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.

The Specter of Shakespeare’s Ghosts

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

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

Do you believe in ghosts? A recent Pew Research Center poll claims that one in five Americans believe in ghosts. 29% of those polled said they’ve seen a ghost. Over in the UK, a YouGov poll found that 1 in 3 people believe in ghosts. Yet, not all who believe in ghosts agree on what a ghost is. Some feel that ghosts are trapped souls due to a traumatic or untimely death. It is believed these trapped souls have unfinished earthly business and cannot break free of their earthly bonds until they complete their work. This is why these ghosts attempt to contact the living; they want our help. Others believe ghosts are memory charged energy. These ghosts don’t contact us. Instead, they wander old houses and walkways, paying us no attention at all. As if they are nothing more than a moment in time, doomed to play out over and over again.

The belief in ghosts and the argument over their nature is not a modern invention. Some of man’s earliest ideas about life after death involve the supernatural. Depending on one’s religious beliefs, ghosts can be a source of comfort or utter terror. The belief in ghosts is ingrained in our collective psyche, so much so that we find them in ancient writing and oral narratives. Whether we believe in them or not, ghosts it seems, have always been a part of the human condition.

One of the most widespread ideas about the nature of ghosts is the idea that ghosts appear to the living in order to exact justice. These ghosts have come to be known as “Vengeful Ghosts”. We find these ghosts in almost every culture. In ancient Greece they were known as the Keres, in China, the Mogwai. The generic term for them in Japan is the Onryo, though they have broken down into sub-ghosts, depending on the type of revenge they are seeking. Vengeful ghosts can be found in almost every ancient and modern culture, though for our purposes, we will be looking at them as part of the history of western plays.

The first recorded play dealing with vengeful ghosts comes from the Roman playwright Seneca. His tragedy Agamemnon begins with the Ghost of Thyestes provoking his son, Aegisthus, to revenge the wrongs inflicted on him by his brother Atreus and to foretell of coming events

But at length, though late and coming after death, the promise of dim prophecy is fulfilled to me, worn with my woes; that king of kings, that leader of leaders, Agamemnon, following whose banner a thousand ships once covered the Trojan waters with their sails, now that, after ten courses of Phoebus, Ilium is o’erthrown, now is he near at hand – to give his throat into his wife’s power. Now, now shall this house swim in blood other than mine; swords, axes, spears, a king’s head cleft with the axe’s heavy stroke, I see; now crimes are near, now treachery, slaughter, gore – feasts are being spread. The author of thy birth has come, Aegisthus. Why dost hang thy head in shame? Why doth thy trembling hand, doubtful of purpose, fall? Why doest take counsel with thyself, why turn the question o’er and o’er whether this deed become thee? Think on thy mother; it becomes thee well”.

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 rather 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’. Though the influence is clear, there is a noted difference. In Kyd’s play the living does not interact with the dead. The supernatural is shown as emotions personified. Leaving us to wonder if  Kyd is uncomfortable with the idea of ghosts as souls.

As revenge plays rose in popularity a recurring trope had the ghost appearing somewhere in a corner moaning or wailing “revenge, revenge!” Of course this overused trope attracted some critics. The anonymously written play, A Warning for Fair Women, (late1590s), begins with a debate between personified Comedy and Tragedy in which the former mocks the latter for often featuring “a filthy whining ghost”.

Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy is widely regarded as having much influenced Shakespeare’s Hamlet, though the often mentioned but lost Kyd play we call Ur-Hamlet, seems to be the one that Shakespeare really drew from with one notable exception; Shakespeare’s ghost not only talks to the living, he gives direction to his son just as Seneca’s ghost instructed his. Shakespeare borrowed Kyd’s plot, yet it is Seneca’s ghost that we see in Shakespeare’s play.

Hamlet’s ghost appears in act 1. Though he is mute to those that see him first, it is clear he has something to say. The night watchmen alert Horatio, thinking the ghost will talk to a educated man. “Thou art a scholar; speak to it, Horatio”. When this doesn’t work, Horatio decides to tell Hamlet. As we all know, the ghost finally speaks.

