Five Truths from Dostoevsky’s The Devils

Originally published by The Mallard.

Whenever I scroll through the news on Twitter or listen to talk radio, I like to play a game called “Dostoevsky called it.” As one can guess, it consists of identifying events or trends that correspond with those in Feodor Dostoevsky’s novels and letters. Because Dostoevsky devoted so much ink to warning about the motives and effects of atheist-utilitarian socialism from the radical left, the game often points to his most direct attack on those ideas: The Devils.

Published between 1871 and 1872 and written in response to the Nechaev affair, where an underground group of socialist-atheist radicals, planning to ultimately overthrow the Tsarist government through propaganda, terrorism, and assassination, murdered a former comrade who had left their secret society, The Devils (Бесы; also translated as Demons or The Possessed) is Feodor Dostoevsky’s most explicit expose of and polemic against the revolutionary nihilism growing in late nineteenth-century Russia. Although, due to his own participation in a socialist plot aimed at educating and ultimately liberating the serfs, he often gave the benefit of the doubt to the moral idealism of the younger generation of radicals—assuming their hearts, if not their methods, were in the right place—in The Devils he nonetheless skewers the radical ideology and his generation and the next’s culpability for it.

While his main focus is on the characters’ psychologies and their symbolic significance, Dostoevsky nonetheless lays out many of the ideas populating late-nineteenth-century Russia, displaying a thorough understanding of them, their holders’ true motives (which, like those of that other ideological murderer Raskalnikov, are rarely the same as those consciously stated by their loudest advocates), and what would be the results if they were not checked. In several places, Dostoevsky unfortunately calls it right, and The Devils at times reads as a preview of the following fifty years in Russia, as well as of the modes and methods of radicalism in later places and times.

It would be too great a task to cite, here, all the places and times where Dostoevsky’s visions were confirmed; at best, after laying out a few of the many truths in The Devils, I can only note basic parallels with later events and trends in Russia and elsewhere—and let my readers draw their own additional parallels. Nonetheless, here are five truths from Dostoevsky’s The Devils:

1: The superfluity of the preceding liberal generation to progressive radicals.

The Devils is structured around the relationship between the older and younger generations of the mid-1800s. The book opens with an introduction of Stepan Trofimovich Verkhovensky, father to the later introduced radical Peter Stepanovich. A Westernized liberal from the 1840s generation, Stepan Trofimovich represents the upper-class intelligentsia that first sought to enlighten the supposedly backwards Russia through atheistic socialism (a redundancy in Dostoevsky).

However, despite his previously elevated status as a liberal and lecturer, by the time of The Devils Stepan Trofimovich—and, with him, the 1840s liberals who expected to be honored for opening the door to progress—has become superfluous. This is highlighted when his son returns to the province and does not honor his father with figurative laurels (when such a symbol is later employed literally it is in satirical mock).

Though never the direct butt of Dostoevsky’s satire, Stepan Trofimovich cannot (or refuses) to understand that his son’s nihilism is not a distortion of his own generation’s hopes but is the logical, inevitable product of them. The older man’s refusal to admit his ideological progeny in his literal progeny’s beliefs, of course, enables Peter Stepanovich to mock him further, even while he continues to avail himself of the benefits of his father’s erstwhile status in society. This “liberal naivete enabling radical nihilism” schema can also be seen in the governor’s wife, Yulia Mikhailovna von Lembke, who believes that she can heroically redirect the passions of the youth to more socially beneficial, less radical, pursuits but only ends up enabling them to take over her literary fete to ridicule traditional society and distract the local worthies while agents set parts of the local town ablaze. Stepan Trofimovich, Yulia Mikhailovna, and others show that, despite the liberal generation’s supposed love for Russia, they were unable to brake the pendulum they sent swinging towards leftism.

The same pattern of liberals being ignored or discarded by the progressives they birthed can be seen in later years in Russia and other nations. While it would historically be two generations between Belinsky and Lenin (who was born within months of Dostoevsky’s starting to write The Devils), after the 1917 Revolution, Soviet Russia went through several cycles of executing or imprisoning previous generations who, despite supporting the Revolution, were unfortunately too close to the previous era to be trusted by new, socialistically purer generations.

In a more recent UK, Dostoevsky’s schema can also be seen in the Boomer-led Labour of the ‘90s and ‘00s UK paving the way for the radical, arguably anti-British progressivism of the 2010s and ‘20s (which, granted, sports its share of hip Boomers). In America, it can be seen in the soft divide in congressional Democrats between 20th-century liberals like Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer and “the squad” comprised of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, and others who have actively tried (and arguably succeeded) in pushing the nation’s discourse in a left progressive direction.

2: Ideologies as active, distorting forces rather than merely passive beliefs.

“I’ve never understood anything about your theory…” Peter Stepanovich tells the serene Aleksei Nilych Kirillov later in the book, “I also know you haven’t swallowed the idea—the idea’s swallowed you…” The idea he is referring to is Kirillov’s belief that by committing suicide not from despair or passion but by rational, egotistic intention, he can rid mankind of the fear of death (personified in the figure of God) and become the Christ of the new utilitarian atheism (really, Dostoevsky intends us to understand, not without pity for Kirillov, an antichrist thereof). The topic of suicide—rising in Russia at the time of the book’s writing and a result, Dostoevsky believed, of the weakening of social institutions and national morality by the subversive nihilism then spreading—is a motif through the book. Countering Chernyshevsky’s romanticized revolutionary Rakhmetov from What is to Be Done?, Kirillov is Dostoevsky’s depiction of the atheist rational egotism of the time taken to its fullest psychological extent. Like others he had and would later write (Raskalnikov, Ivan Karamazov), Kirillov is driven mad by an idea that “swallows” him in monomania and which he has admitted to being obsessed with—the idea of a world without God.

