Is Shakespeare funny? Sometimes I wonder.
We’re currently working on Macbeth and there is one scene, the Porter scene, that’s been inserted at a time to help relieve tension and reminds us that we’re watching a play.
Dan Hogan is playing the Porter for us in this production and last week we were working through the scene. “I don’t know if the audience is going to get all of this,” he said. “It’s pretty specific to the time.”
I would agree. Shakespeare tragedy is universal. The comedy, while also universal, can be quite topical for when it was written, which makes the jokes fall flat for a modern audience.
I have seen actors practically yell to make an audience laugh when the comic bits aren’t working, which only puts everyone on edge.
So the key is – at least that’s what Dan and I talked about – is making the Porter human. He’s someone who’s been around the house and has seen things that maybe he should not have seen. When you break the text down, it can be revealing and the Porter seems to know more than he’s saying. And even though he has a huge hangover, he refers to himself as the Hell Porter (Macbeth’s house) and talks about equivocation (like Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, who never really say what they’re going to do, but only hint at it) and the coldness of the house (perhaps because of all the dead bodies?).
So how is this all funny? Good question.
I think it’s all about character and seeing a man who’s had too much to drink, couldn’t get laid last night, is surprised to find an audience listening to him, and knows things are rotten in the state of Dunsinane, but can’t directly come out and say it. So what you get is a scene that is darkly comic.
It’s tricky stuff, because after what has just passed, the audience has to be open enough to laugh. But I think they will, because they’ll need a break from all the carnage. We’ll see.
If nothing else, it will make it possible to measure the darker elements of the play by having a scene that lets in a little light.