Shakespeare’s Most Shocking Moment?

While discussing Emilia’s big final scene over in another post, I thought of a good question.

There’s plenty of killing in Shakespeare’s works.  Macbeth kills Duncan in his sleep, Hamlet kills Polonius (thinking him the king) in front of his mother, Tybalt kills Mercutio (accidentally?) and Romeo kills Tybalt (probably not accidentally).

Which do you feel is Shakespeare’s most shocking moment? The one that you absolutely do not see coming?  Plenty of people die in Macbeth, but I’m not sure if any of the deaths is shocking.  After all, when people aren’t dying or killing, they’re talking about it.  Lot of blood in that one.  The murder of Macduff’s family is scary, but you also know that the murderers have been dispatched, so you see it coming (even if you do see it from between your fingers, underneath your seat).

Mercutio’s death is pretty shocking, no doubt. Once upon a time we talked at length about how, up until this point, Romeo and Juliet is a romantic comedy. And then when the audience is least expecting it? Bang, likeable sidekick, dead. I think in fact that this one is so shocking that it takes a little while to sink in.  There’s still half a play left to go.

Hamlet’s attack on a defenseless arras is certainly up there.  He’s talking to his mom.  He hears a noise.  Thinking it *her husband*, not to mention *his uncle*, and oh by the way, *the frickin king*, he jumps up and without another word blindly stabs him. For a guy that’s spent the entire first half of the play saying “Let’s think this through…” it’s a pretty bold move.

But I think I’m going to give the prize to Iago murdering his wife Emilia right in front of everybody, to shut her up.

You think that we’ve already hit the climax of the play. Othello has
killed his wife, Emilia has discovered the truth, the authorities are
now on the scene and we’ve essentially moved into what I love calling
“the Horatio scene” where we wrap up all the loose ends before we go
home.  Or are we?


O thou dull Moor! that handkerchief thou speak’st of
I found by fortune and did give my husband;
For often, with a solemn earnestness,
More than indeed belong’d to such a trifle,
He begg’d of me to steal it.


Villanous whore!


She give it Cassio! no, alas! I found it,
And I did give’t my husband.


Filth, thou liest!


By heaven, I do not, I do not, gentlemen.
O murderous coxcomb! what should such a fool
Do with so good a woman?


Are there no stones in heaven
But what serve for the thunder?–Precious villain!

He runs at IAGO
IAGO, from behind, stabs EMILIA, and exit


The woman falls; sure, he hath kill’d his wife.

We know that Iago is an evil bastard before this, of course.  But he’s always been the schemer and manipulator. Now he’s in a room filled with the equivalent of a police squad ready to arrest him for his crimes.  Does he just run?  No, he *stabs his wife in front of everyone* first, and then he runs. That is just full on crazy, right there.  Afterward you can argue “Sure, it was always clear he was capable of something like that,” but that’s a world apart from seeing it coming.

I love to read Gratiano’s line as, “WTF, did he just kill his wife?!” like even the characters on stage can’t believe what just happened.

Any other contenders?  Make your case.

11 thoughts on “Shakespeare’s Most Shocking Moment?

  1. I would have to say the blinding of Gloucester in King Lear is one of the most shocking scenes, even when the play is being read. Something out "out, vile jelly!" is so visceral, so grotesque, and so unimaginably violent and inhuman that death seems less cruel.

    But, for me, the prize goes to Titus Andronicus's poor Lavinia and Marcus's horrific relaying to the audience of her bare branches and mouth that is a bubbling fountain of blood. Yes, we know she is going to be raped, but her being maimed was the most shocking moment in Shakespeare I have ever experienced. I don't think I will ever get over it!

  2. I think even outside of the productions, the way it is described is just so intense and unexpected. I saw a production very recently, and it's definitely much more intense than the script. The most wrenching part for me when was Lucius, her brother, took out a handkerchief to wipe the blood from between her legs. That moment, though not in the text) is definitely the most shocking moment I have experienced in productions of Shakespeare.

