Analysis of Thomas De Quincey’s On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth

Thomas De Quincey’s essay On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth is one of the best known of his critical works-it appears in most anthologies of criticism and nineteenth-century prose, and is hailed it as “the finest romantic criticism.” “On the knocking at the Gate in Macbeth” was first published in the London Magazine in October, 1823, as an item in De Quincey’s series of “Notes from the Pocket-Book of a Late Opium-Eater.” Although he was then thirty-eight, his paper was one of his earliest critical articles and, since he had been engaged in introducing German authors to the English public, almost his first on English literature. Its two subjects-murder and stagecraft-continued to intrigue him throughout his late-developing critical career, and he even intended to enlarge this essay for his septuagenarian collected edition. He never got around to it, however-quite possibly could not find it in his bathtub file-and it was simply reprinted in the last volume, which came out posthumously in 1860.

The essay springs from a real personal experience of a dramatic effect. De Quincey begins by saying that he has always felt an unaccountable effect from the knocking on the gate right after Duncan is murdered. Sensing that it “reflected back upon the murderer a peculiar awfulness and a depth of solemnity,” he still could not explain the phenomenon: “yet, however obstinately I endeavoured with my understanding to comprehend this, for many years I never could see why it should produce such an effect.” After pausing to digress typically on the general untrustworthiness of the understanding in comparison with the senses, he returns to “fresh proof that I was right in relying on my own feeling, in opposition to my understanding” in the matter of the knocking in Macbeth. Such support he finds in a parallel incident attending a murder which took place in London in 1812, when the celebrated Williams was on the loose:

Now, it will be remembered that in the first of these murders (that of the Marrs) the same incident (of a knocking at the door soon after the work of extermination was complete) did actually occur which the genius of Shakespeare has invented; and all good judges, and the most eminent dilettanti, acknowledged the felicity of Shakspere’s suggestion as soon as it was actually realized (X, 391).

But this “proof” only reinforced his sense of the power of the knocking; it did not explain it. That remained in the final analysis for his despised understanding: “I again set myself to study the problem. At length I solved it to my own satisfaction.” Thereupon he reveals his solution, starting with the point that ordinarily our sympathy is with the victim of a murder; but since this feeling is based on the common desire for life which inspires even the lowest animals, it is not susceptible of poetic treatment. The artist, then, “must throw the interest on the murderer” and

in the murderer, such a murderer as a poet will condescend to, there must be raging some great storm of passion, jealousy, ambition, vengeance, hatred, which will create a hell within him; and into this hell we are to look (X, 392).

Into such a “hell” do we look in the whole atmosphere of the murder scene in Macbeth:

We were to be made to feel that the human nature, i.e. the divine nature of love and mercy, spread through the hearts of all creatures, and seldom utterly withdrawn from man,-was gone, vanished, extinct, and that the fiendish nature had taken its place. And, as this effect is marvellously accomplished in the dialogues and soliloquies themselves, so it is finally consummated by the expedient under consideration (X, 392).

This “expedient,” the knocking, is a sort of gate to that “hell”; it stands at the boundary between the two realms of human nature and fiendish nature and emphasizes the differences between them; it marks the brief period of change which comes at the end of a time of stress, the perceptive time of reawakening, of slowly stirring into consciousness after a spell that crucial moment which by its contrast renders vital and significant all that has gone before. By this principle it is the instant that quivering lashes and tiny sighs announce the return to normal of a fainting wife or sister that is the most affecting; it is the moment that the rattling wheels and wakening streets betoken a return to city business after the solemn passage of the funeral procession of a mourned hero, that is most moving. To put it in a formula to fit his pervasive “law of antagonism” is to be expected of De Quincey: “All action in any direction is best expounded, measured, and made apprehensible, by reaction.” The knocking at the gate, then, is a symbol of reaction:

Here, as I have said, the retiring of the human heart and the entrance of the fiendish heart was to be expressed and made sensible. Another world has stept in; and the murderers are taken out of the region of human things, human purposes, human desires. They are transfigured: Lady Macbeth is “unsexed”; Macbeth has forgot that he was born of woman; both are conformed to the image of devils; and the world of devils is suddenly revealed. But how shall this be conveyed and made palpable? In order that a new world may step in, this world must for a time disappear. The murderers and the murder must be insulated-cut off by an immeasurable gulf from the ordinary tide and succession of human affairs—— locked up and sequestered in some deep recess; we must be made sensible that the world of ordinary life is suddenly arrested, laid asleep, tranced, racked into a dread armistice; time must be annihilated, relation to things without abolished; and all must pass self-withdrawn into a deep syncope and suspension of earthly passion. Hence it is that, when the deed is done, when the work of darkness is perfect, then the world of darkness passes away like a pagentry in the clouds: the knocking at the gate is heard, and it makes known audibly that the reaction has commenced; the human has made its reflux upon the fiendish; the pulses of life are beginning to beat again; and the re-establishment of the goings-on of the world in which we live first makes us profoundly sensible of the awful parenthesis that had suspended them (X, 393).

De Quincey’s analysis of the knocking as the token that “the pulses of life are beginning to beat again” after suspension of humanity while the tiger spirit stalks, is a strikingly original one. It reveals first of all his acute sublety. It reveals further the pattern of his dramatic criticism. Three steps were necessary in the evolution of that interpretation: a feeling of the effect, an awareness and localization of that feeling, and an analysis of the causative principle involved in its production. This last step is purely intellectual, and it is the crucial one in making the criticism. Fundamentally this particular piece of criticism is psychological, for it focuses itself on the effect on the audience, and analyzes that effect by comparing similar reactions. This “voyage through Shakespearean space . . . emotional rather than intellectual,” as Ralli terms it, is rather analogous to testing patella reflexes. It is, as any criticism worthy of the name must be, based on feeling; but it is in the spirit of scientific analysis.

