Folkore, Religion & Revenge: The Transformation of Ghosts in Shakespeare

By Hannah V.

Many of the ghosts portrayed in literature and drama before the Renaissance alluded to the underworld or a certain “hell” of some sort. This folklore linked to Medieval England planted similar ideas into Elizabethan audience members, suggesting that the deceased who allegedly roamed Earth at night were damned, haunting citizens until they could rest in peace. Perceptions changed, however,when  the Catholic Church Screen Shot 2014-05-02 at 5.16.50 PM  created the concept of Purgatory to explain this strange “haunting” phenomenon parishioners claimed to see (Moorman 197). While many of the works before Shakespeare’s time referenced a Senecan theme when representing ghosts, Shakespeare gave spirits a more Protestant outlook (196). Most were placed as catalysts for tactical revenge plots, figures bent on correcting the wrongdoings that caused their demises. Thus Shakespeare gave his phantoms more important roles in his theatrical works. The ghosts plaguing Brutus, Macbeth, Hamlet, and Richard III had speaking roles and personality (192). What’s more, the apparitions were claiming revenge for the Greater Good rather than simply personal vengeance; they aimed to uphold social hierarchies, to overthrow the villains that had killed them and to give power to those who were in the right. These themes reinforced other subplots in the plays that the murderers of these spirits were later confronted with; for example, Brutus experiences failure after the ghost of Caesar predicts it. Macbeth and Richard III are both murderers, where both experience a guilty conscience from the appearance of their victims (Stoll, 202).
Prior to Shakespeare’s time, ghosts were portrayed as orbs of light or unrecognizable shapes; they had no human characteristics whatsoever. Shakespeare also changed this conception radically. The ghosts on the Elizabethan stage were human in form, appearing as they did after death just as they would when they were still living. If poisoned, their bodies would be plagued with lesions, if stabbed, the wounds still bloody.  For example, “C. H. Herford states: “More nearly than any other figure…moves with supernatural exemptions from the bonds of space and time, seems ‘not like the inhabitants of earth and yet is on’t'” (Smith, 1004). The human-like qualities these nonhuman figures possessed throughout the plays questioned what happened to a person after death. Some believed a person’s spirit could roam the Earth as long as their body was still available—many criminals’ bodies and such other victims’ bodies were cremated to rid the chance that the spirit could come back (Stoll).
The ghosts in Shakespeare raise many questions about humanness after death. The King of Denmark is portrayed still wearing his armor, as if he were riding into battle. Hamlet’s father shows affection towards Gertrude, even though she was partially responsible for his demise (Moorman, 200). Their ability to speak, persuade, to feel, as well as having an initiative to seek out the ones that murdered them, gave them qualities of humanness and humanity that other literary ghosts before the early modern era did not have. This innovative way of portraying life after death, that one could still remain human even if the body perished, pushed the envelope of acceptable culture in Renaissance England. What began as folklore, then a religious explanation, finally became a major part of Shakespeare’s success. We can see the trail Shakespeare’s ghost began, a trend that is still occurring in literature and drama today, with ghosts and spirits claiming characteristics of humanness with their speech and actions towards other human beings.
Hannah is currently a student at Ball State University studying Creative Writing with a minor in Professional Writing and Emerging Medias. She is hoping to attend graduate school after her graduation next May.She is also an avid St. Louis Cardinals fan, and enjoys being outside and reading.
Image: Griffin, Caitlin. “The Ghost of Hamlet.” Digital image. Folger Shakespeare Library. N.p., 28 Oct. 2010. Web. 21 Apr. 2014. <;.
Moorman, F.W. “Shakespeare’s ghost.” Modern Language Review. 1.3 (1906): 192-201. Web. 28 Mar. 2014.
Smith, Fred Manning. “The Relation of Macbeth to Richard III.” PMLA. 60.4 (1945): 1003-20. Web. 15 Mar. 2014.
Stoll, Elmer Edgar. “The Objectivity in the Ghosts of Shakespeare.” PMLA. 22.2 (1907): 201-233. Web. 21 Mar. 2014.



About MGN

Miranda Garno Nesler is a specialist in early material culture, gender, textuality, and animal studies. View all posts by MGN

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