Background to Shakespeare's Use of Ghosts

During the Middle Ages it was believed that the living and dead could communicate. The Bible was one source advocating belief through its stories of dreams and visions. The unusual story of King Saul and the shade of Samuel also added theological support to the role of ghosts (Felton 59). Ghost stories emerging from the pre-Reformation period show a male bias. Most of the ghosts were male as were the living who saw them (84).

The Catholic Church promoted the realm of Purgatory as a source for ghost stories though many of these were used to re-enforce Church doctrine. However, the Protestant Reformation caused additional challenges to ghosts as Purgatory was debated and rejected by new doctrines. Though the Catholic clergy endorsed Purgatory through the Council of Trent (1545 - 1563), the newly-formed Church of England denounced it in 1563 (Marshall 145). Protestants had to either explain the ghosts or sermonize against them.  

​Shakespeare wrote during the Elizabethan Era. Drama of that time drew subjects from history, popular religion and local folklore. Many of the stage based specters hail from the Middle Ages, which derived their entities from the prototypes produced by Seneca. Ghosts of this genre tended to be loud, angry, and obvious. By the time of Shakespeare spirits had lost some of their melodrama. They were less crude, left more of the horror to the imagination of the viewer, and stopped shrieking.  Ghosts typically displayed an intention or a purpose. Revenge remained a major topic along with protection of loved one as did prophesy, requesting burial, or warning of impending doom to a character in the play (Rogers 88; Stoll 205). 

Additional influences for the Shakespearean spook may have come from his reading materials. It is known that he read The Discovery of Witchcraft by Reginald Scot (1584). Scot's writing focused more on the witchcraft craze sweeping through England, but included information on ghosts. Scot was a skeptic and wrote about unfounded beliefs regarding the supernatural. While he ridiculed those who completely denied devils or spirits he also mocked the over-promotion of ghosts by Catholic scholars. His belief was that most 
apparitions arose from mental issues such as melancholy, timidity, drunkenness and false reporting. Shakespeare also read A Declaration of Egregious Popishe Impostures by Samuel Harsnett which presented more arguments against the Catholic Church, witchcraft and ghosts (Muir 232; Marshall 145).

​There were other contemporary publications that also dealt with the role of ghosts though it is not known if Shakespeare read them. In 1594, Thomas Nashe published The Terrors of the Night, or, a Discourse of Apparitions. It was tongue-in-cheek writing, but it offered a skeptical argument against ghosts, citing imagination and dreams as their sources.  Three years later the future king, James, presented his own interpretation of ghosts with Daemonologie, in forme of a dialogue. His belief-based script argues against skepticism and presents the devil as “the source of all ghostly apparitions….[to] delude the living” (Felton 95).

Shakespeare draws upon these traditions and makes something new with his ghosts. Unlike the emotional and moaning ghosts of the Middle Ages Shakespeare's are reasoning entities. They come with a purpose and for their acts (Rogers 88). Often, the ghosts continue to desire revenge, though they take it in different ways. The ghost of Caesar predicts the death of Brutus, while Macbeth's silent specter simply stares at him in accusation. Hamlet's father requests revenge upon his murderers and Richard's ghosts confront their murderer and wish him dead. Each ghost is specific to his desires.

With the shifting alliances to religious beliefs Shakespeare utilizes his own “explanatory ambiguities”  when utilizing ghostly characters (Marshall 147). He presents enough story and dialogue to make the viewer question the reality of the ghost. Aspects of facts frame the haunting while spectral activity focuses primarily on the guilty party alone. Macbeth's charged reaction combined with no other witnesses to the ghost indicates that he is hallucinating.  Caesar's ghost reveals itself as Brutus deals with a guilty conscience of inadvertantly creating a civil war in Rome.  Richard is asleep and alone experiences the rash of ghostly visits in the astral plane. The only exception to the lone witness rule is the ghost of Hamlet's father who is first seen by the guards and Horatio before Hamlet engages in dialogue with him. Though the Church of England abandoned Purgatory it does appear that this is the source of the kingly shade. Hamlet is innocent of his father's death but descends into madness by trying to avenge it. ”

Shakespeare, perhaps in response to the Protestant Reformation, also mixes in symbolic interpretation with his ghosts. They go against the normal worldly order. As such, they cause chaos not only for those who see them but for nearly all of the characters within the play. Shakespeare's specters also represent social disorder and political chaos (Marshall 143). Elizabethans prospered under its regent but questions of political succession remained.  England's sense of security hinged upon the health of its ruler and a seamless transfer of power from one generation to the next.  Elizabeth's lack of children and long reign was already remarkable but easily threatened.  The specter of rulership remained and manifested in Shakespeare's plays.  

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