Shakespearean Horror

I recently read Bram Stoker’s classic novel, Dracula. I’d say I don’t know why I took so long to read it, after all, I’ve read and reread the other classics like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Frankenstein, and all of Poe’s tales, but I know the truth. When I was younger, I saw a clip of the classic film, Nosferatu. Frankly, it scared the shit out of me. For over a year, I slept with a clove of garlic on the window frame by my bed, a silver cross around my neck, and my blankets wrapped tightly around my neck and shoulders. Once I outgrew my terror, I did become fascinated by the legends. I’ve long enjoyed the various documentaries on Dracula, as well as the films, including Bela Lugosi’s famed 1931 feature. Yet, I never read the actual story, and I’m sure that in the back of my mind, it would terrify me all over again. And it did, but in a good way. Indeed, I stayed up all evening reading page after page, unable to put it down, even though I had to play nanny at 8:30am. The story was wonderful, intriguing, and exciting. Far superior to anything Ms. Meyer could produce, but I’ll leave that rant for another day. Unlike the various film adaptations, Bram Stoker’s Dracula allows little sympathy for the monster. He is truly evil, and yet, Mina continually reminds the reader and her men that they must pity Dracula’s soul for it has been lost for centuries. It’s a conflict in the book that invades the reader’s subconscious as well. Can such a villain be pitiful? Other versions of the vampire myths have played up their sexiness and their long-lost human side, but the original tales of vampires paint a much different picture. They are truly terrifying and pitying them is the hardest act of all.

The horror genre has gone downhill in the last few decades. Even some of the old B-movie horror films have better plot lines than the current summer blockbuster blood baths. More and more the film makers rely on shock and gore for their ratings and forget the plot line. Perhaps they should read Bram Stoker, or better, Poe. Edgar A. Poe has long been known as the master of horror stories, and it’s true. Even at 25, Vincent’s Price’s portrayal in the film version of Ligeia scares the pants off me. There is very little blood in the entire thing, and the special effects are some of the worst the 70’s ever produced. Yet, every time I find myself startling from sleep having seen that damn black cat in my dreams.

However, Poe was far from the first to produce a good scary tale. Ghost stories and the like have been around to frighten small children when stories were merely an oral tradition, passed from generation to generation. Just read a few classic Irish or German fairy tales if you want proof. Not to mention numerous tales and legends of fallen warriors, haunted woods, evil witches, and cursed lands can be found in nearly every tradition worldwide.

How did Shakespeare use these stories? Well, as the son of a glover, he would’ve heard the old folk tales from customers and suppliers. But he would’ve also known the church’s teachings on the occult since his mother was a member of the Roman Catholic gentry, even though the religion had fallen out of political favor since the death of Mary I. He would’ve also learned the many legends and tales of monsters and the like from Greek and Roman myths in school. Truly, he had a vast array of sources.

But, unlike other playwrights of the time, Shakespeare usually steered clear of the occult. That is, except for one play, Macbeth. Most critics believe that Macbeth was written to gain favor with the new king, James I. The king’s fascination with the occult, especially witchcraft was widely known. He even published the foremost scholarship of the day on the subject. He also had a great interest in his family’s history, as did most of the Tudors. In order to cement his claim on the Scottish throne, he had long claimed a lineage from an ancient Scotsman named Banquo, who helped the supposedly historical Macbeth in gaining the ancient throne. Shakespeare merely altered the story a bit, added the survival of Banquo’s son Fleance and the prophecy of Banquo’s lineage, and boom, instant success, right? Wrong. Or at least, in theatre lore, it’s wrong. While there are many stories on how Macbeth became a cursed play, the two prominent ones feature its first performance. Many actors believe that first and foremost, the play is cursed because Shakespeare used actual witches’ incantations in the play, thus calling their power and curse to the play. The other legend is that after the first performance for James I, the king hated the entire thing, loathed it, actually. There is little historical evidence to back up this claim, but the general belief is that the play flopped. Indeed, the only historical mention of a performance came in April 1611, when it was performed at the Globe. However, since it is believed to have been written between 1603 and 1606, many believe the 1611 performance to be the second. Perhaps Shakespeare hoped that in the intervening years, James might have forgotten his original dislike.

For those outside the theatre world, don’t think you’re being funny and mention Macbeth in a theatre to a theatre nut. We will forcibly remove you, turn you three times, make you spit, utter an obscenity or two, and then wait until you are invited back in. It really isn’t funny to mess with our superstitions.

However, as horror stories go, Macbeth is incredible. It has it all: plotting, murder, witches, dark stormy nights, bloody ghosts, prophecies, and battles. The play even ends with a head on a stake, or sword, depending on the production. But as scary as the weird sisters are, it is Macbeth’s inability to withstand their temptations and the temptations of his wife that produces the most horror. He descends into madness because, at his core, he was a weak man.

Speaking of Lady M, she is by far one of the most terrifying characters in literature. Just listen to her words as she begins to hatch a plan to help her husband usurp the throne.

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! (I.iii.40-47)

Yet that’s tame compared to her hissing retort to Macbeth’s hesitation to kill King Duncan.

I have given suck, and know
How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me:
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have pluck’d my nipple from his boneless gums,
And dash’d the brains out, had I so sworn as you
Have done to this. (I.vii.54-59)

That just sends shivers down my spine. In fact, I’ve often wondered if Shakespeare had a little Classical inspiration for his Lady M in the form of the infamous Medea. In Euripedes’s famous play, Medea kills her children after they have delivered a poisoned diadem to the young princess who Jason, Medea’s husband, has recently announced he will marry in place of Medea. She even takes the bloody bodies of her children with her so Jason cannot properly mourn them. Hell hath no fury, right?

All in all, Shakespeare’s Macbeth is a pretty good horror tale. As much as I love him, I wouldn’t say he surpasses some of the other greats of the genre, but he is up there.

“Hell is murky!… Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?” (V.i.36, 39-40).

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