Macbeth by William Shakespeare

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69 ‘night-gown’ – I.e. a dressing-gown, not a modern night-shirt, unknown in Shakespeare’s time.

72 ‘To know my deed, ’twere best not know myself’ – Macbeth is replying to his wife’s ‘Be not lost/ So poorly in your thoughts’, saying, effectively, ‘If I have to know of my deed, it is best to have no knowledge of my own self.’ The latter phrase can be taken in two ways: primarily it simply refers to Macbeth being ‘out of himself’, ‘absent in mind’ – or ‘lost in thought’ to use Lady Macbeth’s own expression. There is a secondary meaning, however: if Macbeth faces up to what he has done, he will know the truth of what he now is – something he wishes to hide from himself. Macbeth has an established habit of standing lost in his thoughts: he is, in many ways, a fantasist who clings on to a dream of his ‘success’ until it finally collapses.

Act Two: Scene Three

1-2 ‘If a man were Porter of Hell Gate, he should have old turning the key.’ – The Porter’s inebriated ramblings perhaps suggest to the audience that Macbeth himself has just, in a metaphorical sense, knocked on ‘Hell Gate’ and asked admittance. The phrase ‘have old turning the key’ is a colloquialism meaning something like ‘have a fine old time turning the key’ (as there are so many demanding to enter). The Porter’s language is archaic, but the use of ‘old’ as an augmentative of fairly generalised meaning survives in such phrases as ‘fine old time’ and ‘old sport’.

3-4 ‘Knock, knock, knock. Who’s there, i’th’name of Belzebub?’ – The Porter’s speech may possibly have inspired the well-known joke formula. The influence cannot be the other way round, as the ‘Knock Knock’ joke is not known before the twentieth century. Belzebub is a (biblical) name of the devil.

4-5 ‘Here’s a farmer that hang’d himself on the expectation of plenty’ – An abundance is, facetiously, bad news for farmers as prices go down. Most texts of the play have ‘Come in, time-pleaser’ or ‘time-server’ in the next line, but this is a major, and probably unnecessary, emendation. The Folio has, ‘Come in time, haue Napkins enow about you, here you'le sweat for't’ – and this is, surely, what Shakespeare wrote, meaning simply, ‘Come in quickly (in good time), and make sure you’ve got plenty of handkerchiefs on you, because you’ll sweat for what you’ve done in here!’

8 ‘i’th’other devil’s name’ – The Porter can’t remember another devil’s name. Many were known in Jacobean England: he might have said Azazel, Baphomet, Sammael or, indeed, Mephistopheles.

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William Shakespeare