Shakespeare tends to use his minor characters to allow a brief interlude of comic relief in his tragedies. However, these minor characters are also pivotal characters through which Shakespeare can convey much deeper and darker meanings to the audience whilst using black humour. The minor characters of the Porter in Macbeth and the Clown in Othello are both seen as comic characters whose main purpose would initially be expected as bringing comedy to the stage, yet the scenes in which they are involved and the characters themselves are much more significant than may first appear.
Shakespeare is using these minor characters to contrast the element of dark comedy with tragedy enabling the two to become indistinguishable, allowing a sense of movement between the comedy, which creates the feeling of relief, therefore heightening the dramatic tension and the tragedy. The Porter in Macbeth enters the stage immediately following the murder of King Duncan. The Porter’s use of prose as opposed to verse and his frequent crude jokes and poor style of language, coupled with his short appearance and lack of stage space, resulted in him generally being ignored by much earlier critics.
However there is layered meanings to this scene, enabling it to be interpreted in a number of ways, for technicality purposes or to further establish the character of Macbeth, and without it, the themes of the play do not hold as much significance. Although the scene is a mere 40 lines long, it is a dividing point of Macbeth, and one of the most debatable scenes in the entire play. The ‘Porter Scene’ occurs at the start of Act II, and is multi-functional serving both practical technicalities and hidden meanings in the more sinister elements of the play.
Shakespeare includes these comic scenes in his plays for a variety of reasons, and they are much more purposeful than merely adding some humour and lightening the mood. The location of this scene adds to the peculiarity of it and defamiliarizes the situation to the audience making events feel out of time and in the wrong space, resulting in possibility for its many interpretations. The scene immediately follows Macbeth’s offstage killing of Duncan and therefore, in terms of technicalities, “without this scene Macbeth’s dress cannot be shifted nor his hands washed” (Capell, 13).
This is a very practical reason for the inclusion of the Porter yet minor characters were often included to enable the major characters to fulfil something or to support the actions of the major characters. This also delays the audiences as well as the other characters discovering the murder of King Duncan and therefore enables Macbeth to change his clothes; not only hidden from the audience but also to disguise and prolong the fact that he has committed the murder. However, “if these are the solo reasons for the scene’s existence a character who causes delay need not to be a drunken porter,” (Muir).
Therefore there must be a deeper meaning for such a comical character in a drunken state, which despite performing a series of comical actions could be considered as anti-comic. The fact that Macbeth’s brutal slaying of Duncan immediately precedes his entrance locates the Porter as “the true test of comedy that shall awaken thoughtful laughter. ” (Meredith, 994). Whilst providing comic relief, the scene is also as a transition period for the audience as the action moves from the intensity of the murders to the drama that follows, acting as a paradox to add to the tension not only on stage between the characters but also with the audience.
The use of light humour in the porter’s soliloquy intensifies the suspense as opposed to merely creating humour and increases the effectiveness of the transition which would not have as much meaning if every minute of the play contained violence and intense drama. Although the Porter initially appears as a drunken fool who is nothing more than an idiot, Shakespeare is actually providing the audience with a much deeper understanding of the themes of the play through some of the Porter’s comments. One reading of the Porter is to take his comments literally and to read him as a “porter of Hell Gate” (II. i. 3), not just a porter of the gates of Inverness Castle. This then links to the meaning of Hell and whether it is the ‘place’ he is referring to or Macbeth’s state of mind. If the purpose of the Porter is to represent the state of Macbeth’s mind at this vulnerable time, then the Porter can also be seen as taking on “the role of Macbeth’s interrogator. ” (Chahidi) Macbeth is under a lot of pressure from both Lady Macbeth and his own guilt and conscience after having killed King Duncan, therefore the Porter’s talk of hell and damnation are things that will be at the forefront of his mind.
The fact that the Porter immediately converts to the role of a regular, drunken porter at Macduff and Lennox’s arrival, may be representative of the dual personality that Macbeth is going to require; the public Macbeth and the private, murderous Macbeth; who has given himself up to the devil due to the amount of evil within him. This representation of the Porter as Macbeth’s disorderly state of mind may be why he regards his job as a “porter of hell-gate. ” The house has become a house of hell due to it being owned by Macbeth.
The Porter’s drunken stupor, coupled with the fact that the conversation turns to talk of “drink and sex” upon the arrival of Macduff and Lennox, enables Shakespeare to contrast the Porter with the other characters, including Macbeth, and declaring him to as a character who is of a lower social class and an uneducated member of society. The intensity of Macbeth’s sins and crimes are also intensified by the Porter whose sins are merely innocent drinking and fornication as opposed to the cold, evil crimes within the castle.
