Table of Contents
Elizabethan Belief in Ghosts and Witches
The Ghost in Hamlet
The Witches in Macbeth
Hamlet and Macbeth are two of Shakespeare’s most successful and greatest tragedies. One reason why this can safely be said, is that both tragedies are two of the greatest written by Shakespeare and both are some of the most written about plays in all Western literature. Given the great interest, that has scholars and critics captured and fascinated to continue writing and interpreting every character, theme, and every turn of events throughout the years. Both tragedies have much in common, as they open in the country in which the action took place, with a reigning monarchy, which is threatened from both interior and exterior of the country, as the murder of a king and the approach of an enemy armament, are at the center of both plots. The murderer in both plays is a kinsman of the king, occupying the throne out of greed for power but is being punished by death at the end of the tragedy. Both plays are located abroad, as Hamlet is placed in medieval Denmark and Macbeth in medieval Scotland.
But what these plays have most in common is that the supernatural is playing a key role. The ghost of the old King in Hamlet and the three witches in Macbeth are determining the two protagonists’ actions and the establishment of the plays’ atmosphere from the outset.
The supernatural in Hamlet and Macbeth was influenced by beliefs prevalent during Shakespeare’s lifetime.
Elizabethan Belief in Ghosts and Witches
The Elizabethan Age was named after Queen Elizabeth (1558- 1603) and is also known as the golden age in English history. This era saw the flowering of poetry, music and literature, but is most known for the change of theatrical styles. Shakespeare and other compositors broke free from the past styles of England’s theater. During that time most people believed in the existence of the supernatural and with that in the existence of ghosts and witches, which are included in Hamlet and Macbeth.
If we are talking about the believe of the supernatural existence of ghosts during the Elizabethan period, as an example in favor for the ghost of the old king in Hamlet, we have to take a closer look into the time Shakespeare wrote Hamlet.
During the 16th Century believing in ghosts was a common belief of the supernatural. With regard to the attitudes towards ghosts, the theological background played a big role, as Catholics believed in ghosts as spirits of the dead from Purgatory, the unclear located spot between heaven and hell where the souls of those who in life were not good enough to go to heaven, and not bad enough to be sent to hell, went to be cleansed of their sins and made suitable to enter heaven. Catholics believed that ghosts were “allowed to return from Purgatory for some special purpose, which it was the duty of the pious to further if possible, in order that the wandering soul might find rest” (Wilson, 62).
For English Protestants, who were the religious majority and were the target group of Hamlet, it was not as easy to explain ghosts, since they did not believe in Purgatory because for them the dead went either to heaven or to hell, “crossing in either event a ‘burn from which no traveller returns’”(Wilson, 62) thus seeing ghosts as apparitions send from either heaven or hell. Those from hell came with bad intentions, whereas the ones from heaven with good. Although Protestants believed that some ghosts might be angels in spirit form the general public perceived them as “nothing but devils, who ‘assumed’ […] the form of departed friends or relatives, in order to work bodily or spiritual harm upon those to whom they appeared” (Wilson, 62).
The belief in witches is older than the practice of Christianity in England and in the rest of the world that is now Christian. The Jesuit theologian Martin Del Rio, who taught among others at the University of Mainz, defined witchcraft in 1599 as followed:
“[Witchcraft is] an art which, by the power of a contract entered into with the Devil, some wonders are wrought which pass the common understanding of men” (Robbins, 546), for him and theologians witchcraft meant one thing, a union with the Devil to do evil. For both Catholic and Protestant witchcraft was heresy, as they perceived it as “simply the attempt to control nature in man’s own interest” (Robbins, 547).
During the 16th century the punishment for doing witchcraft changed from a minor crime, which was perceived as a “crime against man”, for example, to get even with a rival to a “crime against God” (Robbins, 161), which was regarded and treated by the Catholic Inquisition. Through Shakespeare’s lifetime, the witchcraft accusation reached its peak, and the victims found guilty had to suffer a punishment on a regular bases by torture or death. If the Inquisition did not prosecute the accused person, he or she still had to face an extreme punishment within the community. This punishment was legitimized, because a convicted witch was believed to have made a contract with the Devil to renounce the Christian God. Witches were believed to be male or female, the worst kind was thought to be female though. Female witches were traditionally pictured as old women, ugly and wrinkled (Robbins, 542- 543) as they are still today.
As with ghosts, even among those who did believe, not everyone believed in them the same way. Some believed that witches were humans, not supernatural beings, who had sold their souls to the devil to gain the abilities to