Happy Halloween from William Shakespeare!

halloween-2016

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!”

 

Hump Day Shakespearean Quote – 02 Sep 2015

othello

This coming weekend I’ll be fortunate enough to visit one of the Midwest’s premiere Shakespeare venues, American Players Theatre, in the deep woods of Southern Wisconsin. They’ll be performing the classic tragedy, Othello.

OTHELLO:

Soft you; a word or two before you go.

I have done the state some service, and they know’t.

No more of that. I pray you, in your letters,

When you shall these unlucky deeds relate,

Speak of me as I am; nothing extenuate,

Nor set down aught in malice: then must you speak

Of one that loved not wisely but too well;

Of one not easily jealous, but being wrought

Perplex’d in the extreme; of one whose hand,

Like the base Indian, threw a pearl away

Richer than all his tribe; of one whose subdued eyes,

Albeit unused to the melting mood,

Drop tears as fast as the Arabian trees

Their medicinal gum. Set you down this;

And say besides, that in Aleppo once,

Where a malignant and a turban’d Turk

Beat a Venetian and traduced the state,

I took by the throat the circumcised dog,

And smote him, thus.

[Stabs himself]

Othello, Act V, Scene ii

Here Othello writes his own epitaph. At this point in the play, all has been revealed: Iago’s murderous plot of revenge, tricking Othello into murdering his innocent wife, Desdemona. In his last speech, Othello eloquently confesses that he loved well, but was unwise; was not prone to jealousy, but when driven to it, pursued it to its last degree; and that he held the most precious thing in the world only to foolishly cast it away.

His final couplet, after stabbing himself, is to kiss the dead Desdemona with these words:

I kissed thee ere I killed thee. No way but this,

Killing myself, do die upon a kiss.

Othello was written in about 1604, just a few years after the triumphant tragedy of Hamlet, and began Shakespeare’s run of shockingly brilliant tragedies, including King Lear, Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra. Iago the villain of Othello, is considered to be the epitome of evil in western literature, and even in its day, Othello was powerfully provocative. Elizabethans were frightfully racist, and yet Shakespeare dared to make a ‘blackamoor’ the tragic protagonist of his play.

The image comes from the currently running production of Othello at American Players Theatre, with Chike Johnson as Othello and James Ridge as Iago.

Hump Day Shakespearean Quote – 18 February 2015

Othelloiagomovie

Shakespeare understood jealousy, the primary driving force behind his play Othello. It’s a common belief that the motivations of Iago, one of the all-time great villains, are never revealed and that he acts without impetus. Not true. Iago’s lust to destroy Desdemona and Othello never goes on grand display, but in Act II Iago’s soliloquy sorts out his rage, revealing what sparks his hate for Othello and in that, discovers the tool of his revenge: Jealousy.

That Cassio loves her, I do well believe it;

That she loves him, ’tis apt and of great credit:

The Moor, howbeit that I endure him not,

Is of a constant, loving, noble nature,

And I dare think he’ll prove to Desdemona

A most dear husband. Now, I do love her too;

Not out of absolute lust, though peradventure

I stand accountant for as great a sin,

But partly led to diet my revenge,

For that I do suspect the lusty Moor

Hath leap’d into my seat; the thought whereof

Doth, like a poisonous mineral, gnaw my inwards;

And nothing can or shall content my soul

Till I am even’d with him, wife for wife,

Or failing so, yet that I put the Moor

At least into a jealousy so strong

That judgment cannot cure. Which thing to do,

If this poor trash of Venice, whom I trash

For his quick hunting, stand the putting on,

I’ll have our Michael Cassio on the hip,

Abuse him to the Moor in the rank garb—

For I fear Cassio with my night-cap too—

Make the Moor thank me, love me and reward me.

For making him egregiously an ass

And practising upon his peace and quiet

Even to madness. ‘Tis here, but yet confused:

Knavery’s plain face is never seen tin used. 

Othello, Act II scene i 

It appears Othello may have once slept with Iago’s wife! ‘For that I do suspect the lusty Moor Hath leap’d into my seat’. That’s Elizabethan for ‘he had sex with my wife.’ Iago cinches it with ‘Till I am even’d with him, wife for wife’. 

Iago will turn that jealousy into a tool.   In this speech the conniving bastards figures it out: ‘that I put the Moor At least into a jealousy so strong That judgment cannot cure’. 

The plan’s not completely worked out yet, but with Shakespeare’s signatory couplets–that he often used to close a scene–he promises that we’ll get to see it all: ‘but yet confused: Knavery’s plain face is never seen [till] used.’ 

To this very day, soap operas and revenge flicks still owe a kernel of their trashy existence to Shakespeare, and his uncanny insight into human nature. 

The image is of Laurence Fishburne as Othello and Kennath Branagh as Iago in the 1995 film version. Here Iago whispers poison lies into Othello’s ear.

Hump Day Shakespearean Quote – 11 February 2015

iago

Our modern predilection in popular fiction and film for the anti-hero has its origins back in Elizabethan times. Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta reveled in villains wreaking havoc on the stage. But it was William Shakespeare who first fleshed out the villainous heart and made it real and visceral. So real and so close to the bone that he gave his greatest villain soliloquys with which to pour out his black soul. I give you Iago:

And what’s he then that says I play the villain,
When this advice is free I give, and honest,
Probal to thinking, and indeed the course
To win the Moor again? For ’tis most easy
Th’ inclining Desdemona to subdue
In any honest suit; she’s framed as fruitful
As the free elements. And then for her
To win the Moor–were’t to renounce his baptism,
All seals and symbols of redeemed sin–
His soul is so enfettered to her love,
That she may make, unmake, do what she list,
Even as her appetite shall play the god
With his weak function. 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:
That she repeals him for her body’s lust;
And by how much she strives to do him good,
She shall undo her credit with the Moor.
So will I turn her virtue into pitch,
And out of her own goodness make the net
That shall enmesh them all. 

Othello, Act II, Scene iii 

Here Iago is boasting about how clever he is. He asks if he really can be the villain if all he’s doing is giving innocent advice to Cassio and Othello. Of course, these are lies he’s planting in their heads, lies that will lead to disastrous and murderous action. Villains love to boast–and this great boast here has been borrowed again and again in popular entertainment up to this very day. Think of it: a Bond villain always boasts of how he’s going to destroy the world, and all of us love to hear the likes of Hannibal Lector lecture us.

There are some great lines in this speech, including my favorite, ‘Divinity of hell! When devils will the blackest sins put on, they do suggest at first with heavenly shows.’

The image is of Kenneth Branagh as the vengeful Iago in the 1995 film version of Othello. The original Shakespeare play is heavily edited for the film, but the language itself remains intact, and contains great performances all around. Watch it or stream it for a delicious treat.