Happy Halloween from William Shakespeare!


Halloween as we know it today didn’t exist in Shakespeare’s time.  Our dark and costumed celebration evolved from many sources, including the Celtic ‘Samhain’ and the ongoing cultural and religious clashes between the pagan practices of the British Isles and the invasion of Christianity.  And so plenty of end-of-harvest rituals with pagan origins were practiced in Elizabethan times, especially in Ireland, Scotland and Wales. 

Certainly Shakespeare was aware of these, for his plays contain many examples of pagan and Christian myths, all mashed up. Judging by the way Shakespeare could chill and terrify his audiences, could one be blamed if they thought Shakespeare invented this holiday?  Of course he didn’t, but The Bard knew how to mix myth, superstition, paganism, Christianity, monsters, ghosts and curses.  Here are four of some my favorite creepy speeches from Shakespeare, my way of wishing everyone a very Bardic Halloween.  Enjoy! 

Caliban, from The Tempest, Act 2, Scene 2:

All the infections that the sun sucks up

From bogs, fens, flats, on Prosper fall and make him

By inchmeal a disease! His spirits hear me

And yet I needs must curse. But they’ll nor pinch,

Fright me with urchin-shows, pitch me i’ th’ mire,

Nor lead me like a firebrand in the dark

Out of my way, unless he bid ’em. But

For every trifle are they set upon me,

Sometime like apes that mow and chatter at me,

And after bite me, then like hedgehogs which

Lie tumbling in my barefoot way and mount

Their pricks at my footfall. Sometime am I

All wound with adders who with cloven tongues

Do hiss me into madness.


Iago, from Othello, Act 2 Scene 3:

How am I then a villain

To counsel Cassio to this parallel course,

Directly to his good? Divinity of hell!

When devils will the blackest sins put on

They do suggest at first with heavenly shows

As I do now. For whiles this honest fool

Plies Desdemona to repair his fortune

And she for him pleads strongly to the Moor,

I’ll pour this pestilence into his ear:


The Ghost, from Hamlet, Act 1 Scene 5:

I am thy father’s spirit,

Doom’d for a certain term to walk the night,

And for the day confin’d to fast in fires,

Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature

Are burnt and purg’d away. But that I am forbid

To tell the secrets of my prison house,

I could a tale unfold whose lightest word

Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,

Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres…


Lady Macbeth, from Macbeth, Act 1 Scene 5:

Come, you spirits

That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,

And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full

Of direst cruelty. Make thick my blood.

Stop up the access and passage to remorse,

That no compunctious visitings of nature

Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between

The effect and it! Come to my woman’s breasts,

And take my milk for gall, you murd’ring ministers,

Wherever in your sightless substances

You wait on nature’s mischief. Come, thick night,

And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell,

That my keen knife see not the wound it makes,

Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark

To cry “Hold, hold!”


Midweek Shakespearean Quote – 16 September 2015


Revenge is a dish best served cold.   No–I’m not going to claim this delicious little aphorism comes from Shakespeare. Historians and linguists can’t agree. However, the idea behind such a kind of revenge does come from Shakespeare, namely in Hamlet’s great soliloquy from Act III of the play.

Hamlet espies his murderous step father Claudius praying–Hamlet’s uncle King who murdered his father, stole his father’s crown and then bedded his sister-in-law, Hamlet’s mother. Hamlet is so, so tempted to murder the bastard right where he kneels and prays. But then Hamlet thinks better of it:

Now might I do it pat, now he is praying;

And now I’ll do’t. And so he goes to heaven;

And so am I revenged. That would be scann’d:

A villain kills my father; and for that,

I, his sole son, do this same villain send

To heaven.

O, this is hire and salary, not revenge.

He took my father grossly, full of bread;

With all his crimes broad blown, as flush as May;

And how his audit stands who knows save heaven?

But in our circumstance and course of thought,

‘Tis heavy with him. And am I then revenged,

To take him in the purging of his soul,

When he is fit and season’d for his passage?


