Introducing Shakespeare’s Ghosts

Tis now the very witching time of night,
When churchyards yawn and hell itself breathes out
Contagion to this world.    
Hamlet Act 3, Scene 2

Happy Halloween to you, my special Groundling. What better day to introduce you to Shakespeare’s ghosts! You might not know it, but Shakespeare changed how we view ghosts in literature, more specifically, how they were viewed in theater first, and that changed interaction between literary figures and the spirit world.

Before Shakespeare, ghosts were mentioned, pointed to, referred to, and used as props, but rarely were they characters in their own right. Occasionally they moaned or wept, but most often than not, were little more than specters in a dark corner.  Shakespeare rattled (pun intended) the theater when he introduced the world to spirits with agency. His ghosts had purpose and voiced opinions and warnings. In many of his plays in which ghosts appeared they were the catalyst for action, or harbingers of doom.

As you read the plays keep in mind that this was a time when even the King of England & Scotland James I, believed in witches and evil spirits. James, ever wary of witches wrote a book about witchcraft, Daemonologie.  The book describe witches, their practices, and how to spot one. The King goes so far as to  warn about wives who dabble in charms for healing purposes.

“I mean by such kind of charms as commonly daft wives use, for healing of forspoken [bewitched] goods, for preserving them from evil eyes, by knitting . . . sundry kinds of herbs to the hair or tails of the goods; by curing the worm, by stemming of blood, by healing of horse-crooks, . . . or doing of such like innumerable things by words, without applying anything meet to the part offended, as mediciners do”.

Though the King and population as a whole, believed in evil spirits, they spent far less time thinking about ghosts as we do in the modern age. In fact, many of Shakespeare’s ghost, including his most famous ghost of King Hamlet, are exhibit Catholic, Protestant, and some pagan characteristics. Shakespeare had to pull material from various sources simply because there were no strong ideas about ghosts. This makes Shakespeare’s ghosts all that more interesting to us. So here goes, let’s jump right in and introduce ourselves to some of his more famous ghosts!

King Hamlet

Hamlet: Hamlet Senior

Hamlet Speak; I am bound to hear.
Ghost So art thou to revenge, when thou shalt hear.
Hamlet What?
Ghost I am thy father’s spirit.

We all know Hamlet is a play about a young man whose inability to act leads to tragic consequences. There are countless books about Hamlet’s state of mind and arguments over whether this is a man “who cannot make up his mind”, but forgotten sometimes in all of this noise is why Hamlet cannot bring himself to act.

Hamlet senior, the ghost who wants revenge, may or may not be what he claims to be and this “be or not be” is the very reason Hamlet hesitates to bring his uncle to justice. Is the ghost a wondering spirit who cannot rest until he has his revenge, a demon that seeks to mess with the young prince’s life or is he a figment of Hamlet’s already unstable mind? We could devote an entire post to this question, but for now let’s remember, Hamlet doesn’t decide to act until he is convinced that the ghost is his father and even then hesitates to out his uncle. And because of his hesitation to act the castle of Elsinore may now have more ghostly inhabitants than living ones.

Banquo comes to dinner

Macbeth: Banquo

Banquo’s ghost enters the room and sits in Macbeth’s chair
Macbeth The table’s full.
Lennox Here is a place reserved, sir.
Macbeth Where?
Lennox Here, my good lord. What is’t that moves your highness?
Macbeth Which of you have done this?
Lords What, my good lord?
Macbeth Thou canst not say I did it; never shake they gory locks at me.

Though the Ghost of Banquo does not speak out-loud,  his presence speaks volumes. Banquo was an invited guest but does not arrive in body. He arrives in spirit just after being killed on the oder of Macbeth. This may be the world’s first Gothic ghost story!

Macbeth is responsible for quite a few deaths, but it is Banquo’s that seemingly pushes him over the edge. If Banquo was modeled on earlier ghostly plot devices he would served as a reminder to the audience that Macbeth is not a sympathetic character, but the audience is already beginning to come to grips with the horrors that Macbeth is willing to inflict on those around him. Shakespeare masterfully uses this ghostly specter to show the audience the effects of said horrors that are having an effect on Macbeth’s mind.

