"By wisdom a house is built, and by understanding it is established; and by knowledge
the rooms are filled with all precious and pleasant riches." ~Proverbs 24:3-4

Not Just For Kids

Spooky Shakespeare

Want to do something frighteningly different for Halloween this year? Read a play by William Shakespeare! Many of his plays are brimming with dark castles, ghosts, witches, fairies, supernatural omens, dastardly deeds, the stuff of dreams and nightmares. The classic Gothic villain, plotting his nefarious scheme by moonlight and carrying it out under cover of darkness, can be traced back to Shakespeare’s Elizabethan dramas.

Magic and superstition were an important part of the Elizabethan view of life. Many Elizabethans believed that mischievous fairies and evil creatures came out at night. An old Scottish prayer expresses a common fear of the time: “From ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggedy beasties, and things that go bump in the night, Good Lord deliver us.” Shakespeare himself states, “Tis now the very witching time of night, when churchyards yawn and hell itself breathes out contagion to this world.”

In this article, you will find a selection of scary scenes from Shakespeare’s plays. Don’t just read the lines; act them out! Shakespeare was meant to be heard and performed. If you are interested in the rest of the story, go to the library and check out the book, audio dramatization, or movie. Children and newcomers to Shakespeare may prefer to read paraphrased versions of his plays such as Tales from Shakespeare by Charles and Mary Lamb. The complete works of William Shakespeare can be found online at http://www-tech.mit.edu/Shakespeare.


This play is a ghost story. In Act I, Scene 4, a ghost that looks like Prince Hamlet's recently deceased father appears to Hamlet one night. The ghost informs Hamlet that he was murdered by his brother Claudius (who has since married Hamlet's mother and now occupies the throne). The ghost exhorts Hamlet to take revenge on Claudius, and disappears as morning dawns. Hamlet, however, is not really sure if it is his father's spirit or a demon who aims to deceive him:

“Angels and ministers of grace defend us! Be thou a spirit of health or goblin damn'd, bring with thee airs from heaven or blasts from hell, be thy intents wicked or charitable, thou comest in such a questionable shape that I will speak to thee: I'll call thee Hamlet, King, father, royal Dane: O, answer me!”

The ghost replies, “I am thy father's spirit, doom'd 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, and freeze thy young blood.”


Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy contains all the essential elements of a great Halloween story – bad omens, dark castles, ugly witches, and ghostly apparitions. “Macbeth” conjures up some of the most vivid and scary images in all of Shakespeare. Here are just a few examples:

“The night has been unruly: where we lay, our chimneys were blown down; and, as they say, lamentings heard in the air; strange screams of death, and … the obscure bird clamour'd the livelong night: some say, the earth was feverous and did shake.” (Lennox to Macbeth)

“By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes.” (The Second Witch says this just before Macbeth walks in.)

Act II, Scene 3 of Macbeth spawned the knock-knock joke. Someone keeps knocking on the door of a drunken porter. Fearing that it might be the devil, several times he says, “Knock-knock, who’s there?” – but no one answers.

In Act III, Scene 4, Macbeth is haunted by the "blood-bolter'd" ghost of his former friend Banquo sitting in his chair during a feast.

Witches' Brew from Macbeth

Act IV, Scene 1 of Shakespeare's “Macbeth” portrays the classic stereotype of old hags crouched over a cauldron muttering incantations. While “Macbeth” takes place in the 11th century, Shakespeare gathered together all the popular beliefs about witches' brew from late 16th century England and concocted the following famous recipe. Although the strange ingredients do not sound very appetizing, some of them are really names of herbs. Other ingredients were given symbolic names, part of the witches' code to keep the substances a secret.

A dark cave. In the middle, a caldron boiling. Thunder. Enter three Weird Sisters: “Round about the cauldron go; in the poisoned entrails throw…. Double, double, toil and trouble; fire burn and cauldron bubble. Fillet of a fenny snake, in the cauldron boil and bake; eye of newt and toe of frog, wool of bat, and tongue of dog, adder's fork, and blindworm's sting, lizard's leg, and owlet's wing, for a charm of powerful trouble; fire burn, and cauldron bubble…. Cool it with a baboon's blood, then the charm is firm and good.”


As if for comic relief, Shakespeare created another nighttime world inhabited by fairies. Shakespeare was the first writer to portray the faerie folk as small, cute, and mischievous, but free from demonic qualities.

“How now, spirit! whither wander you?” (Puck to Fairy)

“Over hill, over dale, through bush, through brier, over park, over pale, through flood, through fire: I do wander everywhere, swifter than the moon's sphere; and I serve the fairy queen, to dew her orbs upon the green.” (Fairy to Puck)

“For night's swift dragons cut the clouds full fast, and yonder shines Aurora's harbinger; at whose approach, ghosts, wandering here and there, troop home to churchyards: damned spirits all, that in crossways and floods have burial, already to their wormy beds are gone.” (Puck to Oberon, explaining that the night is fading and the sun is rising, so the ghosts have already gone home.)

Additional Resources

http://shea.mit.edu/ramparts/lessonplans/jfpickering/wordpictures.htm (“Word Pictures and Ghost Stories.” This introduction to the play “Hamlet” is designed for elementary students. As the teacher reads a passage, students draw what they hear.)

http://edsitement.neh.gov/view_lesson_plan.asp?id=368 (“Shakespeare's Macbeth: Fear and the Dagger of the Mind” helps students understand how Shakespeare's language dramatizes fear. Another lesson, “Shakespeare's Macbeth: Fear and the Motives of Evil,” delves more deeply into the particular ways in which Shakespeare’s language helps shape the tone of fear and dread. Grades 9-12.)

www.shakespeare.org.uk/content/view/356/356 (“Macbeth: Playing at Witches.” The witches in Shakespeare’s play are as frightening to grown-ups as they are to a childish imagination.)

www.partypop.com/themes/SPEC0009.html (Halloween Party Theme, in which the guests come dressed as characters from Shakespearean plays.)

See Also: Shakespeare For All Seasons


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