Up, sword; and know thou a more horrid hent:

When he is drunk asleep, or in his rage,

Or in the incestuous pleasure of his bed;

At game, a-swearing, or about some act

That has no relish of salvation in’t;

Then trip him, that his heels may kick at heaven,

And that his soul may be as damn’d and black

As hell, whereto it goes. My mother stays:

This physic but prolongs thy sickly days.

Hamlet, Act III, Scene iii

The logic that stays Hamlet’s sword here is unusual in the Shakespeare canon: it’s a direct reference to Christian ethics and beliefs, and typically any topics or reference of a religiously Christian nature Shakespeare wisely avoided. Queen Elizabeth’s Protestant reformation wasn’t that far removed from the days of Queen Bloody Mary, who executed thousands of Protestants. Which meant smart playwrights steered clear. But for this scene, Hamlet’s beliefs serve the plot so well Shakespeare used it.

Hamlet realizes that if he kills Claudius while Claudius is praying, it will send the murderous King to heaven, since he’ll die while asking forgiveness of his sins. Hamlet reasons that if he’s going to send this bastard to hell, he needs to kill him while he’s committing sins: ‘When he is drunk asleep, or in his rage, Or in the incestuous pleasure of his bed, At game, a-swearing…”

It’s a crazy kind of logic. But when it’s couched within the luscious and lyrical language of this soliloquy, and issues from Hamlet’s mad lips, the audience buys it. It appears the Bard was as good at selling Christian myths as the Elizabethan preachers of the day.

The image comes from the cover of a Holy Bible printed in 1569, dedicated to Queen Elizabeth.  

Weekly Shakespeare Quote – 30 July 2015


One of all my all time favorite Shakespeare speeches is pretty kick-ass, and plays wonderfully even today, 400 years later. It’s a speech actors love to sink their teeth into (it’s not a true monologue since there’s some interjections from another character, and it’s not a soliloquy, but it’s still a hell of a thing). And more than its marvelous theme, it tells a great story, acting as the springboard to Hamlet’s madness. Yes, it’s the Ghost, Hamlet’s slain father, recounting his tale of woe, speaking from the depths of purgatorial torment. It’s long, but delicious.


I am thy father’s spirit,

Doomed for a certain term to walk the night,

And for the day confined to fast in fires,

Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature

Are burnt and purged away. But that I am forbid

To tell the secrets of my prison house,

I could a tale unfold whose lightest word

Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,

Make thy two eyes like stars start from their spheres,

Thy knotted and combinèd locks to part,

And each particular hair to stand an end

Like quills upon the fretful porpentine.

But this eternal blazon must not be

To ears of flesh and blood. List, list, O, list!

If thou didst ever thy dear father love–


Oh God!


Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder–




Murder most foul as in the best it is;

But this most foul, strange and unnatural.


Haste me to know’t, that I, with wings as swift

As meditation or the thoughts of love,

May sweep to my revenge.


I find thee apt;

And duller shouldst thou be than the fat weed

That roots itself in ease on Lethe wharf,

Wouldst thou not stir in this. Now, Hamlet, hear:

‘Tis given out that, sleeping in my orchard,

A serpent stung me. So the whole ear of Denmark

Is by a forgèd process of my death

Rankly abused. But know, thou noble youth,

The serpent that did sting thy father’s life

Now wears his crown.


O my prophetic soul! My uncle!


Ay, that incestuous, that adulterous beast,

With witchcraft of his wit, with traiterous gifts–

O wicked wit and gifts, that have the power

So to seduce! — won to his shameful lust

The will of my most seeming-virtuous queen.

O Hamlet, what a falling-off was there,

From me, whose love was of that dignity

That it went hand in hand even with the vow

I made to her in marriage, and to decline

Upon a wretch whose natural gifts were poor

To those of mine!

But virtue, as it never will be moved,

Though lewdness court it in a shape of heaven,

So lust, though to a radiant angel linked,

Will sate itself in a celestial bed

And prey on garbage.