The Porter’s “simple vices establish an ethical distance between ordinary humanity and Macbeth. ” (Harcourt) During his speech, the Porter mentions three professions, a farmer, a tailor, and possibly the most important, the equivocator. The choice of these professions is not a mere coincidence but a result of their importance to the dramatic situation and Macbeth’s character. The first, “.. a farmer that hanged himself on th’expectation of plenty” (II. iii. 7-8) parallels Macbeth’s earlier state of mind in Act 1 Scene VII.
He struggles to cope with the amount of evil and the great sin he is committing because of his conscience, and as a result of which, he depends upon his drive and ambition to help him fulfil the evil deed, “I have no spur to prick the sides of my intent, but only vaulting ambition which o’erlaps and falls on th’other” (I. vii. 25-26). It is only his internal drives that lead Macbeth to his downfall; there are no real external necessities or factors causing Macbeth or the farmer to resort to such drastic actions.
The inclusion of the tailor and his thieving may relate to the fact that Macbeth is stealing Duncan’s place on the throne and will “be dressed in borrowed robes. ” (I. iii. 108) This image of clothes is used a number of times throughout the play and is also a recurring symbol in the Porter’s speech who refers to “a French hose. ” (II. iii. 13) The most important of the professions mentioned by the Porter is evidently the equivocator, “that could swear in both the scales against either scale, who committed treason enough for God’s sake, yet could not equivocate Heaven. II. iii. 8-9) These words are heavily laden with the element of sin and the treason of the equivocator paralleling the treason of Macbeth murdering the King. At the end of the play, Macbeth will have to pay for his crimes but unlike the equivocator who was able to “equivocate Heaven”, Macbeth’s punishment will be eternal. The Porter’s status as a minor character is justifiable due to his short presence in the play, yet his presence can also be seen as a continuance of the supernatural elements throughout the play.
The clown disappears without a word: we might say that he vanishes, like the witches, when his many tasks are complete. ” (Brown) This interpretation of the Porter as a continuation or product of the witches is intensified in certain productions of the play as some directors have chosen to have the same actor play both the part of a witch as well as the Porter. Very often it is the actor’s own depiction of the Porter that determines his characteristics resulting in it being interpreted in many different ways. As Shakespeare does not specify how he wants the character to played it may be that this was his original intention.
Paul Chahidi who played the role of the Porter as well as one of the witches believed that the Porter’s speech was included in order to give “a voice to all of Macbeth’s thoughts and imaginings after the murder” (Chahidi), which have ironically come about as a result of the witches prophecies, voiced by the same actor. Following an analysis of the character of the Porter and the scene in which he is located, it is evident that this minor character is very important as he is included at such a significant and pivotal point in the play.
He serves a much greater purpose than merely making the audience laugh. The introduction of a character such as the porter enables Shakespeare to juxtapose moments of humour with moments of tragedy. Without these elements of humour, the language would not carry the same connotations or meaning, resulting in it being less effective. ‘Macbeth’ is not the only play to have a minor character; whose presence is so brief that they do not even qualify for an individual name or title; playing such a momentous role and it is especially common in Shakespeare’s tragedies.
These arguments of the purpose of minor characters are also supported by the role of the Clown in ‘Othello’ who is equally more important and significant than first suggested. The function of the Clown in Shakespeare’s ‘Othello’ can also be queried as although it is initially conveyed as a character who provides humour and some comic relief, the poor quality of the jokes and the fact that they result in very little humour, leaves the audience questioning Shakespeare’s intentions of including a character who initially appears insignificant and useless.
The Clown works as a servant in Othello’s household and therefore has a dual role as both entertainer and servant. He makes two appearances in the play, the first being in Act 3 Scene I and the second later in the same act, in Scene IV, as opposed to the Porter in ‘Macbeth’ who only appears in the one scene. However, despite making two appearances the total amount of dialogue spoken by the Clown only equals the equivalent of approximately twelve lines. The Clown’s first appearance establishes him in his servant role, defamiliarizing the audiences image and purpose of a clown.
However, the way in which these servant’s duties are performed and his choice of language carrying comic connotations, helps to re-establish him as a clown and therefore a comical character in the play. The Clown’s speech is not as straight forward as first appears as Shakespeare has employed the use of ‘puns’ with almost every statement he makes. The Clown’s opening line and introduction to the audience is whilst making a derogatory comment about the musician performance, “Why masters have your instruments been in / Naples that they speak I’ th’ nose thus? ” (III. i. 4) This line is suggestive of the comical scene that lies ahead, which is enforced by the imminent need of some humour and comic relief at such an intense point of the play, following Cassio and Roderigo’s fight.
