Shakespeare on Ghosts

Since Halloween is right around the corner, and since this is a huge topic in Shakespeare, I would like to talk a little bit about Shakespeare’s treatment of the living impaired, specters, spirits, in a word GHOSTS.

Ghosts appear in five Shakespearean plays: Julius Caesar, Hamlet, Richard the Third, Macbeth and Cymbeline. In all but one of these plays, and in many other Elizabethan and Jacobean dramas, a ghost is a murdered person who needs someone to avenge their deaths. Their function is to warn the hero of the play to revenge their deaths, and/ or to torment their murderers.

Ghosts have been part of western drama almost as long as there have been ghost stories. After all, the Greek and Roman plays that Shakespeare emulated often mention ghosts as warnings from above and below the world is in some kind of chaos. Most of the time, the kind of play in which you see a ghost is a Revenge Tragedy, plays like The Spanish Tragedy, Locrine, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and even the Disney movie of The Lion King.


The most potent example of a Shakespearean ghost is definitely the ghost of Hamlet’s father. I actually played this role and, rumor has it, so did Shakespeare himself! Hamlet’s father appears as a ghost two months after his death, and soon after his brother Claudius marries his widow Gertrude. The ghost’s purpose in the play is to get his son’s attention so that he can correct the terrible regicide that Claudius committed, allowing the Ghost to Rest In Peace.

Shakespeare describes the ghost as a pale, sorrowful figure, dressed in full armor. The ghost only speaks to his son in the play, and he begins with a strange and terrifying description of the afterlife:

Ghost: I am thy father’s spirit,

Doom’d for a certain term to walk the night,

And for the day confin’d to fast in fires,

Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature

Are burnt and purg’d away. But that I am forbid

To tell the secrets of my prison house,

I could a tale unfold whose lightest word

Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,

Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres,

Thy knotted and combined locks to part,

And each particular hair to stand on end

Like quills upon the fretful porcupine.

But this eternal blazon must not be

To ears of flesh and blood Hamlet Act I, Scene v.

Many scholars believe that the tormenting realm of fire that the ghost describes is actually Purgatory, an old Catholic concept that explains where the souls of the dead go if they are neither evil enough for Hell, or good enough for Heaven. It’s also the place where people go who didn’t confess their sins before death, which was the ghost’s fate since Claudius poisoned him while sleeping.

Though neither Hamlet nor his father explicitly say it, there is a strong implication that Hamlet must avenge his father by killing Claudius, which will presumably release the Ghost from Purgatory allowing it to ascend to Heaven.

Some suggest that the ghost is a manifestation of Hamlet’s superego:

Ernest Jones in his book Hamlet And Oedipusbelieved Hamlet had an unresolved Oedipus complex and couldn’t bring himself to revenge because Claudius had achieved the very goals Hamlet himself secretly desires to kill his father and marry his mother

Faced with his guilt and lack of moral integrity Hamlet could have created a supernatural superego to spur him to revenge. As Freud describes it, the superego

The superego is the ethical component of the personality and provides the moral standards by which the ego operates. The superego’s criticisms, prohibitions, and inhibitions form a person’s conscience, and its positive aspirations and ideals represent one’s idealized self-image, or “ego ideal.”

In essence, since (in Jones’ view), Hamlet is too morally corrupt to be an effective avenger for his father, Hamlet imagines the ghost to help justify his revenge to himself. This is of course, only one way of interpreting the ghost and Hamlet as a whole. There is no right or wrong interpretation for any of Shakespeare’s characters, but it is a testament to Shakespeare’s genius that, 400 years after his own death, his ghostly writings helped inspire one the architects of modern psychology.

Ghosts Of Torment

The ghost of Banquo in Macbeth and the ghosts that plague Richard the Third the night before his battle help quicken the murderous kings’ his downward spiral. Macbeth becomes more and more paranoid, and therefore easier for his foes to defeat.

When Julius Caesar’s Ghost appears to Brutus, he does so the night before his final battle- the battle of Philippi, where Brutus was defeated and committed suicide.

When Richard III sees the ghosts of all the people he murdered, it not only terrifies him, it splits his soul in half! According to Sir Thomas More, Richard couldn’t sleep the night before his final battle at Bosworth Field. Shakespeare gives Richard a strange soliloquy where the ghosts awaken his conscience and awaken him from a fearful dream:

[The Ghosts vanish]

[KING RICHARD III starts out of his dream]

Richard III (Duke of Gloucester). Give me another horse: bind up my wounds.

Have mercy, Jesu!—Soft! I did but dream.

O coward conscience, how dost thou afflict me!

