Table of Contents
Act 2: Scene 3
A porter staggers through the hallway to answer the knocking, grumbling amusingly about the noise and mocking whoever is on the other side. He compares himself to a gatekeeper at hell’s gates and asks, “Who’s there, in the name of Beelzebub?” (2.3.3). Macduff and Lennox enter, and Macduff complains about the porter’s slow response. The porter explains that he was up late partying and humorously rambles about the effects of alcohol, which include red noses, sleepiness, and urination. He adds that drink also stirs up lust but takes away the ability to have sex (2.3.27).
Macbeth arrives, and Macduff asks him if the king is awake, mentioning that Duncan wanted to see him early in the morning. In short and curt sentences, Macbeth says that Duncan is still asleep. He offers to take Macduff to the king. While Macduff enters the king’s chamber, Lennox describes the storms that occurred the previous night, claiming that he has never seen anything like it. Suddenly, Macduff rushes out of the room, exclaiming, “O horror, horror, horror!” and shouting that the king has been murdered (2.3.59). Macbeth and Lennox rush to see, and Lady Macbeth appears, expressing her horror that such a deed could happen in her home. Chaos ensues as the other nobles and their servants enter. As Macbeth and Lennox come out of the bedroom, Malcolm and Donalbain arrive. They are informed that their father has been killed, likely by his chamberlains who were found with bloody daggers. Macbeth claims that he has killed the chamberlains in his rage.
Macduff appears suspicious of these new deaths, which Macbeth explains by saying that his anger at Duncan’s death was so strong that he couldn’t control himself. Lady Macbeth suddenly faints, and both Macduff and Banquo call for someone to attend to her. Malcolm and Donalbain whisper to each other that they are not safe, assuming that whoever killed their father will likely try to kill them next. Lady Macbeth is taken away, while Banquo and Macbeth gather the lords to discuss the murder. Duncan’s sons decide to flee the court. Malcolm declares that he will go south to England, and Donalbain will hurry to Ireland.
Act 2: Scene 4
Ross, a thane, walks outside the castle with an old man. They discuss the strange and ominous events of the past few days: it is daytime, but the sky is dark; an owl killed a falcon last Tuesday; and Duncan’s well-behaved horses behaved wildly and ate each other. Macduff comes out of the castle and tells Ross that Macbeth has been crowned king by the other lords and is now riding to Scone for the coronation. Macduff suggests that the chamberlains are the most likely murderers and that someone may have paid them to kill Duncan. Suspicion now falls on the two princes, Malcolm and Donalbain, because they have fled the scene. Macduff returns home to Fife, while Ross heads to Scone to witness the new king’s coronation.
Analysis: Act 2: Scenes 3 & 4
After the bloody and dark scenes that precede it, the porter’s comedy provides a sudden change in tone. His lighthearted banter with Macduff breaks the mounting tension of the play and indirectly comments on its themes. Unlike the noble characters who speak in poetic verse, the porter speaks in prose. His relaxed language implies that his words and role are less significant than those of other characters, but beneath his merriment, the porter reveals many truths. His description of the confusion and lust brought about by alcohol mirrors Macbeth’s moral confusion and lust for power. Furthermore, his remarks about the ineffective lechery caused by drink eerily echo Lady Macbeth’s sexual teasing of Macbeth regarding his ability to act on his resolutions. The porter’s joke likening Inverness’s door to Hell’s gate is ironic, considering the cruel and bloody events happening inside the castle. When he asks, “Who’s there, in the name of Beelzebub [the devil]?”, the analogy between Hell and Inverness becomes even stronger (2.3.3). Instead of receiving a warm welcome when entering Macbeth’s castle, guests are warned that they are placing themselves in the hands of the devil.
Now that Lady Macbeth’s schemes have borne fruit, she starts to fade into the background, and Macbeth takes center stage as the most captivating character in the play. Macbeth’s hesitant and fragmented sentences when speaking to Macduff and Lennox reveal his troubled mind and apprehension about the imminent discovery of Duncan’s body. For example, when Lennox talks at length about the stormy weather of the previous night, Macbeth simply responds with a terse “It was a rough night” (2.3.57). And when Lennox asks if the king is leaving today, Macbeth nearly reveals his knowledge of Duncan’s death (2.3.49). He replies, “He does,” before realizing that his answer is incriminating and changes it to “[H]e did appoint so” (2.3.49).
Once Duncan’s body is discovered, Macbeth undergoes a transformation. He springs into action with a clear purpose, taking control of the nobles and becoming the King of Scotland. Interestingly, Shakespeare does not show the scene in which Macbeth is crowned. Just as he withheld the scene of Duncan’s murder, he skips over its most direct consequence, Macbeth’s rise to power. The news of Macbeth’s coronation is relayed secondhand through the characters of Ross, Macduff, and the old man.
Although Macbeth appears to gain confidence as Act 2, scene 3 progresses, other characters subtly cast doubt on him. When Malcolm asks about his father’s killer, Lennox replies, “Those of his chamber, as it seemed, had done it” (2.3.98). Lennox’s inclusion of “as it seemed” highlights the suspicious nature of the crime scene. Banquo, too, expresses reservations about Macbeth’s claims that the chamberlains were the murderers. He suggests, “let us meet / And question this most bloody piece of work, / To know it further” (2.3.123-125). However, the most distrustful character is Macduff, who, up to this point, has been relatively unobtrusive. He questions Macbeth about why he killed the chamberlains and later expresses his suspicions to Ross and the old man. Macduff’s decision to return home to Fife instead of attending Macbeth’s coronation openly shows his opposition. Thus, the play establishes Macduff as Macbeth’s eventual nemesis. While Malcolm is the rightful king, he lacks Macduff’s initiative and determination, as evidenced by his willingness to flee instead of asserting his royal rights. To regain the throne, Malcolm will need the help of the more assertive Macduff, who will ultimately be responsible for Macbeth’s demise.
The conversation between Ross and the old man at the start of Act 2, scene 4, informs the audience about several unnatural occurrences in the weather and animal behavior that cast a dark shadow over Macbeth’s ascent to power. In Shakespeare’s tragedies (particularly Julius Caesar, King Lear, and Hamlet), terrible supernatural happenings often signify wicked behavior by the characters and tragic consequences for the state. The storms accompanying the witches’ appearances and Duncan’s murder are more than atmospheric disturbances; they symbolize the connection between moral, natural, and political events in Shakespeare’s plays. By killing Duncan, Macbeth unleashes a primal chaos upon Scotland, replacing the old order of a benevolent king and loyal subjects with a darker relationship between a tyrant and his victims.