Although this essay is usually cited as an early study of “comic relief” in Shakespearean tragedy, the problem that De Quincey is addressing is much more complex. How close can art bring the viewer or reader to the actual horror of violent crime? What strategies of “distancing” are necessary if murder is to be considered as a fine art?

In recreating in excruciating detail the events of the Ratcliffe Highway murders, or those in the cellar of a brandy merchant in Cologne, De Quincey’s narrative may seem at odds with those conventions of intellectual deliberation that were later to become indispensable to the literary strategy of Arthur Conan Doyle or Agatha Christie. De Quincey draws from the documentary precision of journalism and the new style of reportage being developed in the newspapers of his day. For this reason, his essays on murder are more properly antecedent to Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (1966) than to the murder stories of popular fiction. Even Capote’s gory exercise in the “new journalism” of the 1960s used “matter-of-fact” police reports and official accounts of the investigation to buttress the reader against the sheer horror of the slaughter of a family which, in many of its details, closely resembled Williams’s murder of the Marr family. Not surprisingly, De Quincey occasionally achieves a “distancing” from violence with a strategy similar to that which he had studied in the scene with the drunken porter in Macbeth. What he develops, however, is not a “comic relief” that interrupts his narrative of the murder; rather it is a kind of “gallows humour” integrated into the account of the murder itself, as, for example, his transforming the murder of the baker in Mannheim into a grotesque boxing match. De Quincey also manipulates the reader’s attention simply by elaborating the psychology of fear. Although he does not omit the gory details, he does not linger over them in his usual effulgent style. Creating his shock effects, rather, with a sparse economy of prose, he then shifts attention from the brutality of the murder to the response of the potential victim: the boy feigning sleep in his bed while the murderer is slitting the throat of his companion; the servant-girl returning to the darkened household in which the fiendish murderer still lurks.

Much attention has been devoted to the Shakespearean criticism of Charles Lamb, William Hazlitt, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. De Quincey’s Shakespeare is preeminently a poet rather than a playwright. Lamb, in his essay “On the Tragedies of Shakespeare, considered with reference to their fitness for stage representation” (1811), argued that a Shakespearean play is too rich and multifaceted to be represented adequately in the theater and should therefore be read in solitude. But Lamb nevertheless read the plays with attention to plot, character, and dramatic form. De Quincey’s Shakespeare is a wielder of words who informs his masterly command of rhetoric and eloquence with keen insight into the workings of psychology. “On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth,” which De Quincey describes as “psychological criticism,” is an exploration into the subjective mechanism of audience response. His encyclopedia article, too, is a kind of “psychological biography” in which lines from the plays are cited as Shakespeare’s personal revelations concerning actual experiences in his life. These two essays, plus the posthumously published fragment on “Shakespeare and Wordsworth,” are the only pieces specifically addressed to Shakespeare, but they represent a mere fraction of De Quincey’s extensive preoccupation with Shakespeare’s works. His references to Shakespeare’s language and art are diffused throughout his critical prose. After Milton and Wordsworth, Shakespeare is the author most often quoted by De Quincey.

From my boyish days I had always felt a great perplexity on one point in Macbeth: it was this: the knocking at the gate, which succeeds to the murder of Duncan, produced to my feelings an effect for which I never could account: the effect was – that it reflected back upon the murder a peculiar awfulness and a depth of solemnity: yet, however obstinately I endeavoured with my understanding to comprehend this, for many years I never could see why it should produce such an effect.

In its concern with “effects,” De Quincey’s “psychological criticism” is a mode of “reader response” criticism. The nature of the critical inquiry that he brings to Shakespeare is one grounded in his “boyish days” when literary aporia began to gather in mysterious involutes.

Why the porter’s scene should have the power to contribute “a peculiar awfulness and a depth of solemnity” to Duncan’s murder, De Quincey explains, finally became clear to him when he read the account of the Ratcliffe Highway murders. On that occasion, while Williams was still lurking in the Marr’s house, having already slit the throats of Marr, his wife, the apprentice boy, and even the infant in its cradle, the servant-girl returned from an errand and knocked at the door. With this actual occurrence of the very incident “which the genius of Shakespeare had invented,” De Quincey gains insight into the mystery of the involute:

The murderers, and the murder, must be insulated – cut off by an unmeasurable gulf from the ordinary tides of human affairs – locked up and sequestered in some deep recess: we must be made sensible that the world of ordinary life is suddenly arrested – laid asleep – tranced – racked into a dread armistice: time must be annihilated; relation to things without abolished; and all must pass self-withdrawn into a deep syncope and suspension of earthly passion. Hence it is that when the deed is done – when the work of darkness is perfect, then the world of darkness passes away like a pageantry in the clouds: the knocking at the gate is heard; and it makes known audibly that the reaction has commenced: the human has made its reflux on the fiendish: the pulses of life are beginning to beat again: the re-establishment of the goings-on of the world in which we live, first makes us profoundly sensible of the awful parenthesis that had suspended them.

His literary criticism, De Quincey repeatedly insists, is built upon a foundation of psychology. He approaches Shakespeare as a playwright whose power derived from penetrating psychological insight into character. De Quincey, as we have seen, describes the method of “On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth” as “psychological criticism,” and he introduces his article on Shakespeare for the Encyclopaedia Britannica as a “psychological biography.”

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