This watercolour by the British artist John Absolon (1815–1895) depicts the renowned British actor Edmund Kean (1788–1835) in the title role of Hamlet, which he played several times during his career. The scene is Act 3, Scene 4, when the Ghost appears to Hamlet in Gertrude’s closet.
Although this painting depicts a specific actor rather than just the characters of Hamlet, Absolon has painted an artistic interpretation of the scene rather than a depiction of stage realism. This creates an interesting question of how we read the image of the Ghost; is Absolon’s transparent spirit a result of artistic licence, or the memory of a particular production effect of costume or lighting?
Shakespeare’s stage ghosts
In the text of Shakespeare’s First Folio, the ghosts have stage directions and sometimes speech, from which we can infer that in early productions they were physically embodied onstage by actors. This seems to have been the case even when not all the living characters in the scene can see the ghost, such as in the closet scene depicted here, where the Ghost of Hamlet’s father is invisible to Gertrude, or the banquet scene in Macbeth, where Banquo’s Ghost is invisible to all bar his murderer. The objective reality of Shakespeare’s stage ghosts to the worlds of their plays is open to interpretation. Some modern productions don’t use actors for the ghosts, emphasizing the psychological disturbance of those characters that see them. Richard Eyre’s award-winning production of Hamlet at the Royal Court Theatre in 1980 removed the Ghost from the stage altogether, placing his lines in the mouth of a disturbed (and possibly possessed) Hamlet, played by Jonathan Pryce.