Horror Scenes in Shakespeare: Hamlet’s Father Haunts Elsinore Castle

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. 

‘Hamlet’ opens with a spooky, although not macabre, scene. This scene is all about those common elements that make horror work: creepy chills, fear and dread. 

It’s the dead of night and the guards at Elsinore Castle are going about their regular duties, except that they seem nervous: Bernardo opens with the line “Who’s there?” and Marcellus leads their conversation  leads with, “What, has this thing appeared again tonight?” 

They are discussing the apparition that has appeared to them on the two previous nights. As they talk, the ghost appears again. It doesn’t speak to them, it doesn’t harm them… but it definitely scares them. 

As they discuss the ghost and hypothesise as to whether or not it’s a bad omen, it returns, spreads its arms wide, and then disappears when a rooster crows. 

Afterwards, Horatio tells Hamlet about seeing the ghost, and gives more detail of how frightened they were. 

Like them, Hamlet thinks the appearance of the ghost is a sign that all is not right. His response is to keep watch with them that night, and when the ghost appears, he addresses it as his father’s ghost and entreats it to tell him what he needs to do. 

Still fearful, Marcellus and Horatio tell Hamlet not to go with the ghost. He does, of course. How else would he find out what it wants to say to him? 

It’s fair to say that Hamlet is more appalled by what the ghost of his father tells him than he is by seeing the ghost in the first place. The ghost says he was murdered by Claudius and urges Hamlet to take revenge, which is what drives the action of the remainder of the play. 

This might not seem terrifying to audiences in the 21st century, but Shakespeare’s audiences were far more superstitious than we are, and they understood the significance of ghosts and omens. Just as the soldiers in the play “tremble and look pale”, most of the people in the early modern audience would likewise have taken that apparition very seriously. 

This is delicious creepy horror that foreshadowed the Gothic style made popular by authors such as Walpole, Shelley, Stoker, Lovecraft, and even Charles Dickens, among others. 

Horror Scenes in Shakespeare: Titus Andronicus Cooks Dinner

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. 

Titus Andronicus is a confronting play. The story is full of enmity and revenge, a lot of violence, and a truckload of bloodshed and murder, with most of that happening on stage. It may already sound like a splatter horror storyline, but the final scene is particularly horrific.

Titus Andronicus is a Roman general who loses all but four of his sons in a war against the Goths, during which he has captured their queen, Tamora, her three sons and Aaron, a Moor, among others. Titus slays Tamora’s eldest son in a ritual killing to honour his dead sons, causing Tamora to swear hatred and revenge against him. 

She isn’t kidding. Having married the Emperor Saturninus, Tamora has two of Titus’ four remaining sons framed for the murder of the Emperor’s brother — a crime committed by her own sons, Chiron and Demetrius — for which they are beheaded. Then she has her sons rape Titus’ daughter Livinia, cut off her hands and cut out her tongue so that she can’t tell anyone what they’ve done. 

Titus feigns madness, ostensibly brought on by grief, until Tamora, trying to take advantage of his insanity, tries to make a deal with him. Titus isn’t falling for that, though: he wants revenge, and he intends that Tamora will suffer far more than he has done. Keeping up his ruse, he invites Tamora, Saturninus, and various others to a banquet in Rome’s honour.

In Act 5, Scene 3, Titus proves that he is a master of revenge, and Shakespeare proves that he is a master of the macabre.

In this scene, Titus himself serves dinner and  encourages everyone to eat heartily of the feast. 

He proceeds to kill his daughter Livinia in front of the guests and tells Tamora it’s actually her sons that killed her through their despicable actions. When Saturninus demands that they are called to answer for their actions, Titus reveals that they’re already there— they’ve been baked into the pie that Tamora and everyone else just ate for dinner. 

At that point, the bloodshed starts again in full earnest. 

Titus stabs Tamora to death with a knife. 
Saturninus kills Titus. 
Titus’ son Lucius kills Saturninus. 

Lucius and Marcus, Titus’ other remaining son, expose the crimes of Tamora’s sons. They also expose Tamora’s love child to Aaron, the Moor who was  captured by Titus at the same time as she was.  Lucius and Marcus then invite the people of Rome to judge them for their deeds in avenging their brother and father. Instead of punishing them, the Romans make Lucius the new Emperor.

Aaron is buried alive, breast deep, so that he can regret his actions while starving to death. The Romans are forbidden to feed or help him. 

Tamora is denied a funeral, and her body is thrown to the wild beasts and birds of prey.

This scene alone has seven murders, four of which are brutally violent and take place on stage, and one live burial. 

You can read the rest of the scene, or the whole play, here.

William Shakespeare: writing splatter horror four hundred years before it became popular.  
You’re welcome. 

Horror Scenes In Shakespeare: Banquo’s Ghost in ‘Macbeth’

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.

