Ludwig Lavater was a Swiss Reformed theologian and prolific author. His book on demonology – De spectris, lemuribus et magnis atque insolitis fragoribus, published in the Netherlands in 1569 – was one of the early modern period’s most popular works on the subject and was reprinted many times in a number of European languages. In 1572 it was published in English as Of ghostes and spirites walking by nyght.
Lavater on ghosts
As a Protestant, Lavater rejected the idea of Purgatory (an intermediary place where souls of the newly dead that are destined for heaven go, until they are pure enough to ascend) as an outdated Catholic concept. This greatly complicated the idea of ‘ghosts’, often thought to be visitations by human souls that were not at rest, such as those who died unbaptized or in tragic or violent circumstances. Without Purgatory, ghosts could only be visitations from Heaven or Hell. Lavater felt they were more likely to have come from Hell, and this meant that many ghosts were demonic and their requests dangerous: they could be trying to lure humans into damnation, for example by persuading them to commit murder or suicide. In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Horatio expresses similar fears to Lavater’s and, given these fears, Hamlet is wise to try to verify his father’s murder by means other than the Ghost’s say-so! The Protestant rejection of Purgatory also made the subject of ghosts and their nature controversial and political as it became part of sectarian religious debate.
Lavater also allowed for the possibility of good ghosts – i.e. those arriving from Heaven as a representation of a dead person and bearing revelation or advice – as well as suggesting that some ghost sightings are delusions, experienced by those suffering from melancholy or madness.
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. However, Shakespeare leaves the objective and material reality of ghosts in the play-world open to interpretation. For example in Hamlet, the Ghost (although previously seen by Horatio and the guards) is invisible to Gertrude when it appears to Hamlet in Act 3, Scene 4; and in Macbeth, when Banquo’s Ghost appears at the banquet, it is visible only to his murderer. Are Hamlet and Macbeth haunted by demons or by the tormented spirits of the dead? Or are these visions a result or manifestation of their own psychological distress?
- pp. 9–13: Part 1, Chapter 2, ‘Melancholike persons, and madde men, imagin many things which in verie deede are not.’
- pp. 155–59: Part 2, Chapter 13, ‘Whether soules do returne agayne out of Purgatorie and the place which they call Limbus puerorum.’