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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Misunderstood and Misquoted Shakespeare: “Lead on, Macduff!”

“Lead on, Macduff!” is a phrase often used to say “after you” when people are being polite and opening doors for someone, or showing that they will follow another person’s lead. 

People who use this phrase think they are quoting Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’, but they’re not quite doing so: those are not the words Shakespeare wrote. 

Both the phrase and its meaning have been changed over time. 

What Shakespeare wrote was “Lay on, Macduff”, and Macbeth wasn’t opening any doors or following Macduff’s lead when he said it. Macbeth and Macduff were fighting one another, and only one of them would survive. The words “Lay on, Macduff” were Macbeth saying “come on, fight me!”

So, next time you open a door, or commit to following someone else’s lead, be careful about saying “Lead on, Macduff”. If they know their Shakespeare, they might just fight you! 

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.

An Interesting Character Study: Macbeth

Macbeth is certainly one of Shakespeare’s very interesting characters. 

Macbeth and his wife present an interesting study of power, control and submission. A proven warrior, he lets not only his imagination, but also his wife’s, run away with him, and completely submits to her manipulation and taunting. Instead of waiting for things to take their natural course, they took matters into their own hands in pursuit of the position and power promised in the prophecy of the wyrd sisters. 

As things are wont to do in Shakespeare’s tragedies, things get way out of hand and end up with a bunch of people dead. 

I hope you enjoy this very good character study of Macbeth, courtesy of the Interesting Literature blog. 

An Interesting Character Study: Macbeth

Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s most famous tragic heroes, not least because he represents the Man Who Has It All (seemingly) and yet throws it away because of his ‘vaulting ambition’ to have Even …

Source: An Interesting Character Study: Macbeth

A Favourite Shakespeare Play: ‘Macbeth’

Macbeth is a play that has always fascinated people, engaging their superstitions as well as their imaginations. For this reason, its often called The Scottish Play by actors and theatre folk, as it’s believed to be unlucky to say ‘Macbeth’ in a theatre.

It’s a cracker of a story. The supernatural ‘weird sisters’ tell Macbeth he’s going to be Thane of Cawdor, and then tell him he is going to be king. In response, Macbeth does everything in his power to make it happen, only to be haunted by his victims and unable to actually enjoy his success when it does. You really do have to wonder how it would have all worked out if he’d responded with, “That’s nice!” and let things happen as they would. 

Of course, you can’t just blame it all on Macbeth. His wife – whom I like to call Lady Macdeath – plays a significant part in engineering him onto the throne, mostly by bullying him into doing things he doesn’t really want to do.

The play has some fabulous macabre moments— the witches are spooky, their prophecies are uncanny, and you can bet your last dollar you don’t want to eat what they’re cooking in that cauldron. Even better is the part where Banquo’s ghost shows up for dinner shaking his “gory locks”: that is my favourite scene in the whole play.

Laced with suspense, intrigue, and dramatic irony, ‘Macbeth’ keeps the audience hooked to the very end, even though we all know by now how it’s going to work out. There’s more magic than just “Double, double, toil and trouble / Fire burn and cauldron bubble” in this play. 

Strangely enough, reading the text has brought me some odd comfort this weekend as I contemplate the fate of people who manipulate, lie and use others for their own nefarious purposes. I have taken dark satisfaction in seeing those who chose to do evil get what they deserved in the end. It may not be gracious, but it is quite therapeutic to think that maybe the Fates really do have things under control. Sometimes you need to take your catharsis wherever you can get it. 

That, of course, is the genius of all Shakespeare’s plays. He deals in the emotions we all understand – ambition, greed, love, anger, jealousy, pride, and the experience of being at the receiving end of the bad behaviour of others. The language may have changed slightly, but human nature certainly has not. 

Shakespeare doesn’t have to work hard to make the audience dislike Macbeth and his cold-hearted shrew of a wife: we get it. We have all seen people succeed by means of deceiving and manipulating others, or by stabbing someone else in the back, and we don’t like them, either.

Happy 449th birthday, Mr Shakespeare!

Very few of my friends understand my love of the works of Shakespeare.
They’re not even interested in my explanations. I suspect they prefer to believe that I’m slightly crazy, or that I’m some kind of intellectual snob who talks about Shakespeare because I think it makes me look smart… or something like that.

It seems to me, those friends of mine must have had very poor English teachers at school.
The language is so beautiful. Shakespeare’s works express powerful ideas with clarity and passion. They provoke thought. They inspire discussion and debate. They touch on issues of the heart, the soul, and the human experience in ways that anyone can understand.

The ideas that are the foundations of Shakespeare’s works are still so relevant today. Which of us living in the 21st century do not understand anger, love, jealousy, greed, fear, insecurity, loneliness, or wishing that life were different than the way it is? Which of us cannot learn from seeing someone else handle their situation the wrong way?

When I teach one of Shakespeare’s texts in my classes, the key question I always bring my students to answer is, what does it mean? What message is Shakespeare delivering here? How would the Elizabethan audience understand it? How, and why, is that different than the way we understand it in the 21st century?

Engaging in interpretation of a text like Othello, Macbeth or Henry IV part I is less intimidating than it seems. It doesn’t take a teenager long to work out that Iago is not only jealous but also both manipulative and vindictive. They have an instinctive understanding of the ways in which Hal displeased Harry, but also of the ways in which Harry must have frustrated and discouraged Hal. Young men are quick to work out that any modern girl whose attitude resembles that of Lady Macbeth is, in all likelihood, not the girl for them. 

It’s all about common human experiences and what lessons can be drawn from the actions and misfortunes of others. The art of interpretation is discerning what the lessons are and how they should be understood. This can only be achieved if the text is known well, and thought about, and discussed, and debated, and challenged with different perspectives.
That’s what we do in my classes on Shakespeare.

Happy birthday, Will.

I still love you.