Though Dostoevsky considered it the central issue of his day (which still torments Western culture), my focus here is not on Kirillov’s idea, itself, but on his relation to it. Countering the Western Enlightenment conceit that ideas are mere tools to be rationally picked up and put down at will, Dostoevsky shows through Kirillov that ideas and ideology (ideas put in the place of religion) are active things that can overwhelm both conscious and unconscious mind. Indeed, the novel’s title and Epigraph—the story of Legion and the swine from Luke 8—already suggests this; for Dostoevsky, there is little difference between the demons that possessed the pigs and the ideas that drive characters like Kirillov to madness.

Of course, a realist-materialist reading of Kirillov’s end (I won’t spoil it, though it arguably undercuts his serenity throughout the book) and the later Ivan Karamazov’s encounter with a personified devil would contend that there was nothing literally demonic to the manifestations, but for Dostoevsky that matters little; for him, whose focus is always on how the individual lives and experiences life, being possessed by an ideology one cannot let go of and being in the grasp of literal demons is nearly synonymous—indeed, the former may be the modern manifestation of the latter, with the same results. In his work, such things almost always accompany a lowering of one’s humanity into the beastial.

The problem with ideology, Dostoevsky had discovered in Siberia, was in their limited conception of man. By cutting off all upper transcendent values as either religious superstition or upper class decadence, the new utilitarian atheism had removed an essential part of what it meant to be human. At best, humans were animals and could hope for no more than thus, and all higher aspirations were to be lowered to achieving present social goals of food, housing, and sex—which Dostoevsky saw, themselves, as impossible to effectively achieve without the Orthodox Church’s prescriptions for how to deal with suffering and a belief in afterlife. Of the lack of higher impressions that give life meaning, Dostoevsky saw two possible results: ever-increasingly perverse acts of the flesh, and ever-increasingly solipsistic devotion to a cause—both being grounded in and expressions not of liberation or selflessness, but of the deepest egotism (which was a frankly stated element of the times’ ideologies).

From this view, Dostoevsky would have seen today’s growing efforts to legitimate into the mainstream things like polyamory, abortion, and public displays of sexuality and increasingly aggressive advocacy by groups like Extinction Rebellion or NOW (he predicted both movements in his other writing) as both being attempts to supply the same religious impulse—which, due to their being cut off by their premises from the transcendent metaphysic required by the human creature and supplied by Christianity, &c, is a doomed attempt.

3: Seemingly virtuous revolution motivated by and covering for private vices.

By the time he wrote The Devils Dostoevsky had seen both inside and outside of the radical movement; he had also depicted in Notes from Underground and Crime and Punishment characters who discover, to their angst and horror, that their actions were not motivated by humanitarianism, but by envy, cravenness, and the subsequent desire for self-aggrandizement. The Devils features the same depth of psychology beneath the main characters’ stated ideas and goals, and the book often shows how said ideas cannot work when applied to real people and real life.

As the chronicle unfolds, characters often speak of the petty vices that undermine the purity of the revolutionaries’ stated virtues and goals. “Why is it,” the narrator recounts Stepan Trofimovich once asking him, “all these desperate socialists and communists are also so incredibly miserly, acquisitive, and proprietorial? In fact, the more socialist someone is…the stronger his proprietorial instinct.” So much for those who seek to abolish property; one can guess to whom they wish to redistribute it! The revolutionary-turned-conservative Ivan Shatov later continues the motif, digging deeper into the radicals’ motives: “They’d be the first to be terribly unhappy if somehow Russia were suddenly transformed, even according to their own ideas, and if it were suddenly to become immeasurably rich and happy. Then they’d have no one to hate, no one to despise, no one to mock! It’s all an enormous, animal hatred for Russia that’s eaten into their system.”

Leftists might accuse Dostoevsky of merely wishing to make the radicals look bad with such an evaluation; however, as addressed by Joseph Frank in his chapter on the topic in Dostoevsky: The Miraculous Years, 1865-1871, the “bad for thee, fine for me” mentality of The Devils’s radicals (if their ideology doesn’t completely blind them to such inconsistency in the first place) was straight from the playbook of men like Nechaev: the Catechism of a Revolutionary. Far from trying to evade contradictory behavior, such a work, and other later analogues (Marcuse’s “Repressive Tolerance”; Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals) advocate being inconsistent and slippery with one’s principles for the sake of the revolution. Indeed, contradicting the rules one was trying to impose on others was and is seen not as an inconsistency but as a special privilege—of which several examples can be found, from upper party opulence in the USSR to modern champagne socialists who attend a $35,000-per-seat Met Gala while advocating taxing the rich.

4: Social chaos and purges as necessary and inevitable in achieving and maintaining utopia.