But soft, methinks I scent the morning air.

Brief let me be. Sleeping within my orchard,

My custom always of the afternoon,

Upon my secure hour thy uncle stole

With juice of cursed hebona in a vial,

And in the porches of my ears did pour

The leperous distilment, whose effect

Holds such an enmity with blood of man

That swift as quicksilver it courses through

The natural gates and alleys of the body,

And with a sudden vigor it doth posset

And curd, like eager droppings into milk,

The thin and wholesome blood. So did it mine,

And a most instant tetter barked about

Most lazar-like with vile and loathsome crust

All my smooth body.

Thus was I sleeping by a brother’s hand

Of life, of crown, of queen at once dispatched,

Cut off even in the blossoms of my sin,

Unhouseled, disappointed, unaneled,

No reck’ning made, but sent to my account

With all my imperfections on my head.

O, horrible! O, horrible! most horrible!

If thou hast nature in thee, bear it not.

Let not the royal bed of Denmark be

A couch for luxury and damnèd incest.

But howsomever thou pursues this act,

Taint not thy mind, nor let thy soul contrive

Against thy mother aught. Leave her to heaven

And to those thorns that in her bosom lodge

To prick and sting her. Fare thee well at once.

The glowworm shows the matin to be near

And gins to pale his uneffectual fire.

Adieu, adieu, adieu. Remember me.

Hamlet, Act I, Scene v

Regret, love, betrayal, murder, incest, suffering and a longing for redemption. Who could ask for more?

Here’s the other evocative thing about this speech: Our best scholarly evidence tells us that Shakespeare was primarily a playwright and not a player–that he didn’t play the leads in his plays. But there’s strong evidence that Shakespeare did play the Ghost in Hamlet’s premiere at the Globe Theatre. Imagine these inspired words issuing from the lips of the Bard himself…

The image is of Brian Blessed playing the Ghost in Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 film of Hamlet.

Hump Day Shakespearean Quote – 04 February 2015

gertrude kissing

Queen Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother, had a lot to deal with, not the least of which is her seeming mad son Hamlet speaking to ghosts in her own bedchamber.  


How is it with you, lady? 


Alas, how is’t with you,
That you do bend your eye on vacancy
And with the incorporal air do hold discourse?
Forth at your eyes your spirits wildly peep;
And, as the sleeping soldiers in the alarm,
Your bedded hair, like life in excrements,
Starts up, and stands on end. O gentle son,
Upon the heat and flame of thy distemper
Sprinkle cool patience. Whereon do you look? 


On him, on him! Look you, how pale he glares!
His form and cause conjoin’d, preaching to stones,
Would make them capable. Do not look upon me;
Lest with this piteous action you convert
My stern effects: then what I have to do
Will want true colour; tears perchance for blood.


To whom do you speak this?

Hamlet, Act 3, Scene iv

Ah, ‘that you do bend your eye on vacancy…’   What a lovely line. In so many ways, Gertrude’s little speech is the whole great play writ small. Who was Gertrude, though? Shakespeare never reveals much about her. What’s really important is how Hamlet sees her, and the view through that lens is dark and twisted.

Was Gertrude an adulteress? Complicit in her husband’s murder? Incestuous because she married her dead husband’s brother? All of these accusations are Hamlet’s suspicions, but a close reading of the lines of the play (in all of their various versions) doesn’t conclusively affirm any of these accusations.

I believe Gertrude was an innocent, doing what she had to do for her Kingdom (that is, marry Claudius after her husband the King had died). Her innocence parallels Ophelia’s innocence. They are the only two female speaking roles in the play: and neither are treated well by Hamlet. But can we blame Hamlet? The evil done to his father–like most evils perpetrated in this world–are seeds sown, spreading calamity (which brings to mind a great line by Hamlet in another scene, ‘Tis an unweeded garden That grows to seed.’ King Claudius’ evil act jaundiced Hamlet’s view of the world and, I believe, how he saw his mother.

