While Shakespeare isn’t renowned for writing horror, he certainly understood the power of a macabre scene and the dramatic impact of horror when portraying just how evil a character could be.
He created a number of beautifully creepy and macabre scenes that hold definite appeal for horror fans, and which make great reading for October and Halloween.
There is a beautifully crafted moment in Act 3, Scene 4 of ‘Macbeth’ where Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, and a group of lords gather for dinner. There is no place set for Banquo, because Macbeth knows he will not attend dinner – he cannot, because Macbeth has had him murdered.
Just as Macbeth is about to sit down, he makes a speech saying that all the greatest men of the kingdom would be under one roof if Banquo were there, but he hasn’t deigned to join them. At that moment, Banquo’s ghost has shown up and taken Macbeth’s seat. Macbeth, not realising the others can’t see Banquo, tells Ross he can’t sit down because the table’s full. Lennox shows him to his place, and Macbeth starts acting very strangely. He directly addresses Banquo’s ghost, saying “Thou canst not say I did it: never shake thy gory locks at me.”
This is a most macabre picture indeed. Banquo’s ghost isn’t all white and ethereal, it’s covered in blood and grey matter after having his head bashed in, to the point where his hair is dripping with it.
To the others at the table, the agitated and protesting Macbeth appears to be talking to no-one.
Ross assumes Macbeth is not feeling well. Lady Macbeth, as gracious and supportive of her husband as ever, tells them he’s having a brain snap, it happens all the time, and it will be over in no time if they ignore him. When she questions his masculinity, he says he is indeed a man – a bold enough one to look on something so scary that it would give the devil a fright. Then she tells him he’s imagining things again, and carrying on as though he were listening to an old woman’s fireside horror story.
He continues pointing it out – “Prithee, see there! behold! look! lo!” and tells the ghost that if it can nod, it should speak to him too. Macbeth knows exactly what – or who – he is seeing, and it terrifies him.
The scene is quite bizarre. The man who is ostensibly the king of Scotland starts talking to nobody and his wife undermines both his sanity and his manhood in front of all his lords. The dramatic irony of the audience knowing Banquo’s ghost has appeared, while the other attendees at the dinner do not, is compelling, giving the audience a powerful sense of horror — both at the scene as they witness it, and at the thought of what is to become of the kingdom. It contributes to the building sense of impending doom and adds another layer of darkness to this most bloody tragedy.
Read the rest of the scene – or the whole play – here.
Check out Mya Gosling’s brilliant cartoon version of this scene at Good Tickle Brain.