The lights burn blue. It is now dead midnight.

Cold fearful drops stand on my trembling flesh.

What do I fear? myself? there’s none else by:

Richard loves Richard; that is, I am I.

Is there a murderer here? No. Yes, I am:

Then fly. What, from myself? Great reason why:

Lest I revenge. What, myself upon myself?

Alack. I love myself. Wherefore? for any good

That I myself have done unto myself?

O, no! alas, I rather hate myself

For hateful deeds committed by myself!

I am a villain: yet I lie. I am not.

Fool, of thyself speak well: fool, do not flatter.

My conscience hath a thousand several tongues,
And every tongue brings in a several tale,

And every tale condemns me for a villain.

Perjury, perjury, in the high’st degree

Murder, stem murder, in the direst degree;

I shall despair. There is no creature loves me;

And if I die, no soul shall pity me:

Nay, wherefore should they, since that I myself

Find in myself no pity to myself? Richard III, Act V, Scene iii.

In these plays, the ghosts are a form of spectral punishment; the punishment of a guilty Conscience.

Shakespearean Friendly Ghosts

The only friendly Shakespearean ghosts appear in Shakespeare’s play Cymbeline and these ghosts are the that appear before the God Jupiter to plead for their descendant, Posthumous Leonidas. They beg Jupiter, the most powerful Roman god to end Posthumous’ suffering.

Like the witches in Macbeth, ghosts in Shakespeare are mysterious and sometimes frightening – they are sort of a mirror for how we see ourselves, our lives, and our hopes to be remembered after death; the final words Hamlet’s father utters before disappearing into the morning mist are: “Adieu, adieu, remember me.”

Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this post, please consider signing up for my Outschool class: “Macbeth: An Immersive Horror Experience.” I perform live as the ghost of William Shakespeare and tell the story of Macbeth in an entertaining and spooky way.

For More Information:

https://www.bl.uk/shakespeare/articles/ghosts-in-shakespeare

https://www.bard.org/study-guides/ghosts-witches-and-shakespeare

Animated Richard III, 20:00 the ghosts appear:

References:

Greenblatt, Steven Hamlet In Purgatory 2001. Princeton University Press. Link: file:///Users/jrycik/Downloads/Hamlet-in-Purgatory-Princeton-Classics.pdf

Jones, Earnest, Hamlet and Oedipus.

https://people.ucsc.edu/~vktonay/migrated/psyc179d/HamletOedipus.pdf

Open Source Shakespeare, Cymbeline:

https://www.opensourceshakespeare.org/views/plays/play_view.php?WorkID=cymbeline&Act=5&Scene=4&Scope=scene&LineHighlight=3243#3243

http://www.markedbyteachers.com/gcse/english/which-version-of-the-hamlet-ghost-scene-act-1-scene-5-was-the-most-effective-and-why.html

Pearlman, E. Hamlet: Critical Essays: The Invention Of the Ghost. https://books.google.com/books?id=jdfWAQAAQBAJ&pg=PA71&lpg=PA71&dq=ghost+that+shrieked+hamlet+revenge&source=bl&ots=KY68gIrh2V&sig=MjEr2NxLQ7T4c2xW1QscrmdeMkc&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiR5o6M4I_XAhUK0oMKHQIJBeAQ6AEIKDAA#v=onepage&q=ghost%20that%20shrieked%20hamlet%20revenge&f=false

https://www.shmoop.com/hamlet/ghost.html

https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/456606.pdf?refreqid=excelsior%3A3f62aed88fb9e9b9a8f8e462186ff95c

Creepy Shakespearean Poetry For Halloween/ Friday The 13th

http://www.louvre.fr/oeuvre-notices/lady-macbeth-somnambule

Ghostly greetings everyone!

Since it’s the month of all things spooky, and we have a rare Friday the 13th today, I thought I would share some of Shakespeare’s scariest lines!

First, from the tragedy of Macbeth, the famous Dagger Speech:

Macbeth.

Is this a dagger which I see before me,

The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee.

I have thee not, and yet I see thee still.

Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible

615

To feeling as to sight? or art thou but

A dagger of the mind, a false creation,

Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain?

I see thee yet, in form as palpable

As this which now I draw.

620

Thou marshall’st me the way that I was going;

And such an instrument I was to use.

Mine eyes are made the fools o’ the other senses,

Or else worth all the rest; I see thee still,

And on thy blade and dudgeon gouts of blood,

625

Which was not so before. There’s no such thing:

It is the bloody business which informs

Thus to mine eyes. Now o’er the one halfworld

Nature seems dead, and wicked dreams abuse

The curtain’d sleep; witchcraft celebrates

630

Pale Hecate’s offerings, and wither’d murder,

Alarum’d by his sentinel, the wolf,

Whose howl’s his watch, thus with his stealthy pace.

