macbeth is short and relentless play rushing to the tragic ending at a breathless speed, but appropriate space between two horrific scenes - the murder and the discovery of it - may work effectively to heighten the tension and produce an image of horror. Thus, it could be said that Capell provided an adequate amount of explanation for the scene's existence.

However, as Muir pointed out,7 if these are the solo reason for the scene's existence, a character who causes the delay need not to be drunken porter. The reason why Shakespeare introduced obscene comic figure is still obscure. Although one may seize on the idea of 'comic relief', Muir's following lines beats off that.

'Comic relief' is a convenient, but question-begging term; for Shakespeare, we might suppose, could have used lyrical relief, if relief were needed. As Coleridge pointed out, Shakespeare never introduced the comic except when it may react on the tragedy by harmonious contrast. A good dramatist does not laboriously create feelings of tension and intensity only to dissipate them in laughter.8

The true effect of the Porter scene is almost opposite to 'comic relief'. If audience could find a 'relief' and feel easy in the Porter's bawdy jokes, it could be said that director had made an unrecoverable mistake. Although the Porter can make the audience laugh with relatively little effort in fact, the actor who plays the role should be aware of his role assigned by Shakespeare. He did not design the Porter to be mere comic character. Bradley said, Shakespeare "despised the groundlings if they laughed. Of course he could have written without the least difficulty speeches five times as humorous; but he knew better."9 As a rational space, his monologue must not disperse tragic atmosphere in extreme laughter; instead, what he should do is to add an extra horrific image to the tragedy.

The first and foremost important allusive image which the Porter possesses is "Porter of Hell Gate", the model of which can be found in medieval mystery plays. According to Wickham, "on the medieval stage hell was represented as a castle" and "Its gate was guarded by a janitor or porter", and the arrival of Christ who demands the release of the souls captured by Lucifer "was signalled by a tremendous knocking at this gate and a blast of trumpet".10 Here, in Macbeth, at Inverness Castle in which fearful deed was committed by Macbeth arrives the Porter, who identifies himself with the one of Hell Gate. Furthermore, and Lady Macbeth describes its sound as "a hideous trumpet". This word "trumpet" "completes the picture", because the sound of trumpet signifies the arrival of Christ at Hell Gate in mystery plays - so to speak, destiny arrives at Macbeth.11 These may be enough to confirm Shakespeare's intention to draw parallels between Inverness and Hell. Although the story of Hell Gate and its porter became unfamiliar to modern audience, Wickham asserted that "anyone familiar with medieval religious drama is likely to recognize a correspondence between" the two.12 If audience once recognized the parallels, the moral meaning of the play and the consequence of Macbeth which can be easily predicted by the story of mystery play must adhere to their mind. The tension of the scene must be tighten rather than dissipated by laughter, if the audience becomes aware of this image. Muir speculated further; the identification of the Porter with the figure in mystery plays "transports us from Inverness to the gate of hell, without violating the unity of place." Shakespeare "enabled to cut the cable that moored his tragedy to a particular spot in space and time, so that on the one hand it could become universalized, or on the other became contemporary."13 The Porter chillingly increases diabolic atmosphere which dominates the play from the beginning, so even it could be said that he functions almost as the third of supernatural existence in the play - the first is the Witches, and the second is the Ghost of Banquo. Brown remarked "The clown disappears without a word; we might almost say that he vanishes, like the witches, when his many tasks are complete",14 and his speculation that the First Witch and the Porter might be acted by the same actor, Robert Armin, might be worth considering.15 Although the impression of the Porter tends to be just comical for modern audience, these series of religious references which could visually arouse the picture of mystery cycles in audiences' mind can not be missed while considering the importance of the Porter scene.

The three professions which the Porter mentions include a number of annotations. The commentary by Hunter suggested that the Porter's word-play "based on the tradition of 'Estates-Satire', in which 'some of all professions' were surveyed and condemned".16 Plus, Harcourt's remarked that "the Porter's three examples were chosen, not at random, but precisely because of their relevance to the dramatic situation".17

Among those three, the equivocator, the second one, may be the most important figure in terms of both text-studying and dramatic image. The reason why the equivocator is so important is that it can be understood as a reference to Father Garnet, the principal culprit of the Gunpowder plot. The reference to the Gunpowder plot is not only useful as a main resource to decide the date of the text, but also dramatically relevant because it might work upon audience's mind with strongly suggestive images. For the audience in Shakespeare's time, the Gunpowder plot was contemporary event which definitely remained in their memory. Father Garnet, after equivocating so much in the trial, was hanged as plotter of regicide. Equivocation, hanging and regicide - these three words can directly apply to Macbeth with great exactness. The motif of equivocation runs through the play. Macbeth himself used equivocation in act II scene 3 when he re-enter with Lenox;

Had I but died an hour before this chance,
I had liv'd a blessed time; for, from this instant,
There's nothing serious in mortality;
All is but toys: renown, and grace, is dead;
The wine of life is drawn, and the mere lees
Is left this vault to brag of.

