Resource 1: The role of the Porter2018-03-13T10:35:31+00:00

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Resource 1: The role of the Porter

In the movie, the role of the Porter is significantly different to the character in Shakespeare’s play. In this resource, we consider the role of the Porter in Shakespeare’s time and how the Porter is used in the Macbeth movie.

In Shakespeare’s time, the Porter offered both some light relief and gallows humour. He appears just once, after Macbeth’s murder of Duncan, but before the discovery of the body. As well as injecting some gallows humour, the Porter also serves a practical purpose by allowing the actors playing Macbeth and Lady Macbeth some time to put on their nightgowns and to wash their blood-soaked hands!

Activity 1

  • Look at the Porter’s speech with your class.
  • The speech can be broken down into three sections.
    • The porter at Dunsinane (presumably drunk) imagines that he is the porter of Hell, which he thinks would explain all the knocking (as the porter at the gates of Hell would undoubtedly be kept very busy by all the people entering there).
    • He then imagines some of the people he might meet if he was the porter of Hell. First, he imagines a farmer who has killed himself due to poor crop sales. Next he imagines someone who has lied in court about his religion to avoid punishment, Finally, he imagines a dishonest tailor.
    • Finally, with a request that the audience ‘remember the porter’ he opens the door to Macduff and Lennox.
  • Ask your pupils whether satirical references to people lying about their religion, and about farmers and tailors is relevant to a 21st century audience? Have pupils any ideas about which current stereotypes, consigned to Hell, a modern porter might joke about?
  • Ask pupils to research modern productions and how the porter has been dealt with. They may find that he has been cut entirely, or that the role has been rewritten to include modern references.

The Porter in the Macbeth movie

Ask pupils to create their own table to collect information and ideas about the Porter in the movie, dividing up the information into facts that we know and questions we have. It might look like this (although any observations and questions are valid).

Facts that we know Questions we have
He watches old films. Why is he watching old films? How many of them has he watched?
He has sketches of books including books about Shakespeare. What are the old films he is watching?
Are they about Macbeth?
He has ‘modern’ accessories like film canisters, a heater etc. How does he know who Shakespeare is?
He doesn’t ever speak. Is he from another world or time? If so – do the other characters realise that he is from another world and time?
The other characters acknowledge his existence as the Porter. What is his job?
He wanders in and out of the action. Does he have an opinion on the characters in the story.
He has copies of the actors’ headshots and biographies for his production. Does he believe that Macbeth is a piece of fiction and that each actor is playing a part?
At the start of the film, the witches (or a child of one of the witches) delivers a film canister to the Porter. This is presumably the film we see him watch. Is he creating an archive of all past Macbeth performances? If so, will this film become part of his archive at some point?
He seems to be a serious character. Is the Porter confused by events or is he all-knowing? If he knows what happens in other productions of Macbeth, does he think that the fate of the Macbeths is inevitable here too?
Is the story of Macbeth doomed to happen over and over again, with each new production that he watches, or does he have the power to intervene in events?
Does the Porter think that the events of Macbeth somehow relate to or reflect the events of the ‘real’ world? Does he think that Shakespeare was a chronicler of the human condition?

Activity 2

The presence of the Porter and his Shakespearean archive might be argued to infuse the film with the weight of other filmed performances throughout history. In fact, we briefly glimpse that the Porter has a book on his shelf called Shakespeare in Ten Acts. This is a catalogue from a past exhibition at the British Library, celebrating the reinvention of Shakespeare across the centuries. Ask pupils to research other filmed performances of Macbeth, including:

  • Silent Shakespeare. The Porter is projecting a filmed Shakespeare production that has no sound whatsoever: a 1909 Italian adaptation, directed by Mario Caserini. Silent Shakespeare is a fascinating conceptual oxymoron. How can stories which are so dependent on language translate to the silent screen? And yet, many of the earliest silent movies took Shakespeare as their inspiration. The earliest filmed Macbeth was a 1908 production directed by James Stuart Blackton. After the porter’s Caserini version, a later silent production was directed by John Emerson (1916). Ask pupils to find out what they can about this and silent Shakespeare generally. Some silent Shakespeare productions are available to view for free on platforms such as Youtube or via websites like the BFI.
  • Iconic performances. What iconic Macbeth productions can students discover? Give them a list of actors who have played Macbeth in famous productions (e.g. Orson Welles, Ian McKellen, Michael Fassbender) and ask them to find out about the directorial and artistic vision of these film interpretations. How do they differ from the Macbeth movie?
  • Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood (1957) which relocates the story to the world of the Samurai and replaces Shakespeare’s language, whilst retaining the story almost wholesale.