Horror Scenes in Shakespeare: “Out, vile jelly!”

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 one particularly macabre scene in King Lear where Lear’s daughter Regan and her husband, Cornwall, presided over the punishment of Gloucester for his “treason” in supporting Lear, the rightful king, after their rejection of him. 

They are in Gloucester’s own home, no less, when they detain him, bind him to a chair and accuse him of treason. He has no idea of their evil intent, and reminds them more than once that they are his guests – and terrible ones at that.

Regan yanks hair out of Gloucester’s beard, and when Cornwall gouges out one of his eyes, presumably with a dagger, she picks up a sword and kills the servant who objects, then demands that Gloucester’s other eye be taken out, too. On doing so, Cornwall utters the words, “Out, vile jelly!” This really emphasises the vulnerability and delicate nature of the tissues and substance of the eye, and adds a brutally heartless element to the already macabre action. 

Once Gloucester’s eyes are both out,  Regan and Cornwall send him away bleeding and blinded while Cornwall complains that he has been hurt and demands that Regan takes care of him because he has a boo-boo. The fact that Cornwall is both still alive and able to see where he’s going demonstrates that he is nowhere near as badly hurt as either Gloucester or the dead servant, the irony of which is not lost on the audience, and underscores the self-absorbed evil of the pair. 

It’s a grisly, gory scene that would fit right into any horror story or film.

I have included the scene below.
You might also check out Mya Gosling’s excellent cartoon recreation of the scene at Good Tickle Brain.

ACT III, SCENE VII. Gloucester’s castle.

Enter CORNWALL, REGAN, GONERIL, EDMUND, and Servants

CORNWALL Post speedily to my lord your husband; show him this letter: the army of France is landed. Seek out the villain Gloucester.

Exeunt some of the Servants

REGAN Hang him instantly.

GONERIL Pluck out his eyes.

CORNWALL Leave him to my displeasure. Edmund, keep you our sister company: the revenges we are bound to take upon your traitorous father are not fit for your beholding. Advise the duke, where you are going, toa most festinate preparation: we are bound to the like. Our posts shall be swift and intelligent betwixt us. Farewell, dear sister: farewell, my lord of Gloucester.

Enter OSWALD

How now! where’s the king?

OSWALD My lord of Gloucester hath convey’d him hence:
Some five or six and thirty of his knights,
Hot questrists after him, met him at gate;
Who, with some other of the lords dependants,
Are gone with him towards Dover; where they boast
To have well-armed friends.

CORNWALL Get horses for your mistress.

GONERIL Farewell, sweet lord, and sister.

CORNWALL Edmund, farewell.

Exeunt GONERIL, EDMUND, and OSWALD

Go seek the traitor Gloucester,
Pinion him like a thief, bring him before us.

Exeunt other Servants

Though well we may not pass upon his life
Without the form of justice, yet our power
Shall do a courtesy to our wrath, which men
May blame, but not control. Who’s there? the traitor?

Enter GLOUCESTER, brought in by two or three

REGAN Ingrateful fox! ’tis he.

CORNWALL Bind fast his corky arms.

GLOUCESTER What mean your graces? Good my friends, consider
You are my guests: do me no foul play, friends.

CORNWALL Bind him, I say.

Servants bind him

REGAN Hard, hard. O filthy traitor!

GLOUCESTER Unmerciful lady as you are, I’m none.

CORNWALL To this chair bind him. Villain, thou shalt find–

REGAN plucks his beard

GLOUCESTER By the kind gods, ’tis most ignobly done
To pluck me by the beard.

REGAN So white, and such a traitor!

GLOUCESTER Naughty lady,
These hairs, which thou dost ravish from my chin,
Will quicken, and accuse thee: I am your host:
With robbers’ hands my hospitable favours
You should not ruffle thus. What will you do?

CORNWALL Come, sir, what letters had you late from France?

REGAN Be simple answerer, for we know the truth.

CORNWALL And what confederacy have you with the traitors
Late footed in the kingdom?

REGAN To whose hands have you sent the lunatic king? Speak.

GLOUCESTER I have a letter guessingly set down,
Which came from one that’s of a neutral heart,
And not from one opposed.

CORNWALL Cunning.

REGAN And false.

CORNWALL Where hast thou sent the king?

GLOUCESTER To Dover.

REGAN Wherefore to Dover? Wast thou not charged at peril—

CORNWALL Wherefore to Dover? Let him first answer that.

GLOUCESTER I am tied to the stake, and I must stand the course.

REGAN Wherefore to Dover, sir?

GLOUCESTER Because I would not see thy cruel nails
Pluck out his poor old eyes; nor thy fierce sister
In his anointed flesh stick boarish fangs.
The sea, with such a storm as his bare head
In hell-black night endured, would have buoy’d up,
And quench’d the stelled fires:
Yet, poor old heart, he holp the heavens to rain.
If wolves had at thy gate howl’d that stern time,
Thou shouldst have said ‘Good porter, turn the key,
‘All cruels else subscribed: but I shall see
The winged vengeance overtake such children.

