To be or not to be, a Protestant or Catholic ghost?

John Gilbert Hamlet in the presence of his father
John Gilbert Hamlet in the presence of his father

The last time I wrote about Shakespeare and ghosts, I asked if you believed in ghosts. This time, I am asking, what is a ghost? We talked briefly about the modern idea of the nature of ghosts, but not of the religious nature of ghosts. The answer to the question may hinge upon your religious beliefs. Would you believe me if I told you that in the 16th century the answer could have gotten you killed?

Between the years 1534 and 1633, England experienced religious turmoil as each new monarchy ordered new religious followings; some more extreme than others. The country went from deeply Catholic to forced Protestant and back again, and then, back again! Henry VIII ordered all large monasteries to be dismantled. Under Mary Tudor, nearly 300 Protestants were burned at the stake. Under her sister Elizabeth I, Catholicism was tolerated up to a point. Only after a Catholic led assassination plot was uncovered did Elizabeth turn a suspicious eye to the faith. And so it went, as one royal died the next reversed religious course, right up to the civil war led by Charles I over religion and his ideas about kingly authority.

William Shakespeare was born at a time when Catholicism was giving way to Protestantism. Publicly this meant many citizens went to Protestant led church services, but privately kept to the old rituals and tenets. We cannot say for certain that Shakespeare grew up in a duel religious home, but evidence does seem to support this.  When the Stratford townsmen, which included Shakespeare’s father,  were ordered to white wash the Church walls and remove religious icons they lightly painted over the religious scenes, hid the icons and kept the stained-glass windows intact. There are events in John Shakespeare’s life that suggests he paid fines for not attending Protestant church services and a document titled “The Testament of the Soul”, once disputed but now deemed authentic, shows that John Shakespeare was willing to sign his name as a Catholic, at least in private. Jump to Shakespeare’s daughter, Susanna, who in 1606 was listed as a Papist after failing to appear at a Protestant Easter service in Stratford. We would not be too far off to say Shakespeare was at least exposed to both religious worlds as was his family.

So what does this all have to do with ghosts? Well, one of the biggest differences between Catholics and Protestants is the answer the question I posed at the beginning of this blog. And had I asked you that in 1564, the answer would have given your true religious beliefs away.

Protestants do not believe in Purgatory, nor do they believe a soul has the capability of returning from the dead. Catholics on the other hand do believe in Purgatory (not to be confused with Limbo, in which no soul is ever allowed to leave). Protestants (at least during pre-modern era) believed that if a ghost was to appear it was either an angel or demon; depending on the circumstance. The “ghostly” apparition would either be a sign of mercy or a sign of damnation. Contact with a ghost was strictly forbidden in the Protestant religion, as one was never sure if the visitor was a force for good or evil; best just leave that for the clergy to deal with.

We all know scholars love to look to Shakespeare’s work as proof of his personal life and never so much as been written as what has been written about his religious beliefs. There is a big debate on which side of the religious fence he sat on; was he a secret Papist, or did he outgrow the old religion and embrace the new religious tide swept in with Elizabeth’s reign?

Scholars on the side of Catholicism point to one of literature’s most icon ghosts for proof of their argument. Hamlet’s father’s ghost is one we all know and one that is forefront in the minds of many scholars looking to answer the question of Shakespeare’s religion. They point to his monologue, which seems to answer the questions, “what is a ghost?”

I am thy father’s spirit,
Doomed for a certain term to walk the night,
And for the day confined to fast in fires,
Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature
Are burnt and purged 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 combinèd locks to part,
And each particular hair to stand an end
Like quills upon the fretful porpentine.
But this eternal blazon must not be
To ears of flesh and blood. List, list, O, list!
If thou didst ever thy dear father love,
Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder.

As you can see, the ghost is claiming to be a spirit, or soul who is doomed for a time to suffer fire and take nightly walks around his own castle. This is his fate he says because

Of life, of crown, of queen at once dispatched,
Cut off even in the blossoms of my sin,
Unhouseled, disappointed, unaneled,
No reck’ning made, but sent to my account
With all my imperfections on my head.
O, horrible! O, horrible! most horrible!

The spirit was dispatched (murdered) before he could make a confession of his sins. He was not allowed last rites, so he must suffer the flames of damnation until his soul is cleansed. This is a classic explanation of Purgatory and why so many scholars point to this as proof of Shakespeare’s Catholic leanings. To be fair, they also point to Shakespeare’s warm dealings with the clergy in several of his plays; most notably Friar Lawrence in Romeo and Juliet, and Friar Frances in Much ado about Nothing, but for our purposes, we will concentrate on Hamlet and how Shakespeare supposedly answers the question, “what is a ghost?”, in this play.