Granville-Barker justified the inclusion of the Clown at this point as being : “For relaxation before the tense main business of the tragedy begins we next have Cassio in the early morning bringing musicians to play beneath Othello’s window (a pleasant custom, and here what delicate amends! ), to this being added the grosser, conventional japes of the Clown. Granville-Barker). Othello’s distaste for the music and the fact that the Clown’s entrance evolves around music, relates to Shakespeare’s conceptions “of peace ad agreement in terms of music played or sung in tune, and of disagreement and conflict in terms of music out of tune. ” (Prager) Othello does not want to be soothed by the tune and therefore does not want any music, showing that he is evidently in a state of disarray. The Clown refers to the music as nasal, reminding the audience of the intensity of the conflict between the characters.
The Clown is immediately established as being different to Shakespeare’s other comical characters. His dialogue is generally directed at other characters on stage without the need for him to soliloquize his speeches, and the ‘puns’ and innuendos he makes are also aimed at the other characters who in turn respond to the Clown. The response of these on stage characters also helps the audience to further develop their understanding of them, and therefore the role of the clown may not solely be for comical purposes and to provide a sense of relief to the play, but also to further establish the main characters.
This is established from the moment the Clown appears and he is left alone with Cassio who asks if “Dost thou hear me, mine hones friend? ” (III. i. 21) and the Clown responds with, “No, I hear not your honest friend. I hear you. ” (III. i. 22) This manipulation of ‘honesty’ is a central theme in ‘Othello’ and conveys the use of the Clown as a tool for establishing the other characters to the audience and intensifying the element of irony in the play. If Othello trusted his honest friends as opposed to the dishonest Iago the play would not have such a tragic outcome and the events that unfold would be quite different.
Cassio’s response to the Clown further establishes Cassio himself as someone who does not like humour and is in fact a very serious person, contrasting entirely with the Clown. This serious aspect to Cassio’s character and his inability to partake in humour may contribute to his actions in later scenes. The Clown’s later appearance in Act 3 Scene iv and his exchange with Desdemona, also contains dialogue laden with these ‘puns’, which relates to the earlier events, proceeding the speech and continues to emphasise the themes of honesty and lies.
Despite the element of humour in this scene; reminding the audience that the main purpose of the Clown is to provide a moment of relief amidst all the tension; the Clown’s choice of language and jokes also develops Desdemona as a sentimental, emotional character who is portrayed as nai?? ve and someone who readily believes what she is told and readily believes those she thinks she can trust. This results in Iago being able to manipulate her so easily. When asked of Cassio’s location, the Clown states that he “dare not say he lies anywhere,” (III. iv. and Desdemona takes his statement literally, replying, “Why man? ” (III. iv. 3), again showing her naivety. Although the “lying” that the Clown is referring to is where Cassio is located, the context in which it is spoken and the earlier representation of the Clown, suggests to have a double meaning relating to telling a lie. The irony of this speech and fact that it is stated in the same sentence as stabbing Cassio, “He is a soldier and for one to say a soldier lies, is stabbing. ” (III. iv. 7) is heightened by the later events in the play when Iago actually stabs Roderigo, a soldier, in Act 5.
The way in which the Clown plays with the truth results in it being more believable and effective, enables the audience to understand Shakespeare’s intentions for what lies ahead and the subtle hints he provides about the events still to come. It is this black humour, which comes about as a result of Shakespeare’s education in Greek classics and literature that enables the incorporation of comedy or humour into the tragedies, “Shakespeare loved Latin and Greek literature. What he had been taught at school he remembered, he improved his knowledge afterwards by reading translations. ” (Highet)
This helps to maintain the attention of the audience and heightens the intensity of the dramatic moments. The use of these two minor characters is to provide elements of humour yet it also evident that the techniques employed by Shakespeare enable them to have a dual purpose. As is the fool in ‘King Lear,’ who plays a larger role than the Clown and the Porter whilst still maintaining the position of minor character, the voices of these characters speak directly to the audience connecting the events of the play and reminding the audience of any subtle suggestions they may have missed or not understood.
Whilst some critics view the insertion of these minor characters and comical elements as interrupting the actions, it can be argued that they in fact add to the tragedy and sinister moments. They are not there purely for comical reasons but to serve a purpose “in terms of structure and theatrical necessity” (Playnotes). It is through these minor characters that the brief moments of comic relief are seen. No matter how small or what the underlying meanings may be at these points of the plays they still provide a sense of humour and relieve the intensity of the drama.