As Bradley pointed out, "It is meant to deceive, but it utters at the same time his profoundest feeling."18 He does not lie; or rather, he could not lie, because of his remainder of conscience which nearly makes him scream out. Along with Macbeth's equivocation, the Witch's equivocations should not be forgotten. The speech of the Porter remind us of this important concept of equivocation and existing equivocator Father Garnet, and the fact that Farther Garnet was hanged for plotting regicide probably let audience predict tragic end of Macbeth.

The other two professions, farmer and tailor, are less significant, but still have considerable meaning. According to Wills, the farmer "has been often connected with Henry Garnet because his widely publicized indictment included Farmer among his pseudonym."19 Added to this, this can be taken as a reference to the steep drop of price in England around 1605.20 About the tailor, his thieving might imply the parallel to Macbeth's usurp, "throne-thief", and some sexual connotations in it are pointed out by Rosenberg interestingly.21

These are only parts of numerous semantic evaluations done by critics across the centuries and it is impossible to include all of them. Besides, it must be added that there is another important aspect. As discussed above, the Porter scene has wide range of functions from buying time for changing clothes to allusion to mystery plays, but there is no need to discuss the necessity of the scene if we once hear the sound of knocking and see obscure figure staggering from darkness in actual performance. It comes immediately after the murder scene in which all of us - including Macbeth and his wife - are afraid of the revelation of the crime, and the tension filling auditorium is at its height, and suddenly comes the knocking. Theatrically, the effect of this sound is immense. The knocking comes at the time when heart beats are increased and the stage is filled with hashed silence. In this situation, it is extremely difficult to invent a sort of bridge-character not violating its diabolic mood and integrity of the play. Shakespeare had done it. In terms of style and content, better character than the Porter can not be thought of, and thus it is impossible to regard this scene as being interpolated. On the contrary, this scene is one of the finest examples to verify Shakespeare's genius as dramatist.

The Fool in King Lear

The Fool in King Lear is also enigmatic character. As McEwan asserted, the Fool is probably "the most important secondary parts in Shakespeare",22 but he is not given many details of his character, such as age, appearance and background. One description of his appearance can be found only in Quarto in act 1 scene 4; he refers himself as "The one in motley here". Added to this, he must have a coxcomb which he offers to Kent. However, his age and background remain unknown.

The difficulty of deciding his age mainly comes from the inconsistency that Lear frequently calls him 'boy' but his realistic knowledge about the world does not seem to be boy's one. Bradley vaguely guessed that he is a boy from Lear's first word to him, but what is more interesting in Bradley's remarks on the Fool is that he emphasised the dramatic effectiveness which becomes clearer by supposing him as a boy.

As a boy, too, he would be more strongly contrasted in the storm-scenes with Edgar as well as with Lear; his faithfulness and courage would be even more heroic and touching; his devotion to Cordelia, and consequent bitterness of some of his speeches to Lear, would be even more natural.23

McEwan also supported the Fool as boy because "the spectacle of Lear with a young Fool would stress the play's contrast of youth and age" and to suppose him as Fool "contribute to the thematic life of the play."24 Of course there have been a number of successful productions in which the Fool was performed by matured or sometimes old actor, and basically it is impossible to give a definite answer to this question, so this essay will not go further about the problem of his age.

In general, the Fool is considered as "a choric commentator"25 of Lear's foolery that reveals Lear's situation and folly and at the same time maintains the dignity of Lear. If we closely look at the difference of the opening scene between Holinshed's and Shakespeare's Lear, it is obvious that Shakespeare intentionally accentuated Lear's foolishness. By doing so, the tragedy obtained simple but powerful structure in which Lear goes straightforward to the end. Concerning this alternation, Muir observed that the irrationality of Shakespeare's Lear is more credible and tragic than the original.26 However, in theatre the audience can not help feeling, criticising or even laughing at Lear's absurdity. The most important dramatic function of the Fool can be found here. Muir said;

Lear's conduct is absurd, if judged critically; and the representation of madness is apt to arouse more laughter than sympathy. The Fool was therefore inserted to draw the laughs of the audience, and so preserve Lear's sublimity.27

As a playwright, Shakespeare might intentionally or intuitively recognise the necessity to supply the vent of the audience's hostile emotion against Lear.

In his mind, the Fool may have complicated feeling to Lear which includes resentment against Lear's treatment to Cordelia, pity for the King who is now "an O without figure", terror to Lear's extreme behaviour and madness, etc. However, he never loses his intimacy with the King and always cares for him. He becomes only subject and guardian of him and speaks "a general voice of common sense in the storm scenes" and "a social critic".28 Their relationship is so close that some critics regard him as "the conscience of the King"29 or "an added dimension of Lear himself"30.

