First, a (very) brief history lesson: Halloween has its origins in the Celtic harvest festival of Samhain, a time when the ancient Celts believed the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead blurred, and the dead returned to earth. Later, when Christianity spread to the British Isles, the Catholic Church overlaid many of their holidays onto pagan holidays in order to lessen the gap between religions. One of these holidays was All Saints’ Day, also known as All-Hallows, on November 1st. Thus, October 31st became known as All-Hallows' Eve, which was, in turn, eventually shortened to Halloween. And there you have it. For a more detailed (and humorous) account of this whole, tedious process, visit this blog of another local Staunton historian.
The modern Halloween which we are familiar with, however, did not actually come into existence until the nineteenth century. During Shakespeare’s day, one may see the roots of our contemporary celebrations, yet, at this time, All-Hallows' Eve was still a highly religious-centric holiday. This was a world where ghouls and goblins weren’t the stuff of campfire ghost stories but were, instead, very real and ever-present in daily life. Men and women lived in fear of getting on these malevolent spirits’ bad sides, and they turned to a combination of the Church and old superstitions to protect themselves. Rather than going trick-or-treating, an Elizabethan child might have gone “a-souling,” or traveled door to door asking for “soul cakes” in return for prayers for souls of the dead. Shakespeare even references this practice in The Two Gentlemen of Verona when Speed, page to Valentine, tells his lord that a sure sign of love is that Valentine speaks whiningly, or “puling, like a beggar at Hallowmas” (II.i.25-26). To avoid being recognized by any ghosts who might be out and about, these Elizabethans would have worn masks – a predecessor of today’s costumes. The original jack-o-lanterns were actually turnips (pumpkins being native to the Americas), which were carved and placed in front of the home to ward off evil spirits.
Shakespeare would have been familiar with these traditions, and instances of the supernatural abound in his writing. The most famous probably occur in Macbeth, which was, many believe, written to cater to the interests of England’s reigning monarch, James I (previously James VI of Scotland). James had a particular fascination with witchcraft, even publishing his own book on the subject, the Daemonologie. Witchraft, of course, plays an integral role in the story of Macbeth in the form of the three Weird Sisters. The witches in this play are undeniably present, visible and powerful; they begin the play and set the plot in motion. Yet the whole play is awash in eerie, paranormal vibes. Lady Macbeth summons spirits to possess her, ghosts seat themselves at banquet tables, and ethereal daggers hover in midair. The veil between earth and the realm of the fantastic seems practically non-existent.
Some other particularly famous ghost cameos in Shakespeare include the appearance of the ghost of Hamlet’s father in Hamlet. Like the witches of Macbeth, this ghost “bodes some strange eruption to our state” (I.i.69), in that its appearance sets about a chain of events which alters fate of the kingdom. The ghost of the ex-king, however, is much more economical and somber of speech than the gleefully wicked Weird Sisters. He is a spirit come from the fires of hell, and he manifests in setting which feels far more ordered and Christian than the wild and gothic moors of Scotland. In addition, a multitude of ghosts are present in Richard III. The spirits of his past victims appear in a grisly parade before Richard on the eve of the Battle of Bosworth Field, reminding him of all his evil deeds. This ghostly army promises to fight on the site of Henry, Earl of Richmond (soon to be King Henry VII): “Be cheerful, Richmond, for the wronged souls of butchered princes fight in thy behalf,” intones the ghost of young Prince Edward (V.iii.121-122). Little Edward and his younger brother Richard, the Duke of York, are still said to haunt the Tower of London, scene of their supposed murder by their uncle Richard III. And then, of course, there’s the ghost of Caesar, who shows up to haunt Brutus in Julius Caesar and whose appearance most likely gave birth to the exclamation, “Great Caesar’s ghost!”
These are just a couple of examples; Shakespeare’s plays are packed full of magic, witches and wizards, mischief-making spirits, ghosts, and “murder most foul.” This All-Hallows' Eve, why not get in touch with Shakespeare’s spooky side? On closer inspection, he might be the perfect representative of the Halloween spirit.
Also, if you want to forgo a more modern Halloween of Twilight costumes and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups in favor of something more Shakespearean, here’s a nifty recipe for soul cakes from HistoricalFoods.
To recite Shakespearean quotations!”
-Jack, the Pumpkin King
Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas