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

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