“Knock, knock! Who’s there?”

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The idea of speaking to Shakespeare’s ghost has long been a fascination for many people, and some have even put pen to paper conjuring imaginary conversations from the other side. What would Shakespeare have to say, and what pearls of wisdom would he look to impart? Some seem to think that he would spend most of the conversation quoting himself – “to thine own self be true”, “virtue is bold, and goodness never fearful”… etc. But I believe, what with Halloween being just round the corner, that Shakespeare would have far more urgent advice and cautionary words to deliver – “don’t go out at night” – I can hear him saying, “and if you do, then don’t say I didn’t warn you (forsooth)!”

Whenever darkness falls in a Shakespearian drama, the characters would be well advised to lock all doors, and lie low under a table with a warming cup of Horlicks. For it is the “very witching time of night” when “churchyards yawn and hell itself breathes out /Contagion to this world”. Probably not the best time to go for a stroll! Nighttime brings fears and frustrations. Many Shakespearian characters find it hard to sleep – “uneasy lies the head that wears a crown” – and once sleep does come, it can bring bad dreams – as is the case for Hermia – “Me thought a serpent ate my heart away / And you sat smiling at his cruel prey”. It is only the “chaste stars” that bear witness to Othello murdering Desdemona – and similarly, Macbeth waits until “half-world/ Nature seems dead” before he enters Duncan’s chamber with murderous intent. It is no coincidence that ‘Hamlet’ opens late at night – a cold, dark, castle rampart – the perfect location and time for a bit of ghost spotting!

Nighttime is also primetime for uninvited guests. “Knock, knock, knock. Who’s there, i’th name of Beelzebub?” The Porter’s speech is interrupted on five occasions by the sound of knocking from outside. Shakespeare builds tension by tapping into a common fear – the midnight caller! Senses spring to attention – fear sets in – and the mind begins to play tricks. Knock, knock, knock – a simple stage effect – but a powerful spooking device – used in thrillers and horror films alike. As is so often the case, Shakespeare showed the way and others followed – here’s T. S. Eliot trying out Shakespeare’s ‘Knock, knock’ routine. Happy haunting.

When you’re alone in the middle of the night and you wake
in a sweat and a hell of a fright
When you’re alone in the middle of the bed and you wake
like someone hit you on the head
You’ve had a cream of a nightmare dream and you’ve got the
Hoo-ha’s coming on you
Hoo hoo hoo
You dreamt you waked up at seven o’clock and it’s foggy and
it’s damp and it’s dawn and it’s dark
And you wait for a knock and the turning of a lock
for you know the hangman’s waiting for you.
And perhaps you’re alive
And perhaps you’re dead
Hoo ha ha
Hoo ha ha
Hoo
Hoo
Hoo
Knock Knock Knock
Knock Knock Knock
Knock
Knock
(from ‘Sweeney Agonistes’ 1926)

If you are in Stratford this weekend pop to the Birthplace and watch our Shakespeare Aloud actors bring some of Shakespeare’s murderous villains to life – and from 5pm enjoy a unique candle-lit performance inside the house itself.

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Author:Nick Walton

Nick Walton is a Lecturer in Shakespeare Studies at The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.
  • http://shakespeare.org.uk Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

    what a fantastically creative thing to do. I’ll bet that was fun to take part in, ad to write ^liz

  • Susanna

    When I was in middle school, one of my teachers wrote a play about a talk show that brings people back from the dead – and of course their first guest was Shakespeare! It was quite an innovative piece – scenes from many of the plays were acted out in relation to Shakespeare’s life – great fun for all of us!

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