How did Shakespeare Celebrate Halloween?

Let me begin by admitting that this post was harder to write than my Christmas post because pre Christian traditions are harder to pin down. In addition, to give you my standard disclaimer that I don’t believe it’s really possible to definitively know how or if Shakespeare celebrated Halloween, but since the history of Halloween is long and fascinating, and since I believe Shakespeare and his plays influenced that history, I feel it’s worth exploring.

Part I: Origins of Halloween

Almost every culture on Earth has a middle fall celebration that calls to mind the bounty of the harvest, and the inevitable approach of winter. Most of our Halloween traditions are based on the ancient European festival of Samhuin.

What is Samhuin?

Over 2,000 years ago, the Celts inhabited much of the British Isles. They believed in many gods and spirits that controlled nature and the seasons. To thank the gods for the harvest the Celts gave them offerings like apples, and threw parties to celebrate the gods’ bounty.

When the Romans conquered the Celts, they co-opted some of their religious practices. For instance the tradition of giving apples as offerings to the Roman goddess Pomona. This tradition of course, evolved into our modern Halloween tradition of bobbing for apples. Honoring the harvest also went hand in hand with darker traditions; ones inspired by fear of death, decay, and evil spirits.

With the Sun dying and the Earth growing cold in late October, cultures like the Celts and the Romans feared that evil fairies and ghosts could cross over into our world. In particular the Celts believed that around the night of October 31st, the veil between the living and the dead was the thinnest.

Samhuinn was a liminal time between our world and the Otherworld. It’s a night when the souls of dead loved ones as well as spirits and fairies – the aos sí in Irish mythology and aes sídhe or sìth in Scottish mythology – could come through to visit. Deceased family members were honoured with seats at the evening feast, and offerings of milk and baked goods were left at the front door for the Fairies. Source:

At some point people decided to dress up as the spirits to ward them off, and this evolved into our modern day trick or treating.

These traditions did not die once England became Christian, (after it was conquered by the Romans), they simply translated into a different form. Halloween actually translates as “All Hallows Eve, a Catholic celebration of of dressing up as pagan spirits and giving offerings of the harvest to honor Catholic saints as well as departed love ones.

Part II: What might Shakespeare have done?

Although Shakespeare never directly mentions Halloween, he lived in a world that kept many of these folk traditions alive. Shakespeare was the grandson of a farmer and his father was a devout Catholic, so he probably was brought up in these ancient Halloween traditions. He probably would have attended some kind of harvest festival to celebrate the bounty of the summer, and might have put food out for his departed family members.

Samhain is still heralded by the baking of kornigou, cakes baked in the shape of antlers to commemorate the god of winter shedding his ‘cuckold’ horns as he returns to his kingdom in the otherworld. On the Isle of Man in the Irish sea, the Manx celebrate Hop-tu-Naa, which is a celebration of the original New Year’s Eve and children dress as scary beings, carry turnips and go from home to home asking for sweets or money. Source:

Call me a softie but I really like the idea of Shakespeare baking treats like soul cakes for neighborhood kids or telling scary stories about a bonfire. The kornigou is more commonly known as the Soul Cake, and it’s still popular today. It’s even been immortalized in song: You can even make it yourself:

Another tradition was dancing around ancient Celtic burial mounds. According to tradition, these mounds were home to spirits and Fairies, and could be portals to the land of the dead. In Irish folklore, poets and storytellers had the power to pass between these two realms. Maybe Shakespeare himself visited such a mound in his youth and was inspired to write about the fairy queen Titania and the hobgoblin Robin Goodfellow. Archeologists are still learning about these ancient mounds today:


The most tantalizing ancient Halloween tradition is mumming, a kind of amateur theater practiced by the ancient Celts. Like modern Sunday school plays the plays were a religious ritual designed goal to honor the gods and the harvest.

Mumming, a type of folk play, was used to tell traditional Samhuinn stories about battles or the winter goddess Cailleach (meaning “old hag”), who began winter by washing her hair in the whirlpool of Corryvreck.

For a modern example of this of these traditions you can look at the Edinburgh fire festival which preserves the kind of mumming that the Celts might have done on Samhuin and Shakespeare might have seen. It’s highly ritualistic, immersive, and the characters have spooky similarities to some of Shakespeare’s plays.

