Tag Archives: William Shakespeare

Three Witches for Halloween

Henry Fuseli, a Swiss artist, painted “The Three Witches” from Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” in 1782. They look surprisingly modern to me. They look like they know unspeakable things, and their mouths are set as though they’re not about to tell all they know. I always think of Shakespeare’s three “weird sisters” as sort of endearingly eccentric mumblers, but these three look like they mean business. 

In theater circles, this play is usually called “the Scottish play.” There’s a superstition that saying the actual title inside a theater, except as necessary in performance of the play, invokes a curse. Terrible things will happen.

The painting is in the European collection at the Huntington Museum and Gardens in Pasadena. I think it’s pretty scary, especially after reading that since the play was written, many people have believed that it incorporates actual supernatural incantations used by actual witches. Speaking the words out loud is said to invoke real spells and curses. (Cue thunder and lightning).

The inscription on the frame is in Greek. It’s a quotation from the ancient playwright Aeschylus: “Not women, but Gorgons I call them.”

Who are Gorgons? They are Medusa and her sisters, monsters whose glance turns men to stone. The Medusa painting above is by Caravaggio, around 1593-1610. It’s in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy. (The image is in the public domain). OK, if I suddenly had snakes instead of hair, I’d scare myself to death before I turned anybody to stone. Just saying. 

No doubt there are many other images of Shakespeare’s witches. I’ll close with one painted by an American artist, William Rimmer, in 1850. The weird sisters here have called up some kind of apparition.

I expect to see all kinds of apparitions (wanting candy) on Halloween. Me? I was Cleopatra for this year’s youth group Halloween party. (I could have carried some kind of snake, come to think of it).

But it’s chilly out. For the Halloween Stroll tonight in my small town, when traffic is blocked on the main drag and everybody turns out in costume, I might go with an older outfit: Crazy Cat Lady. Some people would say it’s not a costume: it’s what I really am. Anyway, it features a comfy chenille bathrobe. Happy Halloween!

Happy Birthday, Dear William!


“Chandos” portrait, thought to be William Shakespeare, circa 1610, National Portrait Gallery, Public Domain

In honor of William Shakespeare’s 400th birthday, I’m revisiting an old post about one of my many treasured Shakespeare experiences.

Some years ago, I found myself with a lot of Frequent Flyer miles that were about to expire.  No one was free to travel with me.  So I treated myself to a solo trip to England.  I decided to see as much live theater as I possibly could. In the course of two weeks, I saw 18 plays.  Some days I doubled up and took in a matinee plus an evening performance.  I saw plays at grand theaters, in the London equivalent of “Off-Broadway,” and in tiny rooms above pubs.

At that time, to get to Stratford-upon-Avon, I had to take a train from London, then transfer to a bus.  (Now, there is a convenient train that goes all the way to Stratford).  I had dreamed for years of seeing the Royal Shakespeare Company in their home theater, the Swan. One evening, I saw a very fine production of a Shakespeare play with the actors in modern dress.  Which play, you might ask?  I think it was Romeo and Juliet, but I can’t be sure. (On the train, I met a woman who had saved the program from every theater performance she had ever attended.  Although she was a theater professor, I thought that was a little obsessive.  Now I wouldn’t mind having all my programs).


The Dirty Duck pub, Stratford-upon-Avon, photo by Lindsay Dearing, Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike 2.0 Generic

The next morning, I went to the bus stop for the trip back to London.  Just outside The Dirty Duck, the pub still frequented by theater folk and tourists alike, I spotted an actor I had seen the evening before.  I stopped and complimented him on his performance.  He seemed delighted to be recognized; he had only a medium-sized part.  I’m thinking maybe he played Juliet’s father. I know how much talent and hard work it takes for any actor to get even a non-speaking, spear-carrying part in the Royal Shakespeare Company. I did remember his performance, I thought he stood out in the character, and told him so.  He thanked me graciously.  Just then, the bus pulled up and I got on.