Richard III: Everyone Richard killed or was in some or another responsible for or connected to.

Eleven ghosts cross the stage and speak to Richard the night before the battle of Bosworth. In order they are: Prince Edward; King Henry VI; Clarence; Rivers; Gray; Vaughan; the two young princes; Hastings; Lady Anne, and finally, Buckingham. Each chant “Despair, and die!”

Henry VI’s ghost speaks to Richard

 When I was mortal, my anointed body
By thee was punched full of deadly holes
Think on the Tower and me: despair, and die!
Harry the Sixth bids thee despair, and die!

Though they come to Richard in a dream, I include them as ghosts because they will visit Richmond as he sleeps too.; showing us that they are not merely guilty nightmarish constructs. Unlike the ghosts in Hamlet and Macbeth, who act as catalysts for change, these are ghostly prophets; acting more like Shakespearean witches than ghosts. Each foretell of Richard’s doom and Richmond’s success.

Brutus warning Caesar

Julius Caesar: Caesar

Brutus How ill this taper burns!—Ha, who comes here?
I think it is the weakness of mine eyes
That shapes this monstrous apparition.
It comes upon me.—Art thou any thing?
Art thou some god, some angel, or some devil
That makest my blood cold and my hair to stare?
Speak to me what thou art.
Ghost They evil spirit, Brutus.
Brutus Why comest thou?
Ghost To tell the thou shalt see me at Philippi
Brutus Well, then I shall see thee again?
Ghost Ay, at Philippi.
Brutus Why, I will see thee at Philippi, then.

Exit ghost

Taken out of context, this scene could be played for laughs. It is as if Caesar’s ghost walked into Brutus’ tent and says “Boo”. Brutus, busy reading looks up and says, “Boo to you too”. The ghost then turns and walks away mumbling, “That didn’t go as planned”. It is one of those rare clunky scenes of Shakespeare that does nothing to advance the play or inform the audience of a character’s state of mind. It does however provide some context as to why Brutus decides to commit suicide later in the play. The guilt of Caesar’s death and the ghostly visit finally take their toll on the traitor as he realizes he is about to lose everything.

Cymbeline: Pothumus’s deceased father, Sicilius Leonatus, mother and brothers visit him in a dream.

Mother: S ince Jupiter, our son is good take off his miseries.
Sicilius Leonatus:  Peep through thy marble mansion; help; Or we poor ghosts will cry to the shining synod of the rest against thy deity.
First and Second Brother:  Help, Jupiter; or we appeal, and from thy justice fly!

Once again we have “ghosts” who show up in a dream. The jailed Pothumus has a dream in which his deceased relatives implore the God Jupiter to take pity on the hero. In the dream Jupiter descends on an eagle  and admonishes the “petty spirits of region low” for daring to accuse the god of turning his back on Pothumus. As well that ends well, for Jupiter assures the ghosts that Pothumus will be freed and live happily ever after.

These are Shakespeare’s strangest and most annoying ghosts. After lecturing the ghosts about Pothumus’ fate, Jupiter commands them to be gone; “Away: no further with your din express impatience, lest you stir up mine”. Yet they keep talking! The play is long and weird enough without these chatty ghosts. I doubt the audience paid much attention to them as they watched in awe as Jupiter ascended back into the heavens on an eagle!

From an uninvited dinner guest, to ghostly apparition who  don’t know when to shut up, Shakespeare has given us some of the stages’ most talked about ghosts.  Because of Shakespeare we now have fully fleshed out ghosts (pun intended). Apparitions are no longer just plot devices, mutely hovering over the stage. They now have agency to scare or annoy us.

Works cited

The Complete Works of Williams Shakespeare, Yale University Press

James I Daemonologie 

Paintings from the British Museum collection  

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