Ghosts of Shakespeare

by J. M. Pressley, SRC Editor

Noted playwright, William Shakespeare. (Credit: National Portrait Gallery, London)

Shakespeare Fun Fact

According to Nicholas Rowe's early biography, Shakespeare played the part of the ghost in Hamlet in what was described as "the top of his performance."

"I am thy father's spirit,
Doom'd 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."
Hamlet (1.5.14-18)

Shakespeare made sparing use of ghosts in his plays, but when he used them, he made them memorable. But why use them at all? And was Shakespeare evincing a belief in actual ghosts, or do the ghosts of Shakespeare's works represent, in the words of Macbeth, "a false creation / Proceeding from the heat-oppressèd brain?"


Like many aspects of Elizabethan drama, ghosts originate with the classical Roman plays of Seneca. These plays often include ghosts, witches, and other supernatural elements combined with plots of bloody violence and revenge. In short, just the type of material that would have thrilled Elizabethan audiences. The revenge tragedy became a popular genre of early Elizabethan drama, including seminal plays such as Gorboduc and The Spanish Tragedy. Over time, ghosts became a bit of a trope, usually appearing in the prologue of a play to dole out exposition and seeking revenge for their own untimely deaths.

By the heyday of Shakespeare's career, however, the traditional ghost was viewed as somewhat trite at best. At worst, it was mocked. In the beginning of A Warning for Fair Women, this kind of ghost is derided as one who "Comes screaming like a pig half-stickt / And cries Vindicta, revenge, revenge." Perhaps to avoid the negative association, Shakespeare steered away from this standard usage. On the other hand, he knew his audience.

Elizabethan Attitudes

Before the advent of the English Reformation, there was a fairly widespread belief that spirits could return from the dead. A ghost might manifest as a vision to an individual, as the corporeal form of a soul visiting from Purgatory, or as a malicious spirit intent on deceiving the living. Once England had turned Protestant, however, the official stance of the church was that souls did not return to the physical world until Judgement Day—ghosts were either hallucinations or, even worse, demons sent to tempt and mislead people.

Of course, old beliefs die hard, especially when England whipsawed from Catholic to Protestant back to Catholic and finally back to Protestant, all within the span of 25 years. It's most likely that a majority of the audience attending the plays might have professed that they didn't believe in ghosts per se, but would have feared them as real nonetheless. They were certainly superstitious enough; Elizabethans believed in witches, demons, omens, and astrology, among other things. It's not unreasonable to assume that they would have believed in ghosts as well. The only argument would seem to be whether the ghost in question was, as Hamlet says, "a spirit of health or goblin damn'd."

Shakespeare's Ghosts

The ghosts in Shakespeare's plays vary in their roles. What do they have in common? In each play, they signify that major changes are in store for the characters they visit. But let's take a look at each play's circumstances to see how Shakespeare used an old trope in new ways.

Richard III
The night before the Battle of Bosworth Field, the ghosts of those Richard has killed visit the camps of both Richmond (who is crowned later as Henry VII) and Richard. This happens with both characters asleep on the stage. Each character blesses Richmond and curses Richard. This ends with Richard awaking violently with the lines "Give me another horse: bind up my wounds. / Have mercy, Jesu!—Soft! I did but dream. / O coward conscience, how dost thou afflict me!" Meanwhile, Richmond wakes up refreshed, saying, "Methought their souls, whose bodies Richard murder'd, / Came to my tent, and cried on victory."

Here the ghosts play into the theme of revenge, and even though they are dismissed by both men as dreams, they definitely appear and have tangible impacts on the characters. While one could argue that the ghosts are unnecessary, the play was very early in Shakespeare's career, and the ghosts could have been an elaboration of the story from Holinshed's Chronicles.

Julius Caesar
By the time the ghost of Caesar appears, Brutus is at a low ebb. He's murdered his best friend with the noblest intentions, and it seems like he's been played for a fool in doing so. He's been driven from Rome, he and Cassius are quarrelling, he faces an army intent on his destruction, and he's just been informed that his wife committed suicide. On the eve of the decisive Battle of Philippi, Brutus is confronted by Caesar's ghost, who ominously says that he'll see Brutus on the battlefield.

The beauty of this short scene is that even with Brutus's fatalism, it's so open to dramatic possibilities. However it's played, the ghost's visit absolutely signifies that the fortunes of Brutus have all but hit bottom—and Brutus knows it.

The most famous and plot-driven of Shakespeare's ghostly inventions, the ghost of Hamlet's father is the catalyst for everything that happens in the play. The ghost is also the most straightforward of spirits; he tells Hamlet to avenge his murder at the hands of his brother, Claudius. It seems like he's omnipresent in the play, even though he is mostly done by the end of Act 1. He also makes a brief reappearance in Act III, intervening as Hamlet confronts his mother.

The scene in the third act makes the ghost inconsistent; practically everyone could see him in the first act, but with Gertrude, he's visible only to Hamlet. This has raised some questions about both ghost and play alike. Is it intentional or an authorial oversight? There's also a cottage industry in writing about how the ghost conforms more to Catholic or Protestant theology, whether it's from Purgatory or Hell, and whether the ghost of Act III is Hamlet's tormented conscience driving him mad rather than the actual ghost itself. But the father's ghost is definitely Shakespeare's contribution to the story—he's not part of the original source material, Amleth by Saxo Grammaticus.

Macbeth is riding high in Act III. He has successfully killed Duncan, seemingly pinned the blame on Duncan's son, been crowned king, and has just received the welcome news that Banquo has been murdered on his orders. Such a victory is a fitting reason to call for a feast with all his new vassals. There is, however, one uninvited and unwelcome guest—the bloody ghost of Banquo, who is visible only to Macbeth but says nothing. The new king becomes, in the words of Lady Macbeth, "quite unmann'd in folly."

The banquet scene is unquestionably the point at which Macbeth's fortunes spiral downward until his bloody end. The only philosophical question is whether the ghost is real (at least to Macbeth) or, like the dagger of the play's famous soliloquy, a phantom manifestation of Macbeth's guilt. Either way, this is a quick, effective transition into Macbeth's downfall. 

While Posthumus sleeps imprisoned, the ghosts of his father, mother, and younger brothers gather around him and summon Jupiter. They appeal to the god to "Take off his miseries," then vanish. Posthumus wakes up none the wiser, believing it all to have been a dream.

This marks the last appearance of ghosts in Shakespeare's works, and it breaks the mold in three ways. First, the ghosts are not the vengeful spirits of murdered characters. Second, the ghosts do not directly interact with any living characters on stage. Third, they are actively and beneficially intervening on a character's behalf. Whatever Shakespeare's reasons for including them in the play, they serve little purpose other than to provide a reason for Jupiter to appear in in a blaze of theatrical spectacle.

In Closing: Drama Versus Superstition

Like their Senecan predecessors, Shakespeare's ghosts often make their appearance at pivotal points in the story, harbingers of changing fortunes. Shakespeare isn't trying to convince his audience that ghosts are real. The texts neither confirm nor preclude the author from believing in them himself. Shakespeare simply appropriated a theatrical convention of his time as a plot device.

Sources/Further Reading

The British Library, Ghosts in Shakespeare, Ghostly Comings and Goings in Shakespeare's Plays, Ghosts, Witches, and Shakespeare, Shakespeare on Ghosts, Shakespeare's Ghosts and Spirits