    But I do believe that both scenes are shocking even just from the text. The way both Gloucester's eyes and Lavinia's rape are described are horrifying in their own right.

  3. Part of me wants to vote for the mob violence in 2 Henry VI, but the trouble is that while it's grotesque and horrible, Shakespeare writes it in a comical way. I can't decide if the juxtaposition makes it more or less shocking, but I'm inclined to go with less — the black humour sort of undercuts the fact that Jack Cade and his followers are wandering around with heads on spikes.

    2H6 also gives us, though, Margaret wandering around with her dead lover's head, which is pretty gruesome, but I don't know how it stacks up for sheer shock value.

    Really, the moments that are leaping to my mind that have stunned the devil out of me while I was sitting in the theatre, even when I knew what was coming, aren't Shakespeare's — they're from his contemporaries — Middleton, Webster, Ford. Those guys could do some shock theatre.

  4. Honestly I'd forgotten about Gloucester's eyes, so I'd definitely agree that that's up there.

    Have to admit, though, that I've never seen a production of Titus. So while I've heard about the carnage, I've never witnessed it. Seen bits and pieces from Taymor's movie, but I think that they're too artsy for their own good.

  5. Wayne Myers says:

    Cass, I know exactly what you mean about graphic shock in the revenge plays–like the stage direction from John Ford's "'Tis Pity She's a Whore": "Enter Giovanni with a heart on a dagger." It's his sister-lover Annabella's heart! Grisly! (Shakespeare never would have done "Enter Sebastian with Viola's heart on a dagger!" (But he might have thought about it.)

    Richard of Gloucester's "Off with his head!" to Hastings in "Richard III" is one of my favorite Shakespeare shock moments. Yes, you know it's coming (although you don't precisely know when and how), but Hasting's shock is still riveting to watch.

    (BTW, I think Iago's killing of his wife was just the inevitable culmination of his long-festering hatred of her.)

  6. Strange Attractor says:

    If we're going for most shocking moment, not necessarily most shocking violence, then some others come to mind.

    For example, in Titus Andronicus, when Aaron starts cooing over the baby, I did not expect that at all!

    Or when Hamlet is making jokes about the dead body as he's carrying it. Perhaps part of why they're so funny is that they are surprising.

  7. Gloucester has gone to extraordinary vicious bloody lengths to become King Richard III. He now has everything he wants. He calls Buckingham, his partner in crime, for what is surely going to be a moment of celebration. So what does he say?

    "Young Edward lives. Think now what I would say."

    Even Buckingham wasn't expecting this. And on some level, even Richard must know how over the top this is, or he wouldn't test Buckingham by making him finish the thought.

  8. Anonymous says:

    Duane, forget the artsy and watch Taymor's Titus. Just wait until you get to the pie scene. Christina's right–when Lavinia is standing on the stump with branches sticking out of her arms, it's almost too horrific to watch.

    Greg from NC

  9. Anonymous says:

    To Shakespearean audiences, Cordelia's death/the French losing the war would've been shocking. The real Cordelia won the war and eventually claimed the throne.

    But personally, I think Titus in general wins this one. The part where they're about to hang the baby shocked me, but then they don't go through with it, so I don't know if it counts.

  10. I think it's got to be the last moments of Lear — both because audiences familiar with Shakespeare's historical sources would not have been anticipating Cordelia's death, and because almost everything else in the last two acts of the play seems to be pointing toward a romance ending. So much about Act Four is all about picking up the pieces of a world that has been shattered and forging a new one: Edgar successfully stages a miracle and saves his father from despair, Lear is restored to sanity and reconciles with Cordelia. And then Edgar wins his trial by combat, the villains get their comeuppance in a spectacular way, and Edmund has a moment of deathbed repentance that looks like it ought to save Cordelia's life. Order restored, justice triumphant. And then — BAM — Shakespeare pulls the rug out from under us.

  11. @Wayne – Even better when you realize that, in that previous scene, when he stabs her, he actually stabs her *in her lady parts*, since he comes back on talking about how "this dagger's point ploughed up her fruitful womb". What an embedded stage direction. Auugggghhhh.

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