The bus was about to pull away from the curb when the actor jumped up the steps with a great theatrical flourish. He stood beside the driver, peering down the aisle at all the passengers.  “I am looking for a LADY,” he intoned, in his best Shakespearean elocution.  He spotted me and moved up the aisle toward me.  He took my hand, bowed low with a great stage flourish, kissed my hand, and made a great show of presenting me with a perfectly ripened peach.  Everyone on the bus applauded, he took a very grand bow, and he was off with a jaunty wave.


Like all artists, actors pursue their passion even though they know they are very unlikely to gain riches or fame. I wish I could remember the name of this actor, who shared a magical personal moment with me and went out of his way to entertain a busload of non-paying strangers.  Did all this happen 26 years ago?  Yes, it did.  Travel memories are lifelong!

I’m off to England, and looking forward to seeing a play in the Globe Theatre in London. Photos to follow. Thank you, Mr. Shakespeare!

Julius Caesar and the Ides of March

In the midst of the most turbulent American political season in decades, I recently re-read Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar. His source was mostly the historian Plutarch. The play is still relevant, and still illuminating on the subjects of loyalty to others versus loyalty to country, honest differences of political opinion, the uses and abuses of power, and whether and when violence is justified. And because it’s Shakespeare, every word is memorable. In history and in the play, Julius Caesar meets a bloody end.  But  Shakespeare gave him some memorable lines before he went down.  In the play, contemplating his risks, Julius Caesar says, “Cowards die may times before their deaths; the valiant never taste of death but once.”

This day, the 15th of March in year 44 B.C., did not work out well for Julius Caesar.  According to the historian Plutarch, a fortune-teller warned Caesar that something terrible would happen to him before the “Ides of March.”  There were other warnings, too:  a graphically violent dream by Caesar’s worried wife Calphurnia, men seemingly walking around on fire in the marketplace, a lion wandering the streets. Confident (or foolhardy) fellow that Julius Caesar was, he laughed at the portents and predictions. He even gloated, as he made his way to the Roman Senate on that morning.  When he reached the Theater of Pompey, where Senate sessions were being temporarily held, he figured he was home free.  But a lethal circle of assassins awaited him, knives concealed under their togas. Calphurnia’s nightmare came horribly true.

"Death of Caesar," 1798, VIncenzo Camuccini, public domain

“Death of Caesar,” 1798, Vincenzo Camuccini, public domain

Julius Caesar’s death marked the end of the Roman Republic and the beginning of fierce civil wars that eventually led to the formation of the Roman Empire–a period that was stable, but definitely not democratic. Julius Caesar had already more or less ended the Republic:  at the height of his power, he had named himself “Imperator.”

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Could Caesar have avoided his violent end? Given his personality and supreme self-confidence, he probably could not. He had refused to resign when the Senate politely requested that he step down, and with one of his legions he had defiantly crossed the Rubicon River into Italy.  That was strictly forbidden. Military conquest was for the frontiers. Rome was for reasoned debate among civilized men.  Ever since Julius Caesar’s audacious and risky march across that border river, the expression “crossing the Rubicon” has meant a fateful and irreversible action. There was no turning back, for Caesar or for Rome.

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Looking back over the centuries, it appears that the common people loved Julius Caesar for his flamboyance and for the military glory he had brought home to Rome. But his aristocratic peers saw only danger ahead. They decided that Caesar had to go. Once he was safely dead and out of the way, his heir, Octavius, obligingly made Julius Caesar a god. No danger there, and the move placated the restive common people.


Today, the Roman Forum is a haunting place to wander, pondering the ups and downs of history. When I visited, I bought a book with clear overlays which shows how the various buildings must once have looked back in the day.  But even without a visual aid, it is not hard to imagine Julius Caesar and his entourage making his way through the Forum on his way to the Senate session on that fateful day, the Ides of March in 44 B.C.

Join me next time for more explorations into the art and history of Europe!