To give you an idea of how mumming might have influenced Shakespeare, watch this trailer for the 2017 Edinburgh Fire Festival:

What you can see in the trailer:

1. Keening- the wild women screaming as a way to lament, honor, and guide the dead. Characters like Constance in King John have many similar qualities.

2. The fight between the Summer King and the Winter Lord. Many Celtic stories dramatize the change of seasons from summer to winter as a battle. Even the duel between King Arthur and his young son Mordred could be seen in this context. In another interesting interpretation, Jennifer Lee Carroll in her book Haunt Me Still, interprets this mummers play as a pagan retelling of the story of Macbeth.

3. You can see brightly colored figures some designed to honor the changing of the seasons, and wild, animalistic people, presumably playing the roles of the Fairies, goblins, or other creatures that appear on Samhuin. It’s not much of a stretch to see these figures as the Fairies of Midsummer Night’s Dream, or the witches of Macbeth.

Part III: What did Shakespeare mention about Halloween?

Ghosts appear in five of Shakespeare’s plays. We see reference to all kinds of Fairies, goblins, and spirits and even a couple times people dressing up to ward off evil. In Titus Andronicus, the queen of the Goths disguises herself and her sons as spirits of revenge and go to Titus’ house to torment him, and then the old man Titus tricking them into coming to his house, where he takes his revenge.

One Shakespeare play that I think perfectly encapsulates the Halloween traditions of the English countryside is Merry Wives Of Windsor, specifically the scene in which Falstaff is tormented by a ghost story.

In the play, the fat, drunk knight Sir John Falstaff has been trying to seduce two married women, Mistress Page and Mistress Ford. Page devises a plan to scare and humiliate Falstaff, by dressing up her husband as the terrifying ghost of Herne the Hunter:


• There is an old tale goes that Herne the hunter,

Sometime a keeper here in Windsor forest,

Doth all the winter-time, at still midnight,

Walk round about an oak, with great ragg’d horns;

And there he blasts the tree and takes the cattle

And makes milch-kine yield blood and shakes a chain

In a most hideous and dreadful manner:

You have heard of such a spirit, and well you know

The superstitious idle-headed eld

Received and did deliver to our age

This tale of Herne the hunter for a truth.

Herne the Hunter is a real medieval legend about a man who was hanged for poaching deer in Windsor park and now haunts the forest with horns on his head. Not only does Master Ford dress as Herne, The witty housewives dress the neighborhood children like Fairies and instruct them to pinch the fat knight and burn him with lit candles. Essentially this scene is a Shakespearean trick or treating moment with a ghost story to boot. Plus as Mistress Page mentioned, the ghost haunts Windsor towards the the oncoming of Winter, so it’s not entirely unlikely that it would be that this scene was originally played around the time of Halloween.

How did Shakespeare contribute?

Scholars describe Shakespeare’s mind like a magpie, taking myths, legends, history, and books to come up with his own plays. As you have seen, the ancient traditions of Halloween had a powerful effect on Shakespeare’s plays. But, did he contribute to those traditions himself? I would say yes in a big way. First of all the image of Hamlet holding a skull has inspired many other Halloween images:

David Tennant in Hamlet, RSC 2008
Jack Skellington in The Nightmare Before Christmas, 1993.

But I think Shakespeare’s greatest contribution to how we celebrate Halloween are centered within the witches of Macbeth.

Though Shakespeare by no means invented the concept of witchcraft, he did popularize the idea of the wicked witch, and helped form our modern view of what a witch is. The image he created in Macbeth

As you’ve seen, Shakespeare conjured the witches in Macbeth by infusing Celtic traditions like the wise woman with her chants and her cauldron, and infused her with the 17th century fear of witchcraft. Remember that Shakespeare’s patron King James was terrified of witchcraft and believed that he might be targeted by demonic forces. Shakespeare masterfully created some frightening witches that inspire Macbeth to do some terrible deeds, but adamantly deny that any harm will come to the English king, prophesying his bloodline will “Stretch out to the crack of doom.”

More than that, I would argue that the modern wicked witch would be all but silent without Shakespeare. When you think of what a witch might say, besides a series of high pitched cackling, what do you think of? Probably you think of this:

Or this:

Shakespeare’s bizarre and cryptic language helped inspire countless other interpretations of witches, and thus, a way for audiences to deal with the temptations that lurk in our hearts.