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 on end,
Like quills upon the fretful porpentine.
But this eternal blazon must not be
To ears of flesh and blood.

Unlike Thyestes, Hamlet the elder does not spend time foretelling of future events, which is too bad as he could have saved Hamlet’s life, but instead, chooses to talk of his own fate and tell the story of his murder at the hands of his  brother. He instructs his son to revenge his “murder most foul”. He ends his story by telling Hamlet to “Remember me”, thus demanding that his memory be best kept alive by killing his murderer.

Painting of Edmund Kean as Hamlet
Painting of Edmund Kean as Hamlet

It is possible that had this been the only point in the play that we see and hear the ghost, his appearance may not be so haunting (yes pun intended) but as the play progresses, and Hamlet seems to be losing his way, the ghost appears again; this time to remind Hamlet of his duty to his memory and to stop Hamlet from verbally abusing his mother; to see her spiritual innocence as it battles with her earthly passions.

“Do not forget: this visitation
Is but to whet thy almost blunted purpose.
But, look, amazement on thy mother sits:
O, step between her and her fighting soul:
Conceit in weakest bodies strongest works:
Speak to her, Hamlet”.

In Hamlet, Shakespeare has given us a ghost that while vengeful, is not blinded by his rage. He wants only to punish his murder; his wife’s weakness is tolerated because she is only hurting herself. Only the queen can save her own soul, though the King asks that she be comforted and understood. The ghost is one of the few characters in the play that portrays compassion and kindness.

Because of this, we see that Shakespeare re-imaged ghosts as fully fleshed out characters. Shakespeare’s ghosts, though not always chatty, move away from the shadows and enter the drama center stage. As noted in my previous post, A quick guide to Shakespeare’s Ghosts, Shakespeare’s use of ghosts advances how they are used in western drama. But Hamlet is not the only time we see Shakespeare’s ghosts influence human drama.

In Macbeth, the ghost of Banquo serves to illustrate Macbeth’s unraveling. Banquo’s mute ghost sitting in Macbeth’s chair causes a mental breakdown and quietly predicts the end of Macbeth’s reign of terror.

The same could almost be said for the Ghost of Julius Caesar when he visits Brutus. Though this time the ghost does speak and promises Brutus he will see him in battle. This interaction between the two could be seen as the result of Brutus’ mind playing tricks on him as his guilt over Caesar’s death begins to take its toll. But for our argument, let us assume it is a ghost.

Shakespeare’s masterful use of ghostly characters influence how we view literary ghost today. A good example is Dickens’ chain rattling Marley. He is a result of Hamlet’s ghost. Here we have a ghost who also talks of his ‘after-life” and attempts to influence the living.

It is required of every man, that the spirit within him should walk abroad among his fellowmen, and travel far and wide; and if that spirit goes not forth in life, it is condemned to do so after death.  It is doomed to wander through the world, oh, woe is me! And witness what it cannot share, but might have shared on earth, and turned to happiness!”

This ghost not only warns Scrooge that he will share this fate and wear similar chains if he does not change his way, he summons three more ghosts to visit his partner in order to effect the change he seeks. And again we see a ghost display more compassion than the does the main character.

Shakespeare gave a voice to ghosts. His ghosts were not one dimensional characters; often they were supernatural characters that exhibited human qualities. And with out this, we wouldn’t have Gothic and modern horror we have today. Without Shakespeare, ghosts may be nothing more than filthy whiny sectors. I will leave that up to you to decide if this is a good or bad thing.

Next up, we will look at what 16th century religious turmoil influenced how Shakespeare used ghosts.

Works Cited

Anonymous A Warning for Fair Women Kessinger Publishing Print edition
Charles Dickens. A Christmas Carol Penguin Classic. Print edition
Theol Text Library SenecaAgamemnon. Web Site
William Shakespeare Hamlet Folger print edition