The image is of the great Glenn Close from the 1990 version of Hamlet, an excellent version I think, and very much worth a view. Here she is kissing her son, Hamlet (Mel Gibson) flirting with the various incestuous memes running through this stupendous play.

Hump Day Shakespearean Quote – 28 January 2015


Innocent, virtuous, obedient and lovely Ophelia, swept over by the tragic events of life and the machinations of the corrupt Danish court. Her mother is not present–possibly having died giving birth to Ophelia. And soon Ophelia’s father, Polonius, will die by Hamlet’s sword. And Hamlet? It seems he once expressed love for sweet Ophelia. But now that has passed, and Ophelia laments the madness that has taken Prince Hamlet:


O, what a noble mind is here o’erthrown!

The courtier’s, soldier’s, scholar’s, eye, tongue, sword;

The expectancy and rose of the fair state,

The glass of fashion and the mould of form,

The observed of all observers, quite, quite down!

And I, of ladies most deject and wretched,

That suck’d the honey of his music vows,

Now see that noble and most sovereign reason,

Like sweet bells jangled, out of tune and harsh;

That unmatch’d form and feature of blown youth

Blasted with ecstasy: O, woe is me,

To have seen what I have seen, see what I see! 

Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 1 

A beautiful soliloquy, where she bemoans Hamlet’s passing greatness, and pities herself, a lady ‘most deject and wretched.’ Bemoans the love he once expressed to her: ‘that suck’d the honey of his music vows.’ 

The character of Ophelia has spurred debate for centuries, and for this brief blog post, any opinion I offer I do so at my peril. Suffice it to say that for this me, a man, Ophelia has always proven tantalizing, mysterious, and somehow incomplete. Certainly Shakespeare intended that, in this play, his most developed and rewritten masterpiece. Yes, I think Shakespeare intended that. For Ophelia stands as strong counterpoint to the only other female role in the play, Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude, who has married her husband’s murderer. 

Was Prince Hamlet a misogynist? A strong argument can made for that. Was Shakespeare? Some argument has been made for that also, but I don’t think so. Shakespeare had no control over the fact that Elizabethan law did not allow women to act on stage. Shakespeare had to cast boys as his women. There’s compelling evidence–judging by the roles for women in his plays, and the order in which the plays were produced–that Shakespeare populated his plays with female roles depending on the talent at hand. For Hamlet, he had two extraordinary gifted boys. And in the 400 years since, many extraordinary women have played Ophelia and Gertrude.

Ophelia has spawned endless debate. Go watch some Ophelia. Two fairly recent movie versions of Hamlet include excellent Ophelias, as portrayed by Kate Winslet and Helena Bonham Carter. 

The image is of Helena Bonham-Carter as Ophelia in the 1990 version of Hamlet.   In this scene it appears Ophelia has already lost her marbles.

Hump Day Shakespearean Quote – 21 January 2015


Shakespeare’s Hamlet is the crown jewel of Western Art: the superlatives thrown at it are innumerable and pretty over-the-top: ‘the greatest tragedy written in 2000 years’; ‘the first manic-depressive hero of Western Literature’; 170 new words introduced to the English language; and that freaking great ‘to be or not to be’ speech that Mel Brooks put to music.   Well, here’s a bit of Hamlet for you (there’ll be more, much more, on my blog as time goes by). The opening of Hamlet’s first soliloquy, Act I, Scene ii: 

Oh, that this too, too sullied flesh would melt,

Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew,

Or that the Everlasting had not fixed

His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter! O God, God!

How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable

Seem to me all the uses of this world!

Fie on ’t, ah fie! ‘Tis an unweeded garden

That grows to seed. Things rank and gross in nature

Possess it merely. That it should come to this.

But two months dead—nay, not so much, not two.

So lovely, dark and eloquent.  

Going forward, for each Hamlet quote I share, I’ll share a few choice tidbits about this play or its history. 

