Ghosts in Shakespeare

Ghosts in Shakespeare

  • Article by: John Mullan
  • Theme: Magic, illusion and the supernatural
  • Published: 15 Mar 2016
John Mullan explains the position of ghosts in Elizabethan and Jacobean culture, and shows how the ghosts in Shakespeare's plays relate to and boldly depart from ghostly representations in other drama of the period.

Shakespeare was not the only dramatist of his day to put ghosts on the stage, yet the apparitions in his plays have effects on the living that are unparalleled elsewhere in Elizabethan and Jacobean drama. In order to understand how he uses ghosts in some of his plays, it is useful to compare him with other playwrights of his time, and to examine contemporary debates about apparitions. When we do so, we will see how dramatically daring Shakespeare was, especially in Hamlet.

Boydell's Collection of Prints illustrating Shakespeare's works

Boydell's Collection of Prints illustrating Shakespeare's works

Hamlet, Horatio, Marcellus and the Ghost. Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 4 by Henry Fuseli.

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The parade of the dead come back to life

The earliest Shakespeare play in which ghosts appear is Richard III. Asleep in his tent before the Battle of Bosworth, Richard is visited by the spirits of his victims, one after another. Each one in turn recalls his or her fate at Richard’s hand, predicts their killer’s defeat in the forthcoming battle, and ends by telling him to ‘Despair and die’ (5.3.126). Each one of them also speaks to the sleeping Earl of Richmond, leader of the army opposing Richard, and tells him to ‘Live and flourish’ (5.3.131). Richard sleeps through all this, and any theatre audience can take it that the ghosts are in his troubled dreams. He wakes to say, ‘I did but dream. / O coward conscience, how dost thou afflict me!’ (5.3.178–79)

The first illustrated works of Shakespeare edited by Nicholas Rowe, 1709

The first illustrated works of Shakespeare edited by Nicholas Rowe, 1709

Richard on the eve of battle, haunted by the ghosts of his victims.

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Yet we cannot simply turn these ghosts into figments of the tyrant’s tormented psyche. In Richmond’s camp we find the opposing leader talking of having had the ‘fairest-boding dreams / That ever ent’red in a drowsy head’ (5.3.227–28). He tells his attendant lords that ‘souls whose bodies Richard murther’d / Came to my tent and cried on victory’ (5.3.230–31), seemingly confirming the events of the night. And the ghosts have certainly appeared on the stage and spoken. The actors probably – on the day-lit stage of the Globe – had their skin whitened with flour. In Shakespeare’s source story in Holinshed’s Chronicles, Richard is said to have had a terrible dream of ‘images like terrible devils’ on the night before the battle, but there is no mention of ghosts. This parade of the dead come back to life is entirely Shakespeare’s creation.

Ghosts on the Elizabethan stage

The appearance of the ghosts only to men who slept perhaps removed them from any spectator’s religious uncertainties about whether ghosts existed or not. Shakespeare’s audiences were already used to seeing ghosts in the theatre. The anonymous domestic tragedy A Warning for Fair Women, first staged in the late 1590s, begins with a debate between personified Comedy and Tragedy in which the former mocks the latter for often featuring ‘a filthy whining ghost’ who ‘Comes screaming like a pig half-stickt / And cries Vindicta, revenge, revenge’. Evidently the ghost who returns to demand retribution for some murder was a familiar stage presence. In 1596, in Wit’s Miserie and the World’s Madnesse, Thomas Lodge referred to an earlier (now lost) version of the Hamlet story (perhaps written by Thomas Kyd) which included a ‘ghost which cried so miserably at the Theator Ö Hamlet, revenge’.

Reference to early Hamlet play in Lodge’s Wit’s Misery, 1596

Reference to early Hamlet play in Lodge’s Wit’s Misery, 1596

Thomas Lodge describes a ghost calling for vengeance in a production of the Ur-Hamlet.

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Elizabethan playwrights drew on the example of the Roman tragedian Seneca, whose plays were translated into English and widely read. His tragedy Agamemnon, for example, begins with the Ghost of Thyestes inciting his son, Aegisthus, to revenge the wrongs inflicted on him by his brother Atreus. Seneca’s influence is very clear in Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, first staged around 1590. This features the Ghost of Andrea, a Spanish nobleman, who opens the play with a long soliloquy, at the end of which he is promised by the personified spirit of Revenge that he will witness the killing of Don Balthazar, ‘the author of thy death’. Subsequently Andrea’s ghost and the figure of Revenge serve as commentators on the unfolding action, the ghost seeking vengeful satisfaction for the ending of his life and hopes. None of the other characters in this play ever see the ghost, who, despite the Spanish setting of the play, has returned from a pagan underworld that he describes in detail.