Perhaps the single most prophetic scene in The Devils occurs in the already mentioned chapter “‘Our Group’ Meets,” which depicts the various the local radicals meeting under cover of a birthday party. A cacophony of competing voices and priorities, the scene’s humorous mix of inept, self-serving idealists is made grotesque by the visions they advocate. Most elaborate of the speakers is Shigalyov, whose utopian scheme for the revolution was insightful enough that Boris Pasternak and Alexander Solzhenitsyn both referred to the Russian government’s post-October Revolution policies and methods as “Shigalevism.” 

While Shigalyov’s whole speech (and Peter Stepanovich’s commentary) is worth reading as a prophecy of what would happen less than fifty years after the book, here are some notable excerpts:

“Beginning with the idea of unlimited freedom, I end with unlimited despotism…One-tenth will receive personal freedom and unlimited power over the other nine-tenths. The latter must forfeit their individuality and become as it were a herd [through re-education of entire generations]; through boundless obedience, they will attain, by a series of rebirths, a state of primeval innocence, although they’ll still have to work…What I’m proposing is not disgusting; it’s paradise, paradise on earth—there can be none other on earth.”

A direct goal of the purges in Soviet Russia, and of the alienation of children from their parents, was to create a new, purely socialist generation unburdened by the prejudices of previous or outside systems.

“[We’ve] been urged to close ranks and even form groups for the sole purposed of bringing about total destruction, on the pretext that however much you try to cure the world, you won’t be able to do so entirely, but if you take radical steps and cut off one hundred million heads, thus easing the burden, it’ll be much easier to leap over the ditch. It’s a splendid idea…”

While hundred million murders may seem like hyperbole in the scene’s darkly comic context, in the end it was an accurate prediction of what communism would accomplish if put into systemic practice; however, we should also not miss the stated method of destabilizing society via conspiratorial groups aimed not at aid but at acceleration—a method used in early 20th-century Russia and employed by modern radical groups like Antifa.

“It would take at least fifty years, well, thirty, to complete such a slaughter—inasmuch as people aren’t sheep, you know, and they won’t submit willingly.”

Besides the time element, the identifying of the individual human’s desire for life and autonomy as a lamentable but surmountable impediment to revolution—rather than a damning judgment of the radicals’ inability to make any humanitarian claims—is chilling.

“[Shigalyov] has a system for spying. Every member of the society spies on every other one and is obliged to inform. Everyone belongs to all the others and the others belong to each one. They’re all slaves and equal in their slavery.”

A corrollary to the section above on freedom-through-slavery, this part accurately identifies the system of paranoid watchfulness in the first half of the USSR, as well as the system currently in place in the DPRK, among other places.

“The one thing the world needs is obedience. The desire for education is an aristocratic idea. As soon as a man experiences love or has a family, he wants private property. We’ll destroy that want: we’ll unleash drunkenness, slander, denunciantion; we’ll unleash unheard-of corruption… [Crime] is no longer insanity, but some kind of common sense, almost an obligation, at least a noble protest.”

Anti-traditional-family advocacy and the flipping of the criminal-innocent dichotomy as a means of destabilizing the status quo all took place in the early years of the Soviet Union. Unfortunately, they are all too familiar today in the West, whether we’re talking about the current argument in the US that children’s education belongs to the community (i.e. teachers, public unions, and the government) to the exclusion of parents, or the argument heard at several points in the 2020 that crimes and rioting committed during protests were an excusable, even “noble,” form of making one’s voice heard (while nicking a TV in the process!).

More recently and ongoing here in California (often uncannily parallel to the UK in certain policy impulses), our current District Attorney George Gascon, in an attempt to redefine the criminal-victim mentality in the state, has implemented policies that benefit criminals over victims by relaxing the definitions and sentences of certain crimes and refusing to try teenagers who commit felonies as adults (among other things); as many expected would happen, crime has risen in the state, with the Los Angeles PD recently advising residents to avoid wearing jewelry in public—which, to this resident, sounds oddly close to blaming the victim for wearing a short skirt by another name, and is certainly a symptom and example of anarcho-tyranny.

To nineteenth-century readers not as versed as Dostoevsky in the literature and ideas behind the Nechaev affair (which was publicly seen as merely a murder among friends, without the ideological significance Dostoevsky gave it), this section of The Devils would have seemed a comic exaggeration. However, to post-20th-century readers it stands, like a clarion pointing forward to the events later confirmed by Solzhenitsyn, as a dire warning not to forget the truth in the satire and not to dismiss the foolishly hyperbolic as impotent. Even in isolated forms, the ideas promoted by Shigalyev are real, and when applied they have been, as Dostoevsky predicted, disastrous.

5: Socialism not as humanitarian reason, but as religious poetry; revolution as primarily aesthetic, not economic.

An amalgam of, among other members of the 1840s generation, the father of Russian socialism Alexander Herzen, Stepan Trofimovich is, by the time of the 1860s setting of The Devils, an inveterate poet. This reflects Dostoevsky’s evaluation of his old theorist friend, whom he nonetheless cites as the enabler of men like the nihilist terrorist Nechaev, despite Herzen’s claims that the terrorist had bastardized his ideas (see truth number 1, above).