Shakespeare’s ghost is important to literature. Forgive me if I am wrong, but from what I can come up with, this is the first ghost in dramatic history that offers an explanation of his plight since Seneca’s Agamemnon and let’s face it, Shakespeare borrow a lot from Seneca, including his ghost. But for all of the borrowing that Shakespeare engages in, he is the first to offer a look at the supernatural life of a ghost; he is the first to tie a ghost to Purgatory. But for all of this, we still cannot say Shakespeare answered our question as a Catholic, because as much as the ghost wants Hamlet to believe him, his son is not quite buying it. I may have said this before, but the reason Hamlet cannot make up his mind about anything begins with his hesitation at answering our question. And now that you understand the different answers, the motivations and actions of the characters take on a new meaning. Take the example the reaction of Hamlet when he first sees the ghost

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,
Be thy intents wicked or charitable,
Thou comest in such a questionable shape

Hamlet is unsure if this is an angle or demon and what its intentions are. Hamlet’s ideas about the specter fall into line with the Protestant view of ghosts. Horatio has strong Protestant views on talking to the ghost as well, as he warns Hamlet not to follow it.

What if it tempt you toward the flood, my lord,
Or to the dreadful summit of the cliff
That beetles o’er his base into the sea,
And there assume some other horrible form,
Which might deprive your sovereignty of reason
And draw you into madness? think of it:
The very place puts toys of desperation.

Horatio is afraid that the ghost is a demon bent on destroying Hamlet. He seems to believe that the ghost is a demon and the best form of action is no action, just leave it alone. But as we all know, Hamlet is too grief stricken to listen and he willingly follows the ghost because he cannot let his father go.

Yet for all of his grief , Hamlet cannot decide whether this “ghost” is a Catholic soul trapped in Purgatory asking for revenge or if it’s a Protestant demon conning him into committing murder. It is not until Hamlet stages his play that he finally finds his answer. It seems to him that his uncle is guilty of murder, therefore the ghost must be telling the truth. But then again, what if some demon just happened to know how Hamlet senior died and uses this information for his own purposes?

Scholars look to Hamlet’s ghost for their own answers in part because Shakespeare has given us such much in this character. Shakespeare had written ghosts in a few of his plays before Hamlet, yet this is the first time we see a ghost tell his story and direct the plot of the play. Hamlet’s ghost demands attention and action, something not seen before, but copied over and over again in modern literature.

There is a lot to analyze about the relationship between Hamlet and his father. Is there a connection between this father and son and Shakespeare’s own relationship with his father? Is Shakespeare torn between his family’s past religious beliefs and the country’s new beliefs? Or did Shakespeare simply use religious tension as a dramatic plot device in order to give us one of the world’s best plays? I’m betting on the latter.

We will never really know the answer to these question just as we will never know Shakespeare’s true ideas about religion because he answers our original question with both answers. Just remember, how you answer the question may tell us more about you than it will about ghosts.

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.

7 thoughts on “To be or not to be, a Protestant or Catholic ghost?”

  1. This is the clearest discussion I’ve yet seen of the problem of the ghost of Hamlet’s father, very elucidating in terms of theology, character motivation and narrative plotting. Bravo! (Or rather, Brava Sari!)

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Indeed, good analysis. I’m reminded a bit of how New England Puritans believed that God sent signs and portents into the world, through both usual events such as weather and unusual events, but that it was blasphemous to believe one could accurately decipher the meaning of those signs!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ah the Puritans. If memory serves, aren’t they the ones who believed only certain people by predetermination, were slated for heaven? The catch was, no one knew who these chosen were so it was up to everyone to live as if they had won the golden ticket to heaven. It’s hard for me to fathom this mindset. But I guess the lesson was close to “better be safe than sorry”.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That’s basically correct. It’s “predestination,” and was a belief of the followers of John Calvin, which also included the Scots Presbyterians.

        While a good Puritan was supposed to live in a state of spiritual anxiety, socially the Puritans acknowledged in fact some indications that one was saved. You couldn’t become a full member of the Puritan church unless you’d had a spiritual conversion experience that indicated you were among the saints. Earthly success for a hard-working Puritan was considered a sign that said Puritan was saved. (Naturally, did not apply to successful non-Puritans!)

        The internal problem for the New England Puritans was that religious fervor is not hereditary, and their children had many fewer personal conversion experiences than their parents. It’s embarrassing to be a good Puritan father and yet see most of your children denied full church membership. So the Halfway Covenant was devised in 1662 to give insufficiently pious children a pathway to church membership, but it proved controversial. The Puritan church would wrestle with membership requirements right up to the schism that created the Unitarian and Congregational churches in the early 19th century.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Thanks for the history lesson Brian. I’ve never heard of the Halfway Covenant. It would be hard to experience conversion if you were born into the only religion available. It would just become the normal part of life as is anything that we are born into. Fascinating that the Puritan idea split, but you can almost see the path leading up to it.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. One of the most fascinating discussions about the ghost in Hamlet. I read somewhere, and I wish I could remember where, that the only true moral lesson Hamlet taught was to never listen to ghosts, because look at the havoc the ghost wreaks. That, and your article, definitely stand out in my mind as fascinating treatises on ghosts.


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