Seneca His Ten Tragedies, 1581

Seneca His Ten Tragedies, 1581

Ghosts and vengeance were distinctive features of Seneca’s bloodthirsty tragedies.

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Kyd's Spanish Tragedy, 1615

Kyd's Spanish Tragedy, 1615

The Spanish Tragedie opens with a long soliloquy by the Ghost of the murdered Andrea.

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Julius Caesar

Elizabethans knew that, in the classical world, dead souls did return from Hades (the classical land of dead spirits). In Hamlet, Horatio begins the play doubting the existence of the ghost that Barnardo and Marcellus claim to have seen on two previous nights. When he sees the ghost too, he reaches for supernatural precedents from classical literature. Horatio observes that before Julius Caesar’s assassination, ‘the sheeted dead / Did squeak and gibber in the Roman streets’ (1.1.115–16). The reference is characteristic of this bookish young man, who finds a better guide in classical sources than in Christian belief.

In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, probably written just a year or two before Hamlet, a ghost also appears to a leading character on the eve of battle. On the night before the Battle of Philippi, Brutus is sleepless while all around him doze off. As the candle flickers a ‘monstrous apparition’ (4.3.278) appears to him: the ghost of the murdered Julius Caesar. Brutus interrogates the ghost, asking whether it is ‘some god, some angel, or some devil’ (4.3.279). His terminology is both pagan (‘some god’) and Christian (‘some angel’). The ghost replies it is his ‘evil spirit’ and that Brutus will see him again ‘at Philippi’ (4.3.282-83). The wording is close to Shakespeare’s source in North’s version of Plutarch’s ‘Life of Brutus’, but in Shakespeare’s play, the stage direction, ‘Enter the Ghost of Caesar’, indicates that Plutarch’s unspecified ‘spirit’ has become the ghost of the man Brutus helped kill. Psychologically, it is appropriate, for Brutus feels haunted by Caesar. As the battle turns against him, he cries:

O Julius Caesar, thou art mighty yet!
Thy spirit walks abroad, and turns our swords
In our own proper entrails. (5.3.94–96)

It is also indicative of a certain Roman fatalism: in Shakespeare’s play as in the original Plutarch, Brutus reacts with composure to the apparition.

Boydell's Collection of Prints illustrating Shakespeare's works

Boydell's Collection of Prints illustrating Shakespeare's works

Brutus and the ghost of Caesar. Julius Caesar, Act 4, Scene 3 by Richard Westall.

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Ghosts visible to only one person

A ghost has a peculiar status if it appears to only one person. Shakespeare exploits this in an extraordinary way in Macbeth, where Banquo’s ghost (which from the indications of the stage directions, was undoubtedly present on the stage) is visible to Macbeth but to none of the other guests at his feast. Macbeth himself is perplexed by the fact. ‘Prithee see there! / Behold! look!’ (3.4.67–68) he exclaims to his unseeing wife. But he is condemned to be the only one who can see. Banquo, his former friend, whose death he has arranged, has returned from the dead to terrify him alone. Earlier he has told Lady Macbeth, in a gruesomely affectionate manner, not to worry about the dark details of his plans for Banquo. ‘Be innocent of the knowledge, dearest chuck’ (3.2.45). He does not need her involvement any more. His wife had to overcome his reluctance to murder Duncan, but he does not hesitate to order the murders that follow. The burden of murderous tyranny has become all his own.

Edmund Kean as Hamlet with ghost

Edmund Kean as Hamlet with ghost

Like Macbeth, Hamlet sees a ghost that isn’t always perceived by others.

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Ghosts as the victims of murder

Ghosts in Elizabethan and Jacobean tragedy are invariably the victims of murder, though they come with different purposes. Cyril Tourneur’s The Atheist’s Tragedy, first performed in the first decade of the 17th century, has a ghost of a murdered man – Baron Montferrers – who returns to counsel his son against revenge. In John Webster’s The White Devil (1612), the ghost of the murdered Isabella appears to her brother Francisco as he contemplates his response to her poisoning. The audience sees the ghost, but Francisco decides that it is only a projection of his melancholy:

Thought, as a subtle juggler, makes us deem
Things supernatural, which have cause
Common as sickness.