The brilliantly mixed critique of and homage to Dostoevsky’s own generation that is Stepan Trofimovich presents one of the book’s main motifs about the nihilist generation: that they are not pursuing a philosophically rational system of humanitarian goals, but a romantically poetic pseudo-religion. “They’re all bewitched,” cries Stepan Trofimovich about his son, “not by realism, but by the emotional and idealistic aspects of socialism, so to speak, by its religious overtones, its poetry.” Later, at the aforementioned pivotal meeting scene, Peter Stepanovich shows he is completely conscious of this fact—and willing to use it to his advantage. “What’s happening here is the replacement of the old religion by a new one; that’s why so many soldiers are needed—it’s a large undertaking.” In the next scene, Peter Stepanovich reveals to Stavrogin his desire to use the enchanting nobleman as a figurehead for revolution among the peasantry, intending to call him Ivan the Tsarevich to play off of the Russian folk legend of a messianic Tsar in hiding who will rise to take the throne from the “false” reigning Tsar and right all the world’s wrongs with his combined religious and political power.

Peter Stepanovich, himself, is too frank a nihilist to believe in such narratives; focused as he is on first destroying everything rather than wasting time pontificating about what to do afterwards, he even treats Shigalyov’s utopian visions with contempt. However, the rest of the radicals in the book are not so clear-sighted about the nature of their beliefs. Multiple times in the book, susceptibility to radical socialism is said to inhere not in reason but in sentimentality; showing Dostoevsky’s moderation even on a topic of which he was so passionately against, this critique often focuses on younger men and women’s genuine desire to good—which ironically makes them, like the naive and forthright Ensign Erkel, susceptible to committing the worst crimes with a straight, morally self-confident face.

It is this susceptibility to the art of revolution that causes Peter Stepanovich to be so sanguine about others’ romanticism, despite its falling short of his own nihilism. His intention to use others’ art for his own advantage can be seen most clearly in his hijacking of Yulia Mikhailovna’s  literary fete to use it, through his cronies, as a screed against the social order and to mock artistic tradition. His doing so is just a follow-through of an earlier statement to Stavrogin that “Those with higher abilities…have always done more harm than good; they’ll either be banished or executed. Cicero’s tongue will be cut out, Copernicus’s eyes will be gouged out, Shakespeare will be stoned…it’s a fine idea to level mountains—there’s nothing ridiculous in that…we’ll suffocate every genius in its infancy.”

Against his son’s leveling of mountains, Stepan Trofimovich, to his infinite credit and speaking with his author’s mouth, declares, with the lone voice of tradition amidst the climactic fete, that “Shakespeare and Raphael are more important than the emancipation of the serfs…than nationalism…than socialism…than the younger generation…than chemistry, almost more important than humanity, because they are the fruit, the genuine fruit of humanity, and perhaps the most important fruit there is!” In this contrast between the Verkhovenskys, it is not different views on economics but on art—on Shakespeare, among others—that that lie at the heart of revolution, with the revolutionaries opposing the English Poet more viscerally than any other figure. This reflects Dostoevsky’s understanding that the monumental cultural shift of the 1800s was not primarily scientific but aesthetic (a topic too large to address here). Suffice it to say, the central conflict of The Devils is not between capitalists and socialists (the book rarely touches on economic issues, apart from their being used as propaganda—that is, aesthetically), nor between Orthodox and atheists (though Dostoevsky certainly saw that as the fundamental alternative at play), but between the 1840s late Romantics and the new Naturalist-Realists.

The prophetic nature of this aesthetic aspect of The Devils has many later confirmations, such as the 20th century’s growth of state propaganda, especially in socialistic states like Nazi Germany or the USSR, though also in the West (Western postmodernism would eventually make all art as interpretable as propaganda). Furthermore, the Stalinist cult of personality seems a direct carry over of Peter Stepanovich’s intended desire to form just such a pseudo-religious cult out of Nikolai Vsevolodovich.

Having written a novel on the threat posed to Shakespeare by the newest generation of the radical left (before reading of Verkhovensky’s desire to stone Shakespeare—imagine my surprise to find that Dostoevsky had called even the events in my own novel!), I hold this particular topic close to my heart. Indeed, I believe we are still in the Romantic-Realist crossroads, and in dire need of backtracking to take the other path that would prefer, to paraphrase Stepan Trofimovich, the beautiful and ennobling Shakespeare and Raphael over the socially useful pair of boots and petroleum. Like Stepan Trofimovich, I believe comforts and technical advancements like the latter could not have come about were it not for the culture of the former—and that they would lose their value were their relative importance confused to the detriment of that which is higher.


There are, of course, many other truths in The Devils that have borne out (the infighting of radical advocacy groups competing for prominence, radicalism as a result of upper-class boredom and idleness, revolution’s being effected not by a majority but a loud minority willing to transgress, self-important administrators and bureaucrats as enablers and legitimators of radicals…). While the increasingly chaotic narrative (meant to mimic the setting’s growing unrest) is not Dostoevsky’s most approachable work, The Devils is certainly one of his best, and it fulfills his intended purpose of showing, like Tolstoy had done a few years before in War and Peace, a full picture of Russian society.

However, while Tolstoy’s work looked backward to a Russia that, from Dostoevsky’s view, had been played out, The Devils was written to look forward, and, more often for ill than good, it has been right in its predictions. Not for nothing did Albert Camus, who would later adapt The Devils for the stage, say on hearing about the Stalinist purges in Soviet Russia that “The real 19th-century prophet was Dostoevsky, not Karl Marx.”


