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A Candidate for the "Scariest Moment in Shakespeare"


Jon Finch and Francesca Annis in Roman Polanski's 1971 Macbeth

Two years ago, Andy McLean asked me to be part of a panel for Bell Shakespeare, the national Australian Shakespeare company. We were asked to vote for Shakespeare's greatest death scene and greatest lovers. Choosing the death scene was easy—I think it's hard to top Cleopatra's suicide. Choosing the lovers was tough. I went with Romeo and Juliet, though when I saw the winner, Shakespeare and the "lovely boy" of the sonnets, I wished that I had thought of it. 

 This year, I've been asked to choose a candidate for the "scariest moment in Shakespeare." 

I simplified my decision by eliminating moments that are not merely scary, but horrifying, like Lavinia being dragged away to be raped and mutilated in Titus Andronicus.  

Macbeth has its moment of pure horror—when the Macduff boy is murdered in front of his mother—but much of the rest of the play is "scary," in the sense that it's suspenseful and frightening. And if, right before Halloween, I'm going to choose a "scariest moment in Shakespeare," I'm going to choose one from a play that has not just a ghost, but witches. (Ray Bradbury had good reasons for using a line from Macbeth for the title of his Halloween novel Something Wicked This Way Comes.) 

Suspense in a horror movie or a play like Titus Andronicus comes from knowing that something horrible is about to happen. After seeing the ax murderer behind the door, or hearing Aaron propose that Chiron and Demetrius rape Lavinia, we fear for their victims. 

The first two acts of Macbeth have a different kind of suspense. In the scenes leading up Duncan's murder, we fear for the criminal, not the victim. 

After the witches hail Macbeth as the future king, Banquo asks him, "why do you start, and seem to fear / Things that do sound so fair" (1.3.51-52)?* A few lines later, Macbeth tells us that in his mind's eye he sees a "horrid image that doth unfix my hair, / And make my seated heart knock at my ribs" (137-38). The idea of murdering Duncan doesn't scare him because he fears killing another human being. As a soldier, he has done this before. The first thing we hear about him is that he "unseamed" Macdonald "from the nave to the chops" (1.2.22). That killing brought him praise from the king and, along with other exploits, elevated his status, making him Thane of Cawdor. Killing Duncan will make him king, but it will also damn him. 

For me the most frightening moment in the play, and my candidate for the scariest moment in in Shakespeare, comes in Act Two, Scene Two, when Macbeth realizes that by murdering Duncan he has damned himself. When he overhears Donalbain and Malcolm praying, he can't join in their prayer (29). Like Claudius in Hamlet, he can't pray for forgiveness and so can't be forgiven. His punishment is to live fully conscious of his crime. The enormity of it overwhelms him as he washes his hands, imagining Duncan's blood turning the oceans red (62-64). Sleep will provide no relief from the torment of his guilt: a voice tells him, "Macbeth shall sleep no more" (44). 

From now on, it seems, he will live in a waking nightmare. 


*Line numbers are from the 2015 Arden edition.


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