CORNWALL See’t shalt thou never. Fellows, hold the chair.
Upon these eyes of thine I’ll set my foot.

GLOUCESTER He that will think to live till he be old,
Give me some help! O cruel! O you gods!

REGAN One side will mock another; the other too.

CORNWALL If you see vengeance,—

First Servant Hold your hand, my lord:
I have served you ever since I was a child;
But better service have I never done you
Than now to bid you hold.

REGANHow now, you dog!

First ServantIf you did wear a beard upon your chin,
I’d shake it on this quarrel. What do you mean?

CORNWALLMy villain!

They draw and fight

First ServantNay, then, come on, and take the chance of anger.

REGANGive me thy sword. A peasant stand up thus!

Takes a sword, and runs at him behind

First Servant O, I am slain! My lord, you have one eye left
To see some mischief on him. O!

Dies

CORNWALL Lest it see more, prevent it. Out, vile jelly!
Where is thy lustre now?

GLOUCESTER All dark and comfortless. Where’s my son Edmund?
Edmund, enkindle all the sparks of nature,
To quit this horrid act.

REGAN Out, treacherous villain!
Thou call’st on him that hates thee: it was he
That made the overture of thy treasons to us;
Who is too good to pity thee.

GLOUCESTER O my follies! then Edgar was abused.
Kind gods, forgive me that, and prosper him!

REGANGo thrust him out at gates, and let him smell
His way to Dover.

Exit one with GLOUCESTER How is’t, my lord? how look you?

CORNWALL I have received a hurt: follow me, lady.
Turn out that eyeless villain; throw this slave
Upon the dunghill. Regan, I bleed apace:
Untimely comes this hurt: give me your arm.

Exit CORNWALL, led by REGAN

Second ServantI’ll never care what wickedness I do,
If this man come to good.

Third Servant If she live long,
And in the end meet the old course of death,
Women will all turn monsters.

Second Servant Let’s follow the old earl, and get the Bedlam
To lead him where he would: his roguish madness
Allows itself to any thing.

Third Servant Go thou: I’ll fetch some flax and whites of eggs
To apply to his bleeding face. Now, heaven help him!

Exeunt severally

Read the rest of the play here.

Horror Scenes in Shakespeare: The Witches in ‘Macbeth’

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. 

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 making a powerful statement about anyone who tried to depose a Scottish king who held the throne legally and rightfully. 

So, the witches dance and sing, and Macbeth subscribes to everything they suggest about his own future, even though he first acknowledges them as “black and midnight hags”. Thus begins the dark drama of ‘Macbeth’, the Scottish play.

SCENE I. A cavern. In the middle, a boiling cauldron.

Thunder. Enter the three Witches

First Witch
Thrice the brinded cat hath mew’d.

Second Witch
Thrice and once the hedge-pig whined.

Third Witch
Harpier cries ‘Tis time, ’tis time.

First Witch
Round about the cauldron go;
In the poison’d entrails throw.
Toad, that under cold stone
Days and nights has thirty-one
Swelter’d venom sleeping got,
Boil thou first i’ the charmed pot.

ALL
Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.

Second Witch
Fillet of a fenny snake, I
n the cauldron boil and bake;
Eye of newt and toe of frog,
Wool of bat and tongue of dog,
Adder’s fork and blind-worm’s sting,
Lizard’s leg and owlet’s wing,
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.

ALL
Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn and cauldron bubble.

Third Witch
Scale of dragon, tooth of wolf,
Witches’ mummy, maw and gulf
Of the ravin’d salt-sea shark,
Root of hemlock digg’d i’ the dark,
Liver of blaspheming Jew,
Gall of goat, and slips of yew
Silver’d in the moon’s eclipse,
Nose of Turk and Tartar’s lips,
Finger of birth-strangled babe
Ditch-deliver’d by a drab,
Make the gruel thick and slab:
Add thereto a tiger’s chaudron,
For the ingredients of our cauldron.

ALL
Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn and cauldron bubble.

Second Witch
Cool it with a baboon’s blood,
Then the charm is firm and good.

Enter HECATE to the other three Witches

HECATE
O well done! I commend your pains;
And every one shall share i’ the gains;
And now about the cauldron sing,
Live elves and fairies in a ring,
Enchanting all that you put in.

Music and a song: ‘Black spirits,’ & c
HECATE retires

Second Witch
By the pricking of my thumbs,
Something wicked this way comes.
Open, locks, Whoever knocks!

Enter MACBETH

MACBETH
How now, you secret, black, and midnight hags! What is’t you do?

Read the rest of the scene, or the whole play, here.