Dark Humour for the Red King: The Drunk Porter in Macbeth

Originally published by The Mallard.

“Knock, knock—who’s there?”

Whenever one of my tutorial students is assigned (or, let’s be honest, barely mentions) Macbeth, I go into a certain and by now well-rehearsed tangent on how Shakespeare’s arguably darkest play contains one of the most peculiar scenes in his canon—and the origin of what is now considered a passe pretext to employ a bad pun, the knock-knock joke. Mentioning that last part usually lands me at least a few minutes of fleeting teenage attention, wherein I talk about everything from Shakespeare, to dark humour, to how Shakespeare’s darkest tragedy produced one of our lightest joke forms.

Of course, the knock-knock joke, as we know it, owes less to Shakespeare than to the innovation of 1930s English radio host Wee Georgie Wood, with his turning the Porter’s words into his catch phrase of “knock, knock, who’s there?” By the middle of the Great Depression, when the average Joe and Jane were presumably in need of an easy laugh, the joke form was sufficiently popular in the US that a Columbus, OH, theater’s contest for the best knock-knock jokes was “literally swamped” with entries (I’m sure the $1 cash prize didn’t hurt the contest’s popularity). The popularity of the supposedly low-humour knock, knock joke amidst the depression (both economic and psychological) may not owe anything directly to Shakespeare, but I do think it relates back to the original Porter scene, which is the main subject of this article.

My purpose here is not to provide a definitive reading of the Porter’s monologue, nor to ultimately solve the puzzle of what, exactly, the scene is doing in the play; better scholarship is available for those interested than the motes I will, nonetheless, offer here. My aim is to consider what Shakespeare’s following arguably the least justified regicide in his canon with a comical drunk can tell us about humour’s role in helping people navigate tragedy. And, if it sheds light on why knock, knock jokes (or other seemingly low, tactless, or dark forms of humour) may grow especially popular in uncertain times, so much the better.

“Here’s a knocking indeed!”

Macbeth Act 2 Scene 3                                                      

[Knocking within. Enter a Porter.]                                                            

PORTER     Here’s a knocking indeed! If a man were

porter of hell gate, he should have old turning the


The lone on-stage partaker in the carousing at King Duncan’s visit to Inverness, the drunken Porter is one of the play’s few examples of plebians not directly connected with the nobility. However, unlike Hamlet’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the Porter remains, like a latter day Falstaff, insulated against the intrigue that surrounds him by drink, imagination, and low jokes.

Brought onstage by the knocking of MacDuff and Lennox (as if in ironic answer to Macbeth’s present wish that Duncan might wake), the Porter shows that, like Macbeth, he has a very active imagination. In fact, since Coleridge’s dismissal and omission of the scene as an inauthentic interpolation, many 20th-century critical readings have safely secured it back in its rightful place by pointing out, among other things, the Porter’s not merely contrasting but paralleling his master. Presumably rudely awakened and hungover, he fancies himself the porter of Hell and in the employ of a devil. Of course, the supreme irony throughout the scene involves his ignorance of how close to the truth his fantasy comes.

(Knock.) Knock, knock, knock! Who’s there, i’

th’ name of Beelzebub? Here’s a farmer that hanged

himself on th’ expectation of plenty. Come in time!                       5

Have napkins enough about you; here you’ll sweat for ’t.

The Porter imagines admitting three denizens, each of whom, scholars have noted, can stand as a metaphor for Macbeth and his actions. The first imagined entrant is a farmer who, having hoarded grain in expectation of a shortage, hangs himself at the price drop produced by a surplus. As the play, if not the tragic genre, itself, is about the ends not aligning with expectation, the image of the farmer of course foreshadows the results of Macbeth’s betting too much on the Weird Sisters’ presentiments. Although in the end it is Lady Macbeth who commits suicide, Macbeth’s language near the end becomes more fatalistic the more vulnerable he gets, with his final fight with the prophesied MacDuff amounting to arguable suicide (to see an excellent rendition of the swap of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s psychologies by play’s end, see Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth—and my review of it). Adding to the irony of the scene is the fact that, according to Christopher Jackson, Shakespeare, himself, was an investor in and hoarder of grain against shortages. One wonders how many times he had thought of the image before writing this scene—and if he smirked while employing it. 

(Knock.) Knock, knock! Who’s there, in th’

other devil’s name? Faith, here’s an equivocator

that could swear in both the scales against either

scale, who committed treason enough for God’s                           10

sake yet could not equivocate to heaven. O, come in,


Next in the Porter’s fantasy is an equivocator, one whose ambiguous use of language can help him with earthly scales but not heavenly. Historicist critics point to this moment as an allusion to the Jesuit father Henry Garnet, executed in 1605 for his participation in the Gunpowder Plot (to which 1606’s Macbeth can be read as a reaction). In his trial, Garnet was criticized for equivocating to keep from revealing details of the plot without explicitly lying; he was subsequently hanged, drawn, and quartered in May 1606.

