A quick guide to Shakespeare’s Ghosts

Tis now the very witching time of night,
When churchyards yawn and hell itself breathes out
Contagion to this world.
Hamlet

 

 

 

Well hello October! As I sit and write this a storm is gathering in the Sierra Mountain range which means we will either see snow or a very hard frost. We’ve had a very unseasonably hot summer but almost overnight the leaves have turned brown and are now dropping faster than I can rake them. Between the autumn colors and pumpkin spiced overkill it now feels like fall which means the restless dead are ready to burst forth. October belongs to the spirits. So what say we have a bit of October holiday fun? How about we celebrate the month with a weekly look at Shakespeare’s ghosts and witches?

Here are some of my ideas so far:

How Shakespeare’s use of ghosts differ from earlier theater apparitions

How Shakespeare’s use of ghosts point to a possible Catholic faith or at least how he exploited the Catholic faith

How King James’ belief in witches may have influenced Shakespeare’s stage

I’m toying with some other ideas but if you my friends have any ideas, now is the time to comment. We will open this blog up to ideas and even guest posts if this subject haunts you too.

Today we will start the October theme with a quick look at Shakespeare’s ghosts.

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Hamlet: Hamlet Senior

Hamlet Speak; I am bound to hear.
Ghost So art thou to revenge, when thou shalt hear.
Hamlet What?
Ghost I am thy father’s spirit.

We all know Hamlet is a play about a young man whose inability to act leads to tragic consequences. There are countless books about Hamlet’s state of mind and arguments over whether this is a man “who cannot make up his mind”, but forgotten sometimes in all of this noise is why Hamlet cannot bring himself to act.

Hamlet senior, the ghost who wants revenge,may or may not be what he claims to be and this “be or not be” is the very reason Hamlet hesitates to bring his uncle to justice. Is the ghost a wondering spirit who cannot rest until he has his revenge, a demon that seeks to mess with the young prince’s life or is he a figment of Hamlet’s already unstable mind? We could devote an entire post to this question, but for now let’s remember, Hamlet doesn’t decide to act until he is convinced that the ghost is his father and even then hesitates to out his uncle. And because of his hesitation the castle of Elsinore may have more ghostly inhabitants than living ones.

Macbeth: Banquo

Banquo’s ghost enters the room and sits in Macbeth’s chair
Macbeth The table’s full.
Lennox Here is a place reserved, sir.
Macbeth Where?
Lennox Here, my good lord. What is’t that moves your highness?
Macbeth Which of you have done this?
Lords What, my good lord?
Macbeth Thou canst not say I did it; never shake they gory locks at me.

Macbeth is responsible for quite a few deaths, but it is Banquo’s that seemingly pushes him over the edge. If Banquo was modeled on earlier ghostly plot devices he would served as a reminder to the audience that Macbeth is not a sympathetic character, but the audience is already beginning to come to grips with the horrors that Macbeth is willing to inflict on those around him. Shakespeare masterfully uses this ghostly specter to show the audience the effects of said horrors have on Macbeth’s mind.

Richard III: Everyone Richard killed or was in some or another responsible for or connected to.

Henry VI When I was mortal, my anointed body
By thee was punched full of deadly holes
Think on the Tower and me: despair, and die!
Harry the Sixth bids thee despair, and die!

Eleven ghosts cross the stage and speak to Richard the night before the battle of Bosworth. In order they are: Prince Edward; King Henry VI; Clarence; Rivers; Gray; Vaughan; the two young princes; Hastings; Lady Anne, and finally, Buckingham. Each chant “Despair, and die!”

Though they come to Richard in a dream, I include them as ghosts because they will visit Richmond as he sleeps too. Showing us that they are not merely guilty nightmarish constructs. Unlike the ghosts in Hamlet and Macbeth, who act as catalysts for change, these are ghostly prophets; acting more like Shakespearean witches than ghosts. Each foretell of Richard’s doom and Richmond’s success.

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Julius Caesar: Caesar

Brutus How ill this taper burns!—Ha, who comes here?
I think it is the weakness of mine eyes
That shapes this monstrous apparition.
It comes upon me.—Art thou any thing?
Art thou some god, some angel, or some devil
That makest my blood cold and my hair to stare?
Speak to me what thou art.
Ghost They evil spirit, Brutus.
Brutus Why comest thou?
Ghost To tell the thou shalt see me at Philippi
Brutus Well, then I shall see thee again?
Ghost Ay, at Philippi.
Brutus Why, I will see thee at Philippi, then.

Exit ghost

Taken out of context, this scene could be played for laughs. It is as if Caesar’s ghost walked into Brutus’ tent and says “Boo”. Brutus, busy reading looks up and says, “Boo to you too”. The ghost then turns and walks away mumbling, “That didn’t go as planned”. It is one of those rare clunky scenes of Shakespeare that does nothing to advance the play or inform the audience of a character’s state of mind. It does however provide some context as to why Brutus decides to commit suicide later in the play. The guilt of Caesar’s death and the ghostly visit finally take their toll on the traitor as he realizes he is about to lose everything.

Cymbeline: Pothumus’s father mother and brothers

Mother Since, Jupiter, our son is good take off his miseries.
Sicilius Leonatus Peep through thy marble mansion; help;Or we poor ghosts will cry to the shining synod of the rest against thy deity.
First and Second Brother Help, Jupiter; or we appeal, and from thy justice fly.

Once again we have “ghosts” who show up in a dream. The jailed Pothumus has a dream in which his deceased relatives implore the God Jupiter to take pity on the hero. In the dream Jupiter descends on an eagle (stop laughing, I didn’t write the play) and admonishes the “petty spirits of region low” for daring to accuse the god of turning his back on Pothumus. As well that ends well, for Jupiter assures the ghosts that Pothumus will be freed and live happily ever after.

These are Shakespeare’s strangest and most annoying ghosts. After lecturing the ghosts about Pothumus’ fate, Jupiter commands them to be gone; “away: no further with your din express impatience, lest you stir up mine”. Yet they keep talking! The play is long and weird enough without these chatty ghosts. I doubt the audience paid much attention to them as they watched in awe as Jupiter ascended back into the heavens on an eagle!

From a chair stealing ghostly apparitions to spirits that don’t know when to shut up, Shakespeare has given us some of the stages’ most talked about ghosts. Because of Shakespeare we now have fully fleshed out ghosts (pun intended). Apparitions are no longer just plot devices, mutely hovering over the stage. This will be the topic for our next look at Shakespeare’s Ghosts.

Works cited

The Complete Works of Williams Shakespeare, Yale University Press

Paintings from the British Museum collection https://www.bl.uk/shakespeare/articles/ghosts-in-shakespeare  

Author: sarij

I'm a writer, lifelong bibliophile ,and researcher. I hold a Bachelors in Humanities & History and a Master's in Humanities. When I'm not reading or talking about Shakespeare or history, you can usually find me in the garden discussing science or politics with my cat.

4 thoughts on “A quick guide to Shakespeare’s Ghosts”

  1. Loved this romp through Will’s will-o-the-wisps, his ghostly gallery, and looking forward to your planned discussions!

    By the way, Sari, I think your nimble mind may have leapt a couple of stages when you wrote ‘Hastings’ for the battle instead of Bosworth. But it’d be fascinating to think what Richard would make of a battle fought four centuries before and how much, if at all, battle tactics and techniques had changed! 🙂

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