In conclusion, we don’t know how Shakespeare celebrated Halloween or even if he did to begin with; Halloween and Shakespeare’s life are both frought with mystery and legend, but one thing is dead certain; Halloween would not be the same without him. He absorbed the ancient rituals of the Celts and Romans and crafted some modern Halloween ideas and images that endure to this day.


Teaching Titus through creepy cooking

Titus Andronicus is one of the most bloody, disgusting plays in Shakespeare. As this infographic from the Royal Shakespeare Company shows, there are tons of deaths and some of them are even the result of cannibalism!

One way to capture the macabre nature of this play in the classroom, (which some scholars see as a horror comedy), is to characterize it through cooking, after all, revenge is a dish best served cold.

Me in costume as Titus Androgynous, a crazy cooking show host who butchers two people in the same manner as Titus

So here are some ghoulish gourmet dishes and revolting recipes that you can share with your students to help them get into this tragic tale of violence, revenge, and cooking:

Idea 1: recipe cards

Design a recipe card like the ones in cooking magazines based on Titus speech where he murders Chiron and Demetrius

Idea 2: Create a menu that summarizes the play:

Act I:

Starter: Caesar Salad, toad in the hole

As the play begins, Caesar has died and Saturnine wants to devour his father’s empire. Enjoy this light salad in anticipation of far more bloody feasts to come.

Act II Scene 3: Breakfast:

Lamb Benedict

Lamb Benedict recipe I found on Reddit

While on an early morning hunting trip, Bassianus is slaughtered like a lamb by his own nephews. Enjoy this sweet treachery with a golden egg in the hole.

Act II, Scene 4: Main course:

Roast venison with all the trimmings

“As the deer that hath some unrecuring wound.”

“She was washed and cut and trimmed.”

Titus compares his daughter to a deer or welkin, and in the play’s most barbaric scene, the emperor’s sons ravish her and cut out her tongue. They enjoy the cruel rape and mutilation just like two starving lions enjoying their prey.

Act V:

Just desserts: people pot pie.

“More stern and bloody than the centaur’s feast,” A truly unforgettable dessert for this feast of carnage. The cook, Titus, reinvents the term rich food by cooking two emperor’s sons into pies.

Served cold, like revenge!

“Set him breast deep in Earth and famish him.”

Idea 3: Real Titus foods inspired by my favorite Halloween diy recipes

1. Lavinia’s tongue and hands

• horrific Halloween punch with ice cold hand cubes:

• Bloody lady fingers

2. Titus hand: Hot dog fingers for Titus’ hand.

Or this grisly appetizer: cheese hand in prosciutto


People Pies:

There are many horrific pie recipes on the internet, but for a busy teacher on a budget, I’m adapting this one from the YouTube channel Threadbanger: Don’t show this video to your students because there’s far too much cursing. That said this recipe is very cheap and it’s easy. He used only store bought items and no fancy cooking techniques, which means if you choose to bake it as a classroom activity, even your students can help make it. Here are some tips from the video to get the most horrible ppeople pie you can make:

• Use red filling like cherry or strawberry for filling.

• Use excess dough for a nose.

• Cut out little pieces of apple to make teeth

• Cut holes for the eyes and mouth

• The bloodier, the better!

Bone appetit!

Scavenger Hunt For Shakespeare’s Birthday!

I designed this on an app called “GooseChase”, appropriate since Shakespeare invented the term!

If you click on the link, you can do a great scavenger hunt where you upload pictures or answer trivia questions for points, and of course they are all related to Shakespeare. If you have the app on your phone, search for Shakespeare Birthday Scavenger Hunt and enter the code: 2BON2B (Get it, to be or not to be)! You can also use the code NLEGVM. Let me know if you like it or if you cannot access the link.

Happy Hunting!

Posts for Black History Month

I realize that Black History Month is nearly over, but before it completely wanes, I would like to give a shoutout to a wonderful article I read about famous black Shakespearean actors, and to link to a few of my old posts that detailed how Shakespeare approaches the issue of race. Enjoy:

  1. Shakespeare In Action (blog): “Celebrate Black History Month- Black Actors In Shakespearean Roles:” Retrieved 2/27/19 from:
  2. Play Of the Month: Othello, the Moor Of Venice
  3. Was Shakespeare Racist?

How President Trump Is Like Richard III

  • Happy President’s Day Everyone!
  • Since it’s now two years into the Trump presidency I thought I would follow up on my post I wrote when he was a candidate, and focus instead on his actions as president. Shakespeare’s Richard changes almost immediately once the crown is set on his head in the middle of the play, and the rest of his short reign is plagued with the exhaustive process of keeping it on his head, (and by extension, keeping his head on his shoulders). My main argument is that Trump’s presidency has steadily skirted more and more towards authoritarianism through his actions and his rhetoric, much the same way Richard became more like a dictator as soon as he became king. Moreover, Trump, Shakespeare’s Richard and even the historical king Richard have been distorted beyond recognition because of fake news, but not the kind you might expect.
  • Part I Before the Throne

    As I have written before, Richard claims the throne by manipulating everyone in the British political machine- stoking hatred among the nobles, while trying to appear as a pious, humble man to the common people. Because of his years on reality television and experience as a businessman, even I must admit Trump has a gift at manipulating people’s perceptions and playing the part of a man of the people:

      If you watch Trump in interviews, he often closes his remarks with “believe me,” Richard also understands the power of oaths and pretends to speak like a plain blunt man, claiming that the British nobles hate him because he ‘tells it like it is’:
  • Cannot a plain man live and think no harm? But his simple truth must be abused by silken, sly, insinuating jacks!- Richard III, Act I, Scene iii

    As for Trump, even though he is a privileged billionaire with inherited wealth, he pretends to be an unpretentious, unapologetic common man, abused by the ‘mainstream media’ and his political opponents.

    Richard is also a fan of the moral equivalence argument, (also known as whataboutism). He tries to offset his own murders by mentioning other people and their misdeeds during the Wars Of The Roses, making them seem as bad or worse than Richard:

  • Let me put in your mind if you forget what you have been ere this and what you are, withal what I have been and what I am. RIII Act I, Scene iii.
  • Many have pointed out that both Trump and Fox News frequently use Whatsboutism to discredit their opponents and to shrug off their own guilt. It is also a tactic frequently used in former Soviet Union propaganda:
  • My final comparison of the rhetoric between Trump and Shakespeare’s Richard is that both men are actors, players, or if you like, hypocrites. Trump actually tweeted how he sees each speech he makes as a tailor-made performance, while Richard praises his own ability to dissemble and equivocate to the skies:
  • Part II: The descent

  • Richard the third starts out the play as a evil underdog. Yes he kills people to gain the throne, but his deformity makes him seem sympathetic, and the fact that his victims have already killed plenty of people in the Wars of the Roses, gets him on our side. Once he’s crowned however, Richard step by step becomes more and more like an authoritarian dictator
  • Authoritarianism

    What is an authoritarian? Basically an authoritarian regime concentrates power into the hands of one person, and tries to hold onto power by:

    1. Projecting strength.

    2. Demonizing opponents, both real and imagined.

    3. Destroying institutions.

    From the moment the crown is placed on his head, Richard starts to see threats to his power, and uses all his newfound resources to destroy every each and every threat. First he kills his nephews, (the legitimate heirs to the throne), then he kills his wife, so that he can remarry a princess to try and consolidate his power. And finally, when he faces his greatest threat the armies of Henry tutor Earl of Richmond, Richard goes full on dictator, calling himself a tower of strength, demonizing Richmond as a foreigner, and claiming that his soldiers will rape the English wives and daughters.

    Still from Ian McKellen’s film version of Richard III, 1995

    Trump is guilty of every one of these authoritarian strongman habits. He tries to convince people he is strong both physically and politically by having photo ops with doctors who claim that he is “the healthiest president ever”. He also attempted to project strength by misrepresenting the size of the crowds at his inauguration (which was a flat out lie), Furthermore, Trump demanded a military parade to emulate autocratic governments like North Korea. Then there’s his ultimate misguided show of American strength: the wall, which even Fox News has calculated will cost $25 billion dollars at least, and will do little to nothing to stop the flow of drugs and illegal immigration.