While said reference is informative, if nothing else, about Shakespeare’s possible view of the Gunpowder Plot (unsurprising to anyone who knows what happens to regicides in his canon), one’s reading should not stop there. The Porter’s landing an equivocator in Hell points, again, to the play’s titular character. It should be remembered that before he commits the play’s central tragic act, Macbeth goes through a rigorous process of thought to spur himself to the deed, often playing on or completely omitting language—that is, equivocating—to justify the assassination (which, as a word, is first used in English in his “If it were done when ‘tis done” speech in I.7; not carrying the weight it does today, the coinage was an example of Macbeth distancing himself from the reality of the murder).

Furthermore, the Porter’s focus on equivocators here and later in the scene (he displays some comic equivocation of his own on the virtues and dangers of drink, unknowingly stalling MacDuff and Lennox long enough for Macbeth and Lady M. to cover up Duncan’s murder) foreshadows Macbeth’s beginning “To doubt the equivocation” of the Weird Sisters’ prophecy about Birnam Wood’s coming to Dunsinane (V.5). Indeed, the infernal dangers of ambiguous language (or of trusting one’s initial interpretation thereof) constitute one of the play’s primary themes. Among other things, Macbeth’s pointing this out establishes a further parallel between the Porter and himself.

(Knock.) Knock, knock, knock! Who’s

there? Faith, here’s an English tailor come hither for

stealing out of a French hose. Come in, tailor. Here

you may roast your goose.

The last of the Porter’s imagined wards has landed in Hell for cheating English courtiers while providing them with French fashion; whether he played on his customers ignorance of how much the new fancies cost or whether Shakespeare—err, the Porter—is making a joke about French fashion being worthy of eternal damnation, I’ll decline to decide. Perhaps both readings (or one I’m missing entirely) are meant, offering sympathetic humour to both courtiers who have been gulled with exaggerated prices and to the commons who might enjoy a good skewering of the foppish trends of their betters. The dual metaphor of the roasted goose—referring both to a tailor’s hot iron called a “goose” and to the idiom “his goose is cooked”—continues the play’s theme regarding the dangers of trying to succeed through proscribed means, besides adding to the dramatic irony of the Porter’s describing his own boss’s trajectory.

(Knock.) Knock, knock!                              15

Never at quiet.—What are you?—But this place is

too cold for hell. I’ll devil-porter it no further. I had

thought to have let in some of all professions that go

the primrose way to th’ everlasting bonfire. (Knock.)

Anon, anon!

The Porter, like Macbeth, seems to have an imagination as limitless as it is abysmal—such that he could presumably find a place in it for individuals of all professions. Also like his master, he fantasizes about a position higher (or, rather, lower) than he currently holds. That he stops not for lack of imagination but for the prosaic physical discomfort of being cold contrasts with how Macbeth eventually gives up all comforts in trying to achieve the crown. However, even here he parallels Macbeth, as both are ultimately unable to keep reality—whether the cold or the vengeance of the prophesied MacDuff—from interrupting their fantasies.

And yet, that the Porter identifies Inverness, itself, as too cold to sufficiently imagine Hell is, itself, a possible nod to the, under James I, verboten Catholic-Thomistic-Aligherian view of Hell’s lowest levels as being the frozen lake of traitors. However, Shakespeare skates past the Protestant censors, for it is not Hell the Porter is describing, but Scotland, and at its center at the very moment preceding this scene is not Satan, or the traitors Judas, Brutus, or Cassius, but Macbeth—who is, of course, all of these.

“…it provokes and unprovokes…”

 But why does the Playwright link the worst regicide in his canon to a comic scene? Of course, as I mention above, plot-wise the Porter stalls the discovery of the play’s central crime. Furthermore, thematically the Porter both contrasts and mirrors Macbeth, which in different eras has been interpreted as alternatively demonizing the latter by the monologue’s subject and humanizing him by stressing a congruence with the common man.

The impropriety of the scene—joking about souls lately gone to Hell, when the unshriven Duncan, himself, has just entered the afterlife—highlights the very tension from which the Jacobean audience may have needed relief. As has been pointed out, an assassination plot against James I and Parliament had just the year before been foiled. Moreover, set in a medieval context where the death of a monarch had cosmic repercussions, the choice to distance the focus from the play’s main action may have been meant to increase the suspense—here, not merely the suspense before an expected surprise, but also the chaotic metaphysical suspension between monarchs—rather than comically relieve it. And this is assuming the comic relief does not fail due to its utter tactlessness, or to a high number of Malvolios in the audience determined to see the scene as an interruption of the play’s sombre pathos.

And yet, even being outraged by dark humour accomplishes the humour’s possible goal of helping one navigate a tragedy. For that is what I believe this scene—and most dark humour—is meant to accomplish: facilitate the audience’s psychological survival of the author’s darkest tragedy. Both inappropriate laughter and rage at impropriety—and even confusion about the scene’s strangeness—are preferable to the despair that leads eventually to Macbeth’s nihilism and Lady Macbeth’s suicide.