Today? Hamlet is too long to perform! If you take all the versions from all the Quartos and the First Folio and mash them up all together, the play runs over four hours long, and the character Hamlet no longer makes any damned sense. In my opinion, many critics and literary historians throughout the centuries have done a disservice to this play. What does makes sense is that we’re dealing with revisions upon revisions. Yes, even Shakespeare revised his work. It just didn’t spring out of his head like, say, Mozart’s.

You see, Hamlet was first performed in the Globe Theatre in about 1600, an outdoor theatre, and because of available light, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men couldn’t perform plays over 3000 lines. Hamlet–if you add in all the different versions and texts into one giant baggy monster–is over 4000 lines long. It had to be cut. Which is why the editors of the First Folio–Shakespeare’s own fellow actors–included a shortened version of the play. In all likelihood, there were probably several acting versions of the play, all under 3000 lines.

Still, we can see by all the different versions, and the various changes and the contrary soliloquys, that the writing and creating of Hamlet gave Shakespeare a lot of trouble. What has happened over the centuries is that critics and scholars have been so beside themselves with academic ecstasy, that they just couldn’t bare to have only one of these shortened ‘performance versions’. And thus we modern theatre-goers are inflicted with monstrosities like Kenneth Branagh’s ‘complete’ movie version of Hamlet.

So–it’s okay to go and enjoy an ‘abbreviated’ or shortened Hamlet. That’s how it was presented back in Shakespeare’s time. We don’t know exactly which version or versions were performed (there were probably several). But Hamlet was always been bigger than anything: too big for performance, too big for critics and–judging by all the revision documents–too big for its author. Will Shakespeare was discovering something new as he wrote Hamlet. It changed literature; and if we look at the rest of Shakespeare’s plays, it changed him.  

The image is taken from an ‘abbreviated’ film version of Hamlet, Mel Gibson’s very excellent turn as the depressed Dane (here pictured with the superb Glenn Close as Gertrude). Perhaps Mel’s performance was so good because the actor himself pretty much went nuts later on in life.   Anyhow, don’t let Mel’s antics keep you from renting or streaming this fantastic version. It’s really lovely, dark and eloquent.   

Hump Day Shakespearean Quote – Christmas Eve 2014


Shakespeare and the mention of Christmas don’t much intersect for two main reasons. One, back in Elizabethan times, Christmas wasn’t the big commercial deal it is today. And two, the Bard was very, very careful about religion in his plays and poetry: Elizabethan England was a police state, and one of the supreme crimes–after treason–were crimes of faith. Even with the even-minded Elizabeth, who tried to bring everyone together, the extreme believers on either end would have none of it.   The Papists and Puritans hated one another, and Shakespeare wisely gave Christianity a wide berth. 

Some say that ever ‘gainst that season comes
Wherein our Saviour’s birth is celebrated,
The bird of dawning singeth all night long:
And then, they say, no spirit dare stir abroad;
The nights are wholesome; then no planets strike,
No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallowed and so gracious is the time.

Hamlet, Act I Scene i 

That’s it. Shakespeare’s only explicit reference to Christmas, and he doesn’t even say the word. It’s from Hamlet, and here Shakespeare only uses the idea of Christmas to set up the idea that evil is one its way. A holy day, when even ghosts are not allowed to haunt and witches aren’t allowed to spin charms. Ah, but a vengeful ghost is coming, and with him we’ll bring down tragedy and woe upon the entire castle of Elsinore.   

Merry Christmas, one and all, and enjoy this holiday, with the hopes that tonight and tomorrow might, indeed, ward off evil and spirits for just a while.

Postscript: And no, the play Twelfth Night doesn’t refer to Christmas either. It was the last night of the big Christmas season, traditionally reserved for performances, to which the title refers.

The image is from the ‘Cobbe Portrait’ of Shakespeare. There’s strong evidence that is the only portrait ever commissioned of the Bard during his lifetime. Artist unknown, but this Jacobean painting was discovered with a painting of another Elizabethan, Henry Wriothesley, the 3rd Earl of Southampton. Who was he? Why, most Shakespeare’s Young Man of the Sonnets.