Teaching Shakespeare!

A Folger Education Blog

Ghostly Shakespeare

Hamlet: "I'll make a ghost of him that lets me!"

Shakespeare wrote some pretty scary stuff. Besides the chilling Witches in Macbeth, he wrote in several roles for ghosts. We’re familiar with the Ghost of Hamlet’s father, which appears and re-appears to spur Hamlet onto revenge (and may have been played by Shakespeare himself when the play was produced by his company).

There is also the ghost of Julius Caeasar, which returns to haunt Brutus on the eve of battle at Phillipi, portending that Brutus will not survive (IV.iii). Similarly, Richard III is haunted by the ghosts of those he has had killed for his crown, and they tell him to “despair and die” while encouraging Richmond to “live and flourish” (V.iii).

Ghost of Caesar: "thou shalt see me at Philippi"

What would Shakespeare’s audience have thought about the presence of ghosts? Here is an excerpt from our study guide for Hamlet about that:

“There were many common beliefs about the nature of spirits that would have shaped the ideas Shakespeare’s audience held towards the ghost.  The Protestants believed that there was no such thing as Purgatory and that once a human passed from life to death, they went immediately to heaven or hell, never to leave once they were there.  Therefore, since a ghost could not be a human, it could only be a good or evil spirit – an angel or, more likely, a demon who takes on human qualities in order to tempt the living.  While the Catholics would have agreed that a true spirit of the departed could not come back to earth by their own free will, they did believe that such a miracle could occur if God willed it to be so.  In that rare case, the consequences would be great to not heed the message the spirit brought.  If none of the above were true, the only other option was that the “ghost” was merely a hallucination of an unstable mind. ”

Richard: What do I fear? myself? there's none else by:

It is interesting to note that most or all of these invocations and visitations take place on the eve of battle. ghosts appear to prepare (or shake) the battle’s leader. If the ghosts are a figment of an unstable mind, what does that say about the characters they appear to? If they are demons or angels or miracles, how does that change the way the story is interpreted?

If that’s not enough Halloween for you, try on these Shakespearean Costume ideas from Shakespeare Geek.

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