As I have noticed there are multiple interpretations of the following lines from William Shakespeare 's Macbeth. For example, "drink gave thee the lie" has been interpreted as diversely as "deceived you," "told you that you're a liar," and "knocked you down." I wonder if all these interpretations are correct, and if so, how the Porter's answer "i' the very throat on me" makes sense.

Macduff: I believe drink gave thee the lie last night.
Porter: That it did, sir, i' the very throat on me:
but I requited him for his lie;

2 Answers 2


To "give the lie" is an English expression meaning to expose a lie, or show a thing is not true. It is still in use today.

to show that something is not at all true
These figures give the lie to the notion that people are spending less.
Macmillan Dictionary

to prove that something is not true:
The fact that the number of deaths from cancer in the area has doubled surely gives the lie to official assurances of the safety of nuclear power.
Cambridge Dictionary

So the literal interpretation of Macduff's words is that drink made the Porter tell lies. This being Shakespeare though, there are deeper meanings at play.

The most obvious one is a pun: drink made the porter "lie" as in "lie down drunk". Drink also makes people into "liars" because they talk nonsense.

A more interesting interpretation, however, is that the Porter in this scene can be read as a stand-in for his master, Macbeth. His speech about hell is a metaphor for the hell which Macbeth's castle has become and each of the three sinners for an aspect of Macbeth's character.

In this interpretation, Macbeth has been "given the lie" by the Witches through their manipulative prophecies. The result is his confusion, as though drunk with power and aggression, and eventually the literal "lie down" of his death.

While "give the lie" remains a current phrase, the Porter's reply is another figure of speech which has become less common:

lie in one's throat
to tell a foul or outrageous lie
Collins Dictionary

So he is simply confirming that Macduff is correct via a comic overstatement. This then adds dramatic weight to his "requitation" of the drink, managing to stand and converse despite his hangover.

It's worth noting that again there is a literal pun here. When drinking the drink does of course "lie" in the throat of the drinker both in drinking and in the aftermath of alcohol-provoked vomit.

References: Macbeth and His Porter, Frederic B. Tromly, Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 26, No. 2 (Spring, 1975), pp. 151-156

  • 2
    In current usage (AFAIK), one normally "gives the lie" to a statement or an idea (as in your two examples) rather than a person. Was it a common phrase in Shakespeare's day to "give the lie" to a person, meaning expose them as a liar?
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Sep 4, 2019 at 10:37
  • 1
    @Rand al'Thor: the OED has citations for "giving the lie" to both statements and people contemporary to Shakespeare.
    – Peter Shor
    Commented Sep 4, 2019 at 12:02
  • What does "each of the three sinners" refer to?
    – Tsundoku
    Commented May 18, 2020 at 11:57
  • @Tsundoku The farmer, the equivocator and the tailor
    – Matt Thrower
    Commented May 18, 2020 at 14:04
  • 1
    You quote the definition of “give the lie” as “expose as a liar”, and then say “So the literal interpretation of Macduff's words is that drink made the Porter tell lies.” I don’t see how this follows — exposing someone as a liar doesn’t necessarily mean making them tell lies, and can just as well mean making them slip up and tell the truth, exposing an earlier lie. Indeed, this seems a better for for most other quoted uses of “give the lie to” — the “giving the lie” isn’t the act of lying itself, but the later event that exposes the lies. Commented Nov 26, 2020 at 19:22

One should consider the context of this passage. The porter is obviously very drunk, and when McDuff and Lennox come in, the following exchange occurs (quoted from the First Folio, emphasis added; line breaks from the First Folio):

Macd. Was it so late, friend, ere you went to Bed,
That you doe lye so late?
Port. Faith Sir, we were carowsing till the second Cock:
And Drinke, Sir, is a great prouoker of three things.
Macd. What three things does Drinke especially
Port. Marry, Sir, Nose-painting, Sleepe, and Vrine.
(...) Therefore
much Drinke may be said to be an Equiuocator with Le-
(...) in conclu-
sion, [drink] equiuocates him in a sleepe, and giuing him the Lye,
leaues him.
Macd. I beleeue, Drinke gaue thee the Lye last Night.

The words "lye so late* means "(still) lie in bed at this late hour". The porter then introduces other concepts that are related to "lye":

  1. Equivocation could refer to the Jesuit doctrine of mental reservation that "permitted one to express virtual falsehoods in a verbally true form to satisfy the speaker's conscience" (Macbeth. Edited by A. R. Braunmuller. Cambrdidge University Press, 1997, page 150). Elsewhere in Shakespeare, equivocation refers to using ambiguous words. This is not quite the same thing as lying, but it is a method of deception.
  2. "Urine" introduces another meaning of lye or at least chamber-lye (which could be used as a detergent; see e.g. Lye and chamber lye).

When the porter says "giving him the lye*, there are at least three meanings (Macbeth. edited by G. K. Hunter. Penguin, 1967, page 154):

(1) deceives him; (2) floors him; (3) makes him urinate (lie = lye).

Braunmuller's Macbeth edition adds the following meanings:

(4) makes him lose his erection; (5) accuses him of lying (has Lady Macbeth did Macbeth, 1.7.47-51).

When Macduff says to the porter, "Drinke gaue thee the Lye", each of the above meanings may be at work. However, the porter's words "I requited him for his Lye" focus the meaning on lying and deception.

Robert S. Miola glosses "i'the very Throat on me" as "deeply, egregiously" (Macbeth. Edited by Robert S. Miola. Second edtion. Norton, 2014). Note also that lying in one's throat is an expression that occurs elsewhere in Shakespeare's work, e.g. King Henry IV, Part II, Act I, scene 2 ("I had lied in my throat"). Lying in the throat was worse than lying fromm the lips (notes on lines 65, 67 in King Henry IV, Part II in Shakespeare Online), hence the interpretation as "outrageous lie"

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