    Trump also has from the beginning waged war on the Internet against any and all who oppose him. Let us not forget that Fox News is a 24 hour a day propaganda machine that exists almost entirely to condemn anyone who opposes the president and his agendas. And in terms of destroying institutions, his constant claims of “fake news“ seeks to destabilize the Free Press. America’s finding fathers guaranteed free press with the knowledge that if the government is corrupt, the only way the public can fight back is through the knowledge provided by a free and Independent press. But if the media is the enemy, we have no one to listen to except Trump himself.

  • Another authoritarian habit shared by Trump and Richard is by firing (or murdering anyone who gets in his way. Trump’s reckless behavior appointing and then firing people to his cabinet is such a joke, that the Washington Post has compiled a list of everyone that Trump has fired, so far:
  • Richard is even more comically trigger happy than Trump. Look at this scene where in less than 10 minutes, he sends a murderer to kill his nephews, plots to murder his wife and marry his niece, and completely throws off the Duke of Buckingham, his only supporter on his way to the crown!

    Richard’s authoritarian tactics actually spring from one of the best political theorists of the renaissance, unfortunately it was Machiavelli. Niccolo Machiavelli saw how the crown heads of Italy consolidated power through violence and intimidation, and he came to realize that the power behind the throne is much less to do with divine right or royal bloodline, and more with who can play the game and project power and strength. In Shakespeare’s Henry the Sixth Part III, Richard brags that in his quest to the good for the crown he will send Machiavelli to school:

    Portrait of Machiavelli by Sandi DiTito, c. 1650

    I unfortunately don’t have enough time to get into the connections between Machiavelli, Richard, and Trump. Suffice it to say that all three advocate rule by fear and have no interest in preserving democracy. Below are some quotes and articles that I have collected about Machiavelli and his connection to Shakespeare and Trump:

    Part III: Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story

    Sadly, the ultimate similarity between Shakespeare’s Richard III, the real King Richard, and Trump is that the actual human has been swallowed up by a narrative. Even though most of what Trump says is a lie, to his supporters he is the one person who ‘tells it like it is,’ not because they believe him, but because they want to believe in the narrative he constructs.

    Not only are his lies compelling, Trump himself has become a powerful symbol to the disenfranchised that the system is broken and corrupt, so why not vote for someone like him? He brands himself as a ‘plain blunt man’ who isn’t afraid to offend or criticize people in power, even though he is much worse than they are at running the government. According to the testimony of his former lawyer Michael Cohen, Trump described his own campaign as the ” The greatest infomercial in political history.” His campaign was from the start, a scam, where the ultimate con man told people he was going to fix healthcare, fix the immigrants coming into the country, and fix everything they didn’t like about America.

    Trump and Richard exploit what you and I want to believe. A New York Times article from 2016 made an interesting comparison between Trump’s odious political persona and that of one of the “heels” or bad guys in professional wrestling. These characters are unrepentantly evil, and love to stir up anger in the crowd, and everyone knows that their every word and action is fake, but they buy into the story. This kind of suspension of disbelief is of course, the central guiding principle of theater itself, and arguably Shakespeare created a villain who would make a very effective wrestling heel.

    The real Richard’s devolution from a historical king into a villainous archetype is more tragic, but just as powerful. The lies that the Tudor chronicles told about him were more compelling and politically convenient than the truth, and Shakespeare’s genius just further distanced us from caring what the real man was like. In essence, Shakespeare was inventing fake news far before Trump was railing about it. Just as we as an audience are complicit in the pretend crimes of a fake king when we watch the play, we are also complicit in perpetuating a comfortable simplistic story of the 15th century War of the Roses king Richard Plantagenet.

    Trump and Richard show that history can be distorted when we focus less on what is really happening and more on what we want to see. More people wanted to believe his lies than Hillary Clinton’s facts, the same way people were forced to believe the Tudor lies instead of the real truth of what happened from 1483-1485. Likewise Shakespeare’s Richard exploits people’s fear, greed, and gullibility to gain power for himself, but this is his only talent; eventually his supporters lose faith in him, his enemies mobilize, and he is taken from power.

    New York Times Review: Richard III with a teenage twist

    I have written before that Shakespeare has a timeless appeal and I have pointed out that some of his anti-hero characters like Malvolio can be seen as insightful looks at teenage bullying. This production uses the play Richard III To examine bullying, cliques, and all the timeless pain of growing up.

    What to Get A Shakespeare Nerd For Christmas

    Merry Christmas Eve Eve. If you’re reading this as I post it, there’s a Shakespearean nerd in your life and your wits are about to turn trying to find a gift. I’ve already written about printed editions of Shakespeare and educational apps, so you can consult those if that’s what you are looking for. Now I’m covering the kinds of stuff that die hard Shakespeare fans will kill a king and marry with his brother for, basically nerdy swag that no Shakespearean fanatics should be without!

    img_0615-1For anyone: Immortal This company is very special to me. If you’ve seen any of my Play Of the Month posts, you’ve seen the gorgeous artwork for Shakespeare’s plays by the artist Elizabeth Schuch. Not only do I love her work, my wife and I put her prints on the decor for our wedding day, and wrapped some of my presents in wrapping paper with her designs on it. If you go to her website, she sells Shakespearean art printed on and inspired by Shakespeare’s plays on everything from tapestries to clothes to iPhone cases. I highly recommend checking her work out, and patronizing it as much as possible: 


    I also want to give a shout out to the website Good Tickle Brain, a weekly Shakespearean comic that satirizes the Bard’s work with love. I feel the best way to introduce anyone, young or old to Shakespeare is through a healthy dose of satire and parody. Mya Gosling loves Shakespeare and it comes through in her simple, funny retellings of his plays. If you go to their shop (spelled Shoppe to appeal to nerds like me), you can get some of her comic books, funny T-shirts, and a few educational posters for teachers too:

    Bard Game


    1. The Bard game This is the Monopoly for Shakespeare Nerds- each player pretends to be a theater manager putting on plays in real locations where Shakespeare’s company toured during his lifetime. You make money by reciting speeches or improvising one in the Shakespearean style, or by answering Shakespearean trivia questions. A must-have for any Twelfth Night Party! Review of the game: 
    2. Bards Dispense ProfanityBards against humanityMost people know the raunchy card game where you try to encapsulate a disgusting word or phrase with a description written on your card. Well, there’s a Shakespeare version too! It makes sense that someone made a card game inspired by the king of the Elizabethan put-downs, (and the inventor of one or two modern curse words!)
    3. Wine 🍷 Though I was unable to find actual wine with Shakespeare’s name on it, practically every other part of the wine drinking experience has been branded with Shakespeare- wine bags, glasses, corks and bottle stoppers, and even whole bars! If you spend a few minutes looking online, you can find tons of Shakespearean wine merch. By the way, here’s a convenient list of quotes Shakespeare wrote about alcohol: 
    4. T shirts 👕

    Stocking stuffers

    1. Pen and ink There’s a lot of good versions of pen and ink with Shakespeare’s name on them. Imagine the fun you can have writing sonnets with your own Shakespearean pen and ink!
    2. Shakespearean Comic Books. I’ve written reviews about some of these books and I’m very impressed by the artwork and the clever adaptations. Click here to read my review of the Romeo and Juliet Comic.


      1. Pop-Up Shakespeare by the writers of the Reduced Shakespeare Company. I’m a huge fan of The Reduced Shakespeare Company and they have created an amazing new popup book for kids of the entire Shakespearean cannon!
      1. Finger puppetsShakespearean finger puppets A great way to engage kids with Shakespeare is to act out abbreviated versions of the plays, and I think this is a great medium with which to do it! 
      1. William Shakespeare and The Globe book 📖This was one of my favorite books growing up. It tells the story of Shakespeare’s life and work, with special attention to the creation of the Globe Theater in 1599. It’s gorgeously illustrated and a great read for kids!
      1. Barbie and Ken as Romeo and Juliet. Ok, so this is a bit of a stretch, but hey, I’d get it for my daughter. R&J Barbie
      1. MND Board BookBoard books 📖 Yes, even toddlers can get into Shakespeare. I actually read this to my daughter a lot. It’s not the story of the play, but it does introduce some of the characters and famous lines which can help a child to become familiar with Shakespeare.
      1. King Of Shadows
      1. Cover of “King Of Shadows,” an excellent Young adult novel for anyone who loves Shakespeare.
      1. King 👑 Of shadows (Ages 8-12) This is an excellent young adult novel that teaches a lot about Shakespeare’s theater and the time period in which he lived. For a complete review, click here: 

    So there are some gift ideas for the Shakespeare nerd in your life. Merry Christmas!