The Porter is not a good guy; indeed, his humour, like Falstaff’s, inheres in his being disreputable. Similarly, the scene is not openly funny, nor does it offer any kind of saccharine “everything will be alright” triteness. I, myself, am not satisfied to read it the way the play at large has conventionally been interpreted, as an implicit promise that divine justice will prevail and Macbeth will get his comeuppance like the farmer, equivocator, and tailor do; there are too many questions about Scotland’s future left unsatisfied by play’s end to settle on such a reading, just as there are arguably as many parallels between Macbeth and the play’s hero MacDuff as between Macbeth and the Porter. Rather, the scene’s salutary power paradoxically lies in its pushing the horror of Duncan’s murder even farther—by joking about souls lately knocking at Hell’s gate, with the Porter standing in as a kind of anti-St. Peter at the Pearly Gates. In so doing, the Porter scene lampoons the Macbeths’ expectation that they can somehow cheat fate, and his scene, more than the one before it, foreshadows the trend of the rest of the play.

As with the subtext of other examples of ironic humour, the Porter is not mocking the sympathetic Duncan, but implicitly commiserating with him and other victims of fate, fortune, or perfidy. By following Macbeth’s crime with a drunken Porter utterly disconnected from it who, nonetheless, perfectly names and exagerrates the themes involved, Shakespeare subsumes the play’s tragic act into the absurd, at least for a moment—and a moment is all that’s needed. By pointing out the reality of the play’s horror while safely containing it within a hyperbolically ironic, almost Chaucerian, tableaux, Shakespeare sets the standard for how well-placed instances of low and dark humour—from knock-knock jokes to self-deprication to suicide memes—can help contextualize tragedy, depression, and trauma in manageable ways.

One might balk (quite rightly) at the idea of telling a joke right after a tragedy like the assassination of a beloved king, considering it too soon and not the time for humour, but Shakespeare? Apparently he thought that was exactly when to employ humour—especially of a certain darker yet therapeutic type. It’s taken a few centuries, but scientific studies, so far as they go, have caught up with and confirmed Shakespeare’s using such humour as a way to help his audiences regulate their emotions in his plays’ more dreadful moments. Far be it from us to censure what the Playwright thought within the pale—and how dare we dismiss even the humble knock, knock joke as anything but profound and, sometimes, just what we need.

Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth: An Examination and Review

Originally published by The Mallard.

A new film adaptation of Shakespeare’s Scottish tragedy, Joel Coen’s 2021 The Tragedy of Macbeth is the director’s first production without his brother Ethan’s involvement. Released in select theaters on December 25, 2021, and then on Apple TV on January 14, 2022, the production has received positive critical reviews as well as awards for screen adaptation and cinematography, with many others still pending.

As with any movie review, I encourage readers who plan to see the film to do so before reading my take. While spoilers probably aren’t an issue here, I would not want to unduly influence one’s experience of Coen’s take on the play. Overall, though much of the text is omitted, some scenes are rearranged, and some roles are reduced and others expanded, I found the adaptation to be a generally faithful one that only improved with subsequent views. Of course, the substance of the play is in the performances of Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand, but their presentation of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth is enhanced by both the production and supporting performances.

Production: “where nothing, | But who knows nothing, is once seen to smile” —IV.3

The Tragedy of Macbeth’s best element is its focus on the psychology of the main characters, explored below. This focus succeeds in no small part due to its minimalist aesthetic. Filmed in black and white, the play utilizes light and shadow to downplay the external historical conflicts and emphasize the characters’ inner ones.

Though primarily shown by the performances, the psychological value conflicts of the characters are concretized by the adaptation’s intended aesthetic. In a 2020 Indiewire interview, composer and long-time-Coen collaborator Carter Burwell said that Joel Coen filmed The Tragedy of Macbeth on sound stages, rather than on location, to focus more on the abstract elements of the play. “It’s more like a psychological reality,” said Burwell. “That said, it doesn’t seem stage-like either. Joel has compared it to German Expressionist film. You’re in a psychological world, and it’s pretty clear right from the beginning the way he’s shot it.”

This is made clear from the first shots’ disorienting the sense of up and down through the use of clouds and fog, which continue as a key part of the staging throughout the adaptation. Furthermore, the bareness of Inverness Castle channels the focus to the key characters’ faces, while the use of odd camera angles, unreal shadows, and distorted distances reinforce how unnatural is the play’s central tragic action, if not to the downplayed world of Scotland, then certainly to the titular couple. Even when the scene leaves Inverness to show Ross and MacDuff discussing events near a ruined building at a crossroads (Act II.4), there is a sense that, besides the Old Man in the scene, Scotland is barren and empty.

The later shift to England, where Malcolm, MacDuff, and Ross plan to retake their homeland from now King Macbeth, further emphasizes this by being shot in an enclosed but bright and fertile wood. Although many of the historical elements of the scene are cut, including the contrast between Macbeth and Edward the Confessor and the mutual testing of mettle between Malcolm and MacDuff, the contrast in setting conveys the contrast between a country with a mad Macbeth at its head and the one that presumably would be under Malcolm. The effect was calming in a way I did not expect—an experience prepared by the consistency of the previous acts’ barren aesthetic.

Yet, even in the forested England, the narrow path wherein the scene takes place foreshadows the final scenes’ being shot in a narrow walkway between the parapets of Dunsinane, which gives the sense that, whether because of fate or choice rooted in character, the end of Macbeth’s tragic deed is inevitable. The explicit geographical distance between England and Scotland is obscured as the same wood becomes Birnam, and as, in the final scenes, the stone pillars of Dunsinane open into a background of forest. This, as well as the spectacular scene where the windows of the castle are blown inward by a storm of leaves, conveys the fact that Macbeth cannot remain isolated against the tragic justice brought by Malcom and MacDuff forever, and Washington’s performance, which I’ll explore presently, consistently shows that the usurper has known it all along.