His "quasi-choric function"31 is succeeded by Edgar disguising himself as Poor Tom, in whom "Lear sees a mirror image of himself, a being reduced to nothing except what he was born with."32 From the moment of encounter with Poor Tom, the Fool gradually becomes separated from Lear and finally, in act III scene 6, disappears from the stage without any explanation. The reason of his sudden and unexplained disappearance stimulated controversy among critics and various interpretations by directors. In fact this issue is interesting enough to study, but does not matter so much in actual performance or reading. Because, Videbaek said, "Lear himself disappears from our sight for a long time, and when he reappears his conditions are so changed and so many things have happened to shake us fundamentally that we most likely will have forgotten about the Fool."33 In early scenes the Fool functioned effectively, but no more. The significance of his role was finished as soon as Lear became mad, and to give a reason for his exit from the stage does not produce any benefit in terms of dramatic effect. Now Lear has Poor Tom and in his madness he does not need any help from others to recognise his stupidity and to detect the bitter truth of the world. The Fool's function was over. From the viewpoint of an actor, Antony Sher interestingly denied difficulty to answer the problem. "The Fool's disappearance is not difficult to explain at all - he has simply been absorbed by Lear, replaced by his madness, digested as fodder for his new perception of the world."34

Although he is forcefully obliged to exit from stage in the middle of the play by the playwright, no comic characters are granted equivalently important significance in Shakespearean tragedies. As a mirror and chorus to Lear, he plays absolutely indispensable role in the play.


As discussed above, in Macbeth and King Lear two comic characters can not be regarded as just comic relief. Both characters greatly contribute to the plays the way in which Shakespeare carefully designed the functions of the two in terms of structure and theatrical necessity. Although Macbeth and King Lear are based on Holinshed's Chronicles, both the Porter and the Fool does not appear in Holinshed. Both were invented by Shakespeare in order to dramatise the stories in more theatrically effective way, and the details Shakespeare granted them are astonishingly precise and striking. Exactly, God is in the details. It is amazing that every line, every word has something excellent in Shakespeare's works. We should not overlook them, and in his tragedy we should not be relieved even when comic characters are on stage.

(2938 words)



  • Hunter, G. K. ed. Macbeth Penguin, 1967
  • Muir, K. ed Macbeth Methuen, 1951
  • Harcourt, J. B. 'I play you remember the Porter' in Shakespeare Quarterly XII, 1961
  • Wickham, G. 'Hell Castle and its Door-Keeper' in Shakespeare Survey 19, 1966
  • Allen, M. J. B. 'Macbeth's Genial Porter' in English Literary Renaisance IV, 1974
  • Wills, G. Witches & Jesuits, Oxford University Press, 1995
  • Winstanley, L. Macbeth, King Lear, C.U.P. 1922
  • Rosenberg, M. The Masks of Macbeth, C.U.P. 1978

King Lear

  • Muir, K. King Lear, Methuen, 1972
  • Wells, S. ed. King Lear, Oxford University Press, 2000
  • Brown, H. 'Lear's Fool: a boy, not a man' in Essays in Criticism 13, 1963
  • McEwan, N. 'The lost childhood of Lear's Fool' in Essays in Criticism 26, 1976
  • Videbaek, B. A. The Stage Clown in Shakespeare's Theatre, Greenwood Press, 1996
  • Hotson, L. Shakespeare's Motley, Oxford University Press, 1952
  • Sher, A. 'The Fool in King Lear' in Jackson, R. and Smallwood, R. ed. Players of Shakespeare2, Cambridge, 1988
  1. Wells, p41
  2. Rosenberg, p352
  3. Harcourt, p393
  4. Muir (Macbeth), p58
  5. Capell in his Note p13, through Muir (Macbeth) p58
  6. Capell in his Note p13, through Muir (Macbeth)p58
  7. Muir (Macbeth), pxxv
  8. Muir (Macbeth), pxxvi
  9. Bradley, p363
  10. Wickham, p68
  11. Wickham, p73
  12. Wickham, p68
  13. Muir (Macbeth), pxxvi-xxvii
  14. Rosenberg, p361
  15. Wills, p98
  16. Hunter, p154
  17. Harcourt, p394
  18. Bradley, p329
  19. Wills, p98
  20. Rosenberg, p355
  21. Rosenberg, p357
  22. McEwan, p217
  23. Bradley, p288
  24. McEwan, p215
  25. Wells, p136
  26. Muir (King Lear), pxxvi
  27. Muir (King Lear), lvii
  28. Wells, p132
  29. Wells, p133
  30. Videbaek, p123
  31. Wells, p40
  32. Videbaek, p132
  33. Videbaek, p134
  34. Sher, p165