Horror In Shakespeare: The Haunting of Richard III

Happy Halloween!

I hope you enjoy this most Halloween-ish scene from Shakespeare’s ‘Richard III’, courtesy of Shakespeare Nerd.

Shakespeare Nerd

Of all the scenes written by Shakespeare, this is the most Halloween-worthy. What is more appropriate for All Hallow’s Eve than a haunting, right?

Shakespeare’s ‘Richard III’ portrays Richard as an evil, conniving, murderous villain who plots and murders his way onto the throne of England. His deeds are ruthless and his victims are many.

In Act 5, Scene 3, the ghosts of all of Richard’s victims haunt him in his tent the night before the battle. Each of them bids him to “despair and die”, which becomes a powerful refrain that haunts him as he sleeps. This kind of regular repetition of a phrase is called epimone (uh-pim-o-nee): it compounds and gives power to an idea by dwelling on it.

Each of the ghosts also visits Richard’s opponent, Richmond, as he sleeps, bidding him to live, conquer and flourish. It is significant that their words to him are not…

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Horror Scenes in Shakespeare: The Witches of ‘Macbeth’

It’s true that Shakespeare isn’t usually associated with horror, but there are a number horror and macabre scenes in his plays that are genuinely creepy and very dark.

So, this ’spooky season’, I’ll be sharing those scenes with you via Shakespeare Nerd.

As I noted in a post last week, the first scene of Macbeth is my favourite opening scene among all the plays, so that’s a great place to start.

Shakespeare Nerd

Often referred to as the Weird Sisters, the witches of ‘Macbeth’ open the play with a powerfully macabre and horrifying scene. There is a cauldron in the middle of the cavern, around which the witches dance and recite the list of ingredients in the potion they are making. 

Just reading the recipe is enough to make one’s skin crawl – and we are nowhere near as superstitious as Shakespeare’s original audiences. 

In 1606 when the play is thought to have first been performed, audiences then would have both living memory and current knowledge of witch trials and persecutions, and would have been very wary of anything to do with witches and magic.

Shakespeare knew what we was doing, though. James I had been king of England for a few years, and  did not enjoy universal popularity among his English subjects. By portraying the witches and Macbeth as evil, he was…

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Misquoted Shakespeare: “Bubble, Bubble Toil and Trouble”

I have more than one friend who likes to stir a pot of whatever they are cooking and say in a witchy voice: “Bubble bubble, toil and trouble…”

At times – usually when it is someone I don’t know well – I choose to be diplomatic and just let them go. They’re having fun. 

When it’s a friend who I know will not be offended, I have told them gently what the correct line is, and given them a few extra lines to use when the family asks, “What’s for dinner?” “Eye of newt and toe of frog” is a family favourite in my own kitchen, with “fillet of a fenny snake” a close second.

When I asked one of them if she knew she was quoting Ducktales, not Shakespeare, she took it in her stride and immediately switched to a voice that sounded almost exactly like Donald Duck. It was most impressive, and I should have been less surprised by that given that we’ve done theatre together. 

Still, it is a quote that people do get wrong.

In the opening scene of Macbeth, he witches actually say “Double, double, toil and trouble, / Fire burn and cauldron bubble”  as the refrain of their song about making a potion in the cauldron in the centre of the stage. 

My favourite opening scene among all Shakespeare’s plays, this is a passage that is super cool and super creepy at the same time. Despite the fact that the witches are brewing something potent, the song concludes with a witch declaring that “something wicked comes” when Macbeth enters. It’s a powerful statement of how dark and deadly the central character of the play will turn out to be. 

Misunderstood Shakespeare: The Balcony Scene

Pretty much anywhere you go, whoever you talk to, if they know only one thing about any play by Shakespeare, it’s the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet. It’s possibly the most famous scene ever written. 

There’s just one problem with that:  there was no balcony. 

That’s correct. 

There. 
Never. 
Was. 
A.
Freaking.
Balcony. 

In the script, the stage direction is clear: JULIET appears above at a window. 

Not a balcony. A window. 

You can read the entire scene and see that not once is a balcony mentioned. 

I don’t know who invented it, but it was a killer idea that I bet Shakespeare would wish he had thought of, were he still alive today. 

Of course, directors can stage a play however they like, and make use of whatever structures and sets the theatre provides.

Filmmakers can do likewise, but one must keep in mind their tendency to just change whatever they want. Hollywood is notorious for that. The mayhem that comes from mass misunderstanding occurs when directors think they know better than the author, and when people watch a movie instead of reading the book.

It makes people and their assumptions about the original text wrong, and leaves them marinating in their wrongness until their wrongness is so commonly accepted that most people think it’s right. 

It just goes to show that what your English teacher always said is true: there really is no substitute for reading the book.

Misunderstood Shakespeare: “A Foregone Conclusion”

These days, when people talk about a “foregone conclusion” they mean something is a given: it is inevitable, it will happen, it may safely be assumed. As certain as it sounds, it is still a statement of conjecture about an event that is yet to occur.

When Shakespeare had Othello speak those words in Act 3, Scene 3 of the play that bears his name, it had quite the opposite meaning.
In this scene, Iago is manipulating Othello’s thoughts and making him believe that Desdemona has cheated on him. 

Othello says, “But this denotes a foregone conclusion:  Tis a shrewd doubt, though it be a dream.” 

Here, he is speaking of the adultery between Desdemona and Cassio as something that he is certain has already happened. This gives the phrase “foregone conclusion” the opposite meaning to that which it holds today. 

This, and statements such as “I’ll tear her all to pieces” and “O blood, blood, blood!” are evidence that Othello has already made up his mind about the guilt of his wife and former second-in-command. 

The scene ends with Othello swearing his loyalty to Iago and thinking of ways to kill Desdemona. Charming, I know. 

Misunderstood and Misquoted Shakespeare: “One Foul Swoop”

This morning’s conversation in my kitchen is a clear demonstration of just how much of a Shakespeare Nerd I really am.

H: I need egg cartons. Where do I get egg cartons? 
Me: How many do you want? 
I pointed to the top of my fridge where there sat a stack of egg cartons. 
Me again: Take them all. 
H: Oh wow! Thanks! 
K: That’s awesome! I’ll grab them in one foul swoop and put them in the car.
Me: Well, that’s decided my blog post for today. 
K: Huh? 

In Act 4, Scene 3 of ‘Macbeth’, Malcolm and Macduff engage in testing one another’s loyalty to Scotland rather than to Macbeth, who has become king. During that conversation, Macduff learns of the murders of his wife and children at the order of Macbeth, whom he describes as a “hell-kite” who has slain his “chickens” in “one fell swoop”. 


The deed was certainly foul, but that isn’t what Shakespeare wrote. He wrote “one fell swoop” which is an entirely different thing. 

Here, fell means ‘fierce’. 

It’s an image of violent attack, of hunting, and of predator and prey, which leaves the audience in no doubt that these murders were calculated and precise. The term “hell-kite” leaves the audience in no doubt of the evil motivations behind the slaying.

Misunderstood Shakespeare: ‘Sea Change’

These days we understand the phrase “sea change” to reflect something new and positive in one’s life. It is frequently used to describe a significant transformation in a person or in one’s lifestyle.

In Australia, it has also come to mean a physical move from the city or the country to live closer to the ocean, or even taking a holiday at the beach. 

The phrase hasn’t always had such positive associations. 

In Act 1, Scene 2 of Shakespeare’s play ’The Tempest’, Prospero’s familiar spirit Ariel sings a song that makes Ferdinand believe that his father, Alonso, has drowned in a shipwreck, and that his father is buried at sea “full fathom five”, or five fathoms deep. Through the action of the water on his remains, his body is undergoing substantive changes: his eyes are turning into pearls and his bones into coral. There is nothing left of him that has not been transformed by the sea. 

Even worse, this story of the shipwreck and drowning is not true. It is, in fact, a ruse by Prospero to orchestrate a marriage match between his daughter, Miranda, and Ferdinand. Prospero is quite comfortable with using trickery and misleading magic to achieve what he wants to, and this is not the only time during this play that he willingly deceives others to get what he wants. 

So, even though it does still reflect a significant transformation, it has much darker connotations than the term does now. Deceit, manipulation, grief and emotional blackmail all factor into the origins of this phrase that we use so differently today. 

Misunderstood Shakespeare: “Let’s Kill All The Lawyers”

This line comes from Henry VI, Part 2, written in 1598. It was spoken by Dick the Butcher, a character nobody remembers except for this line, who was hanging about with his fellow rebels in a field at Blackheath.

It’s often quoted by people who are disillusioned with the legal system, or feel that certain members of the legal profession have less integrity than they should do. It is with these people for whom Dick the Butcher is likely to identify and sympathise. 

It is important to understand that the intent of the line was to be funny — a sardonic response from the sort of character who is likely to have suffered at the hands of a lawyer or witnessed them acting less than judiciously— rather than a serious suggestion or a statement of intent. When you read the scene as a whole, the jaded weariness of Dick and his mates is clearly evident as a contributing factor to their rebellion. This is the context in which this quotation must be read. 

Dick the Butcher is part of a group of rebels led by Jack Cade, who is extolling his qualifications to be king because of his noble connections, while the others are having a bit of a laugh at him because, realistically, he’s anything but noble. Jack does have ideas about a more egalitarian society, which form the context for Dick the Butcher’s punch line. As far as he’s concerned, if there were going to be some kind of ideal society, it wouldn’t have any lawyers in it. 

Cade concurs with Dick: lawyers using parchment to create documents is a waste of good lambs’ skins, and the beeswax used as a seal stings more than the bee does. He agreed to something legally once, and somehow gave up his freedom or rights by doing so. He doesn’t clarify what the issue was, but the audience certainly understands his sentiments regarding lawyers. 

The misunderstanding and misuse of this quotation arise from the interpretation that Shakespeare is saying that it’s the lawyers and upstanding citizens who would stand in the way of such a rebellion working because of their integrity and commitment to enforcing the law. 

I would be willing to put money on that theory having been dreamed up by a lawyer in the first place.  

If the predominant population of Shakespeare’s audiences were made up of lawyers, judges and clerks, this theory may have more credence.

However, the audiences were comprised of a much wider representation of society as a whole, only a small percentage of which was made up of lawyers. Many were quite common folk who stood throughout the performances, known as groundlings, while others were wealthier and could afford to pay for a seat. While some of those may have been lawyers, most were lords and ladies and members and other members of the gentry. 

It does seem that even in Shakespeare’s time there was a fair degree of scepticism about lawyers. While Shakespeare mentions the legal profession more than any other, this is by no means the only play in which Shakespeare makes a joke at their expense. Mercutio, for example, talks about lawyers grasping for money in ‘Romeo and Juliet’, while the Fool in ‘King Lear’ makes a pointed statement about lawyers not saying or doing anything unless you pay them first. 

Shakespeare was not trying to incite violence against lawyers, but he certainly wasn’t suggesting that they are the protectors or upholders of society, either.  Dick’s statement is clearly satire, expressing cynicism about lawyers in ways that people understood even then. 

Misunderstood Shakespeare: “To thine own self be true”

There are thousands of images of this quotation in various fonts, or in hand-drawn calligraphy, as a caption on tee shirts, jewellery and even furniture, and as “motivational’ tattoos on Pinterest and Instagram. 

I cringe every time I see one of them, especially the tattoos. A photo can be deleted; a tattoo, not so easily. Don’t get me wrong: I love tattoos. I have six of my own. But the quote doesn’t mean what all those people think it does. 

The quotation comes from Act 3, Scene 3 of Hamlet in which a man named Polonius admonishes his son, Laertes, for still being at home instead of already on board the ship that is going to carry him to France, and insists that the ship will be waiting for him. Polonius then proceeds to keep on talking so that Laertes is even more delayed than he originally was. He cannot resist taking that one last opportunity to give Laertes a few pieces of “expert advice” to take with him as he leaves home and makes his way as a man of the world.  

At the end of the lecture he drops this bomb: “This above all: to thine own self be true.”

These days, people tend to interpret this as Polonius encouraging Laertes to be proud of who and what he is, to be individual, and embrace his own character in an early modern version of “you do you”. 
Sadly, that is not the case. Polonius is not a candidate for any “Enlightened and Sensitive Parenting Award”. 

The intention behind “to thine own self be true” is neither about resilience or integrity. What he’s really saying to his son is “Screw everyone else. Put yourself first, do what you want, and don’t worry about what other people might need or want.” 

Nice, eh? Because what the 17th (or any other) century needed was more selfishness and arrogance from over-entitled, egotistic men.  

Rather than promotion of healthy self-awareness or individuality, this quote is, in fact, really bad parental advice given to a young man by his father who happened to be a self-important, pompous ass who liked the sound of his own voice far more than anyone else liked it. 

I’m all for healthy self esteem and individuality. We should definitely be promoting that. But we should also be promoting respect and tolerance for others and the ability to consider their needs at the same time, and Polonius was never going to be interested in any of that.

Don’t follow any advice that comes from Polonius, kids. Hamlet was 100% correct when he called him a rat. Neither he nor his self-serving philosophy deserves your respect. 

Shakespeare Nerd.

In an attempt to organise all my Shakespeare-related posts so they might actually reach the readers they were written for, I have a new Facebook page called Shakespeare Nerd

It’s easy to find those posts on WordPress because you can search, or simply click on a category like Shakespeare or a tag like Shakespeare Nerd and they will magically appear.

Finding specific posts on Facebook is not that straightforward, and so my new page was born. 

It’s already full of all sorts of hey nonny nonny and hurly burly, and waiting to be discovered by my fellow Shakespeare lovers.

If you are on Facebook, love Shakespeare, and want to make my day, please give it a like. 

If you’re not, or you don’t, or don’t want to, there is absolutely no obligation. You won’t miss a thing, because you’re already here, right at the front of the line waiting for me to serve up the wordy nerdy goods.

Thank you for being a supporter and reading my posts, by the way. It’s very much appreciated.