This is a brilliant, if subtle, triumph of Coen’s adaptation: it presents Duncan’s murder and the subsequent fallout as a result less of deterministic fate and prophecy and more of Macbeth’s own actions and thoughts in response to it—which, themselves, become more determined (“predestined” because “wilfull”) as Macbeth further convinces himself that “Things bad begun make strong themselves by ill” (III.2).

Performances:  “To find the mind’s construction in the face” —I.4

Film adaptations of Shakespeare can run the risk of focusing too closely on the actors’ faces, which can make keeping up with the language a chore even for experienced readers (I’m still scarred from the “How all occasions” speech from Branagh’s 1996 Hamlet); however, this is rarely, if ever, the case here, where the actors’ and actresses’ pacing and facial expressions combine with the cinematography to carry the audience along. Yet, before I give Washington and McDormand their well-deserved praise, I would like to explore the supporting roles.

In Coen’s adaptation, King Duncan is a king at war, and Brendan Gleeson plays the role well with subsequent dourness. Unfortunately, this aspect of the interpretation was, in my opinion, one of its weakest. While the film generally aligns with the Shakespearean idea that a country under a usurper is disordered, the before-and-after of Duncan’s murder—which Coen chooses to show onscreen—is not clearly delineated enough to signal it as the tragic conflict that it is. Furthermore, though many of his lines are adulatory to Macbeth and his wife, Gleeson gives them with so somber a tone that one is left emotionally uninvested in Duncan by the time he is murdered.

Though this is consistent with the production’s overall austerity, it does not lend much to the unnaturalness of the king’s death. One feels Macbeth ought not kill him simply because he is called king (a fully right reason, in itself) rather than because of any real affection between Macbeth and his wife for the man himself. However, though I have my qualms, this may have been the right choice for a production focused on the psychological elements of the plot; by downplaying the emotional connection between the Macbeths and Duncan (albeit itself profoundly psychological), Coen focuses on the effects of murder as an abstraction.

The scene after the murder and subsequent framing of the guards—the drunken porter scene—was the one I most looked forward to in the adaptation, as it is in every performance of Macbeth I see. The scene is the most apparent comic relief in the play, and it is placed in the moment where comic relief is paradoxically least appropriate and most needed (the subject of a planned future article). When I realized, between the first (ever) “Knock, knock! Who’s there?” and the second, that the drunk porter was none other than comic actor Stephen Root (Office SpaceKing of the HillDodgeball), I knew the part was safe.

I was not disappointed. The drunken obliviousness of Root’s porter, coming from Inverness’s basement to let in MacDuff and Lennox, pontificating along the way on souls lately gone to perdition (unaware that his king has done the same just that night) before elaborating to the new guests upon the merits and pitfalls of drink, is outstanding. With the adaptation’s other removal of arguably inessential parts and lines, I’m relieved Coen kept as much of the role as he did.

One role that Coen expanded in ways I did not expect was that of Ross, played by Alex Hassell. By subsuming other minor roles into the character, Coen makes Ross into the unexpected thread that ties much of the plot together. He is still primarily a messenger, but, as with the Weird Sisters whose crow-like costuming his resembles, he becomes an ambiguous figure by the expansion, embodying his line to Lady MacDuff that “cruel are the times, when we are traitors | And do not know ourselves” (IV.2). In Hassell’s excellent performance, Ross seems to know himself quite well; it is we, the audience, who do not know him, despite his expanded screentime. By the end, Ross was one of my favorite aspects of Coen’s adaptation.

The best part of The Tragedy of Macbeth is, of course, the joint performance by Washington and McDormand of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. The beginning of the film finds the pair later in life, with presumably few mountains left to climb. Washington plays Macbeth as a man tired and introverted, which he communicates by often pausing before reacting to dialogue, as if doing so is an afterthought. By the time McDormand comes onscreen in the first of the film’s many corridor scenes mentioned above, her reading and responding to the letter sent by Macbeth has been primed well enough for us to understand her mixed ambition yet exasperation—as if the greatest obstacle is not the actual regicide but her husband’s hesitancy.

Throughout The Tragedy of Macbeth their respective introspection and ambition reverse, with Washington eventually playing the confirmed tyrant and McDormand the woman internalized by madness. If anyone needed a reminder of Washington and McDormand’s respective abilities as actor and actress, one need only watch them portray the range of emotion and psychological depth contained in Shakespeare’s most infamous couple.

Conclusion: “With wit enough for thee”—IV.2

One way to judge a Shakespeare production is whether someone with little previous knowledge of the play and a moderate grasp of Shakespeare’s language would understand and become invested in the characters and story; I hazard one could do so with Coen’s adaptation. It does take liberties with scene placement, and the historical and religious elements are generally removed or reduced. However, although much of the psychology that Shakespeare includes in the other characters is cut, the minimalist production serves to highlight Washington and McDormand’s respective performances. The psychology of the two main characters—the backbone of the tragedy that so directly explores the nature of how thought and choice interact—is portrayed clearly and dynamically, and it is this that makes Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth an excellent and, in my opinion, ultimately true-to-the-text adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth.