Number 1

Top 10 scariest moments in Shakespeare: number 1

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27.10.2020

Our brave expert panel faced their fears to select the most hair-raising moments in Shakespeare. Now it’s time to hide behind your couch as we reveal the scariest of them all.

Compiled by Andy McLean

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1. The blinding of Gloucester

(King Lear)

When we asked our expert panel to name the scariest moments in Shakespeare, there was one play that kept creeping into the conversation. It wasn’t a play with an angry sorcerer, a killer bear, a bloodthirsty soldier, a disastrous duel or a spooky soothsayer.

It was King Lear.

It’s a play that is especially disconcerting in 2020, as author Brendan P Kelso pointed out: “King Lear splitting his kingdom in three is pretty brutal. As Kent calls it: scary times are guaranteed from that moment onward! When a country gets divided, civil war is soon to follow.”

And the scariest moment in this most scary of plays?

Halfway through King Lear, in just three words, Shakespeare crafts the most graphic and grisly of orders: Out, vile jelly.

Actor and writer Kate Mulvany picks up the story: “We’ve already seen the power-hungry couple Regan and Cornwall tie the old man to a chair, pluck hairs from his beard and remove one of his eyes, but when those words come: Out, vile jelly, it just fills me with chills.

“Cornwall speaking to the eyeball as he rips it from a sweet old man’s head is – for me – the cruelest and goriest moment in Shakespeare. Strangely enough, it is also one of the only scenes of extreme violence that Shakespeare wrote to be seen onstage, in full view – not just news that a messenger brings. This makes it all the more horrific as we follow poor Gloucester, wandering the world helplessly after we have witnessed the horrific attack that has left him blind. It somehow makes us more complicit in the events…and that, too, is terrifying.”

Bell Shakespeare Artistic Director Peter Evans adds: “This is one of the cruelest scenes in theatre. Shocking every time one sees it performed. The complete breakdown of a society Shakespeare charts in this remarkable play culminates in a series of horrific scenes, none more so than the blinding of Gloucester. Regan regards Gloucester as an uncle figure at the beginning but by the middle of the play she is mocking him and taunting him and egging her husband on in this horrendous torture.”

The Shakespeare For Kids book series by Brendan P Kelso is available online, including King Lear For Kids.

Actor and writer Kate Mulvany shares her colourful experiences of acting Shakespeare in Bell Shakespeare’s Speak The Speech podcast.

Read Bell Shakespeare’s Artistic Director, Peter Evans, musing on his favourite moments in Shakespeare in his Were I Human blog.

Read more

Read about numbers 10, 9 and 8 in our countdown of Scariest Moments in Shakespeare

Read about numbers 7, 6 and 5 in our countdown of Scariest Moments in Shakespeare

Read about numbers 4, 3 and 2 in our countdown of Scariest Moments in Shakespeare

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