TCS: Autumn Signs and Portents in Shakespeare

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By the pricking of my thumbs,
Something wicked this way comes.

– William Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act IV, scene 1


There are two common Autumn themes which we can turn to Shakespeare to find rich expressions: the fall of the year as a metaphor for the threshold of old age; and eerie ghosts, witches and other unearthly figments of the dark. These scary creatures from ancient myth and legend have been toned down for a children’s evening — the “trick or treating” of Halloween.

For the first theme, he gives us:

-:- —


That time of year thou may’st in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake
against the cold,
Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day,
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by-and-by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire
Consum’d with that which it was nourish’d by.
. . . This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,
. . . To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

-:- —

But it is his plays which are teeming with references to “things that go bump in the night.” The Scottish play’s witches, Julius Caesar’s prophetic dreams and his vengeful ghost, even a comedy like A Midsummer Night’s Dream makes mention of ghosts, and of course the action in Hamlet is set in motion by the ghost of his father. So with Halloween fast approaching, if you’re feeling ghoulish, here are some handy lines to contemplate as you hand out the candy:

-:- —

The Winter’s Tale, Act III, scene 3

I have heard (but not believ’d) the spirits of the dead
May walk again: if such thing be, thy mother
Appeared to me last night; for ne’er was dream
So like a waking.

-:- —

Julius Caesar, Act I, scene 3

Yesterday the bird of night did sit,
Even at noon-day, upon the market-place,
Hooting and shrieking.

Julius Caesar, Act II, scene 2

Calpurnia here, my wife, stays me at home:
She dreamt to-night she saw my statua,
Which, like a fountain with an hundred spouts,
Did run pure blood: and many lusty Romans
Came smiling, and did bathe their hands in it:
And these does she apply for warnings, and portents,
And evils imminent; and on her knee
Hath begg’d that I will stay at home to-day

Julius Caesar, Act II, scene 2

In ranks and squadrons and right form of war,
Which drizzled blood upon the Capitol;
The noise of battle hurtled in the air,
Horses did neigh, and dying men did groan,
And ghosts did shriek and squeal about the streets.

Julius Caesar, Act V, scene 5

The ghost of Caesar hath appear’d to me
Two several times by night : at Sardis, once;
And, this last night, here in Philippi fields.
I know, my hour is come

-:- —

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act III, scene 2

Fornight’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.

-:- —

Henry VI, Part III, Act 5, scene 6

The owl shriek’d at thy birth,–an evil sign;
The night-crow cried, aboding luckless time;
Dogs howl’d, and hideous tempest shook down trees;
The raven rook’d her on the chimney’s top,
And chattering pies in dismal discords sung.

-:- —

Macbeth, Act II, scene 3

Our chimneys were blown down; and, as they say,
Lamentings heard i’ the air; strange screams of death,
And prophesying with accents terrible
Of dire combustion and confused events
New hatch’d to the woeful time: the obscure bird
Clamour’d the livelong night: some say, the earth
Was feverous and did shake.

Macbeth, Act III, scene 4

Why, what care I ? If thou canst nod, speak too, –
If charnel-houses, and our graves, must send
Those that we bury, back, our monuments
Shall be the maws of kites.

Macbeth, Act IV, scene 1

Infected be the air whereon they ride,
And damned all those that trust them!

-:- —

Othello, Act V, scene 2

Alas, why gnaw you so your nether lip?
Some bloody passion shakes your very frame:
These are portents; but yet I hope, I hope,
They do not point on me.

-:- —

Hamlet, Act I, scene 1

As stars with trains of fire and dews of blood,
Disasters in the sun; and the moist star
Upon whose influence Neptune’s empire stands
Was sick almost to doomsday with eclipse:
And even the like precurse of fierce events,
As harbingers preceding still the fates
And prologue to the omen coming on,
Have heaven and earth together demonstrated
Unto our climatures and countrymen.
Hamlet, Act I, scene 1

But, soft: behold! lo where it comes again!
I’ll cross it, though it blast me. – Stay, illusion!
If thou hast any sound, or use a voice.
Speak to me.

Hamlet, Act I, scene 4

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 com’st in such a questionable shape,
That I will speak to thee.

Hamlet, Act I, scene 4

What may this mean.
That thou, dead corse, again, in complete steel,
Revisit’st thus the glimpses of the moon.
Making night hideous ; and we, fools of nature,
So horridly to shake our disposition,
With thoughts beyond the reaches of our souls?
Say, why is this?

Hamlet, Act I, scene 4

O, answer me:
Let me not burst in ignorance! but tell,
Why thy canoniz’d bones, hears’d in death,
Have burst their cerements! why the sepulchre,
Wherein we saw thee quietly inurn’d.
Hath op’d his ponderous and marble jaws,
To cast thee up again.

-:- —

Henry IV, Part I, Act 3, Scene 1

Glendower:  I can call spirits from the vasty deep.

Hotspur: Why, so can I; or so can any man:
But will they come when you do call for them ?

-:- —

About wordcloud9

Nona Blyth Cloud has lived and worked in the Los Angeles area for the past 50 years, spending much of that time commuting on the 405 Freeway. After Hollywood failed to appreciate her genius for acting and directing, she began a second career managing non-profits, from which she has retired. Nona has now resumed writing whatever comes into her head, instead of reports and pleas for funding. She lives in a small house overrun by books with her wonderful husband.
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