With Tarquin’s ravishing strides, towards his design

Moves like a ghost. Thou sure and firm-set earth,

635

Hear not my steps, which way they walk, for fear

Thy very stones prate of my whereabout,

And take the present horror from the time,

Which now suits with it. Whiles I threat, he lives:

Words to the heat of deeds too cold breath gives.

640

[A bell rings]

I go, and it is done; the bell invites me.

Hear it not, Duncan; for it is a knell

That summons thee to heaven or to hell. Act II, Scene I.

Hamlet. Angels and ministers of grace defend us!

Be thou a spirit of health or goblin damn’d,

Bring with thee airs from heaven or blasts from hell,

What may this mean

680

That thou, dead corse, again in complete steel,

Revisits thus the glimpses of the moon,

Making night hideous, and we fools of nature

So horridly to shake our disposition

With thoughts beyond the reaches of our souls?

685

Say, why is this? wherefore? What should we do? Hamlet, Act I, Scene v.

Puck. Now the hungry lion roars, 2220

And the wolf behowls the moon;

Whilst the heavy ploughman snores,

All with weary task fordone.

Now the wasted brands do glow,

Whilst the screech-owl, screeching loud, 2225

Puts the wretch that lies in woe

In remembrance of a shroud.

Now it is the time of night

That the graves all gaping wide,

Every one lets forth his sprite, 2230

In the church-way paths to glide:

And we fairies, that do run

By the triple Hecate’s team,

From the presence of the sun,

Following darkness like a dream, 2235

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act V, Scene I.

Quick Shout Out: Drunk Shakespeare

A recent trend going around Shakespearean theatres is the new trend of putting on a production of Shakespeare’s plays, with at least one of the actors drunk for the majority of the performance! There is a Drunk Shakespeare company in New York, and the trend has started spreading to other theaters, so I resolved to check it out for myself! I can only speak for this particular production, but I can say pretty confidently, if you get a chance to see a Drunk Shakespeare, do it! I was expecting a hilarious train wreck, but what I got was a great time!

This production of Drunken Hamlet was mounted by the thespians at Weary Arts Group in York Pennsylvania.

Unlike Drunk Shakespeare in NYC, the entire cast takes shots while performing. They lose their lines, make drinking part of the stage business, and the audience is encouraged to throw flowers at the cast at any point of the show, which means, (you guessed it), “more shots!”

With the amount of effort that it takes to memorize a Shakespeare play, the inebriated cast often can’t remember the Iambic pentameter but, rather than bringing the show to a halt, the ad-libs and bawdiness they bring as they curse and giggle back to their lines is all part of the fun. I remember one moment where Claudius actually talked about the Disney Movie “The Lion King,” calling the villainous lion Scar the hero of the cartoon for murdering his brother and marrying his sister-in-law. This blend of authentic literature and bawdy adult silliness reminds me of the popular Comedy Central Show “Drunk History,” in that sometimes the actors speak the dialogue, sometimes they make funny ad-libs and sometimes they just drunkenly slur and giggle their way through the play.

Furthermore, the audience was encouraged by the director to become part of the experience- we were asked to boo characters we don’t like, to talk to the actors,basically to react without any standards of politeness or decorum! I actually got a big laugh when, as Claudius gave the famous couplet: “It shall be so. Madness in great ones must not unmatched go,” and I shouted back, “Tell that to Donald Trump!” In all modesty, the six pack of pumpkin beer probably sharpened my wit.

I’ve read that, due to the filth in the rivers and lakes in London, alcohol was an essential part of the diet for most people in Elizabethan England, and Shakespeare himself might have died from a fever he contracted after having too much to drink in The Mermaid Tavern in April of 1616. It’s also true that Elizabethan audiences regularly drank and yelled at the actors onstage. With this in mind, Drunk Shakespeare does have a small spirit of authenticity about it, and that energy really helped me enjoy the play.

My only major complaint about the show was that Hamlet doesn’t lend itself to Drunk Shakespeare as well as other plays. Some scholars argue that Shakespeare wrote the play because he was tired of trying to appeal to the drunk groundlings, and wanted to appeal to a more refined and upper class clientele. Hamlet himself says these groundlings are: “For the most part, are capable of nothing but inexplicable dumb-shows and noise.”

However, I’m glad I gave this kind of grounding theater a try, and I would recommend it to anyone who wants a good time with some irreverent Shakespeare.