"Here's a Knocking Indeed!": Macbeth and the Harrowing of Hell

By Schreyer, Kurt | The Upstart Crow, Annual 2010 | Go to article overview

"Here's a Knocking Indeed!": Macbeth and the Harrowing of Hell


Schreyer, Kurt, The Upstart Crow


Knock. Knock. Who's there? In the Harrowing of Hell scenes of English mystery plays, the answer to that question was no joke. The Harrowing marks the climax of the battle between God and Satan for the fate of humanity. Following the crucifixion, Christ descends into Hell and lays siege to its battlements in order to "harrow," or plunder, the souls in Limbo. (1) More than forty years ago, Glynne Wickham noted that Shakespeare's play relies upon his audience's familiarity with mystery drama and that Macbeth draws from the dialogue, action, and setting of Harrowing of Hell pageants. (2) Wickham's research set an important precedent. Scholars like Michael O'Connell, Helen Cooper, and Beatrice Groves, for example, have made important claims about the histrionic conventions and incarnational aesthetics that Shakespeare inherited from the mystery plays like the Harrowing. (3)

This essay, though clearly indebted to Wickham's scholarship and sympathetic to O'Connell and others, makes a different claim: I argue that a sound effect borrowed from mystery drama catalyzes dialogue and action in a Shakespeare play. The knocking at the gate of Inverness castle prompts the Porter of Macbeth to tell jokes and ask questions in the manner of traditional devil-porter behavior in the mysteries. The re-creation of a sound from an outlawed stage tradition brings the pre-Reformation theatrical past into the present. It is, therefore, not a neutral dramaturgical choice, but a potentially subversive bit of stage business that has two important implications for Shakespeare's play. First, by inviting but then denying affinities with Christ's climactic battle with Satan, the Porter scene exposes the inadequacy of Jacobean political theology. When Wickham's essay was published, it joined John Harcourt's "I Pray You, Remember the Porter" (1961) in arguing that Shakespeare, pressured by royal patronage, wrote Macbeth in support of James' views on kingship and godly rule. (4) Much recent scholarship, however, has stressed the play's potential involvement in resistance theory.5 My own contribution to this critical conversation will be to suggest that the Porter scene, once the cornerstone of pro-Jacobean readings of Macbeth's reign as an "awful parenthesis," is in fact an elaborate joke that undermines the Crown's claims to sacred authority. Second, by borrowing from the superseded dramaturgy of the Old Faith's plays, the Porter scene mocks religious opponents of the London playhouses. At the time that Macbeth was being performed, antitheatricalists like the Protestant preacher William Crashaw were calling upon James I to extirpate "the vngodly Playes and Enterludes so rife in this nation." 6 Critics of the theater condemned the public stages as the theatrical progeny of popish mystery drama, and I want to suggest that the knocking at the gates provokes and unprovokes such desires to link commercial drama with its Catholic antecedents.

Asserting an acoustic link between Shakespeare and the mysteries is important for broader methodological reasons as well. As Jonathan Gil Harris and Natasha Korda have noted, literary criticism has long positioned Shakespeare as the "peerless representative of a transcendent dramatic literature ... [that] disdains vulgar physical accoutrements." (7) Following their work, as well as the indispensible collection Subject and Object in Renaissance Culture, I want to argue that we further strive to see Shakespeare as "a playwright, a craftsman who, like a shipwright or cartwright, fashions his material for practical use." (8) A playwright not only crafts words but also joins them to stage materials: costumes, properties, actors' bodies and voices--and sound effects. Sounds are not objects in the traditional sense of material culture studies, yet it may be helpful to think about the acoustic affinity between Macbeth and the Harrowing in terms of material stage properties--as if Shakespeare borrowed an aural prop, rather than a Hell-mouth or devil's costume, to momentarily suggest the setting of Hell. …

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