The ghost of another murder victim, Brachiano, later appears to Flamineo, enigmatically showing him a skull and throwing earth upon him, as if to remind him of his own mortality.

Debating ghosts

We will never know whether Shakespeare believed in ghosts, but we do know that the nature of apparitions was a topic of earnest debate amongst his contemporaries. This debate is dramatised in Hamlet, where the protagonist wonders aloud whether what appears to be the ghost of his father might not be a demonic trick:

The spirit that I have seen
May be a dev’l, and the dev’l hath power
To assume a pleasing shape. (2.3.598–600)

He does not simply take the word of the Ghost on trust, but stages ‘The Mousetrap’, the play within the play, to confirm it by testing the response of Claudius. Officially, devout Protestants did not believe in ghosts, and Protestant theologians often argued that apparitions could therefore only be devices of the Devil to disturb and mislead Christians. (See for instance Ludwig Lavater’s Of Ghosts and Spirites Walking by Nyght (1572).) ‘Angels and ministers of grace defend us!’ (1.4.39) exclaims Hamlet when he first sees the Ghost, as if warding off possible evil. Does this apparition bring ‘airs from heaven, or blasts from hell’ (1.4.41)?

Of Ghosts and Spirits Walking by Night by Ludwig Lavater, 1572

Of Ghosts and Spirits Walking by Night by Ludwig Lavater, 1572

In his popular treatise, Lavater scrutinises the possible origins of ghosts.

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For Roman Catholics, there was another possibility, for they believed in Purgatory, a state of moderated torment in which a soul would undergo purification before entering Heaven and could benefit from the prayers of the living. It was commonly depicted in religious iconography (see for instance The Coronation of the Virgin (1454), an altarpiece by Enguerrand Quarton (c. 1410–1466)). The Ghost tells Hamlet that he is:

... confin'd to fast in fires,
Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature
Are burnt and purg'd away. (1.5.11–13)

It sounds very much as though he is speaking of being in Purgatory. From Purgatory, a soul might return to earth in ghostly form. There is much evidence that many individual Protestants, though supposedly scorning the idea of Purgatory, did believe in ghosts, and that popular superstition did not accord with Church doctrine.

Painting of Purgatory, 1454

Painting of Purgatory, 1454

Human souls tormented by the fires of Purgatory. The Coronation of the Virgin by Enguerrand Quarton.

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Horatio calls the ghost ‘this thing’ and ‘a guilty thing’ (1.1.148), as if unable to say what it is. He and Hamlet grapple with the meaning of the apparition. Unusually in drama of the period, the ghost appears to four separate witnesses: no one can think it a psychological projection. Shakespeare exploits the established revenge tradition – the ghost of the Prince’s father requires him to ‘Revenge his foul and most unnatural murther’ (1.5.25) – yet utterly transforms it. Hamlet is a dutiful son, loyal to his late father, but he is also a sceptical modern man, who must test and question the apparently supernatural command. And the command is complicated, for the ghost hedges his demand with qualifications: ‘Taint not thy mind, nor let thy soul contrive / Against thy mother aught’ (1.5.85–86). The spirit of Hamlet’s father demands that Hamlet not only spare his mother, but somehow suppress any inclination to condemn her.

When Hamlet finally confronts his mother in the so-called closet scene, the ghost comes back, but only the Prince can see or hear him. ‘You do bend your eye on vacancy’ (3.4.117), says Gertrude. Yet the ghost does not only appear, it speaks. Lavater’s Of Ghosts and Spirites states that an apparition will sometimes appear to one person whilst not making itself visible to another ‘which standeth by him or walketh with him’. Other contemporary commentators argued that ghosts made themselves visible only to those to whom they wished to be visible. It is characteristic of Shakespeare to make dramatic use of what was an abstract point of theology. In Hamlet, as in no other play of the period, we find the very uncertainties of Shakespeare’s contemporaries about the nature of ghosts turned into drama.

  • John Mullan
  • John Mullan is Lord Northcliffe Professor of Modern English Literature at University College London. John is a specialist in 18th-century literature and is at present writing the volume of the Oxford English Literary History that will cover the period from 1709 to 1784. He also has research interests in the 19th century, and in 2012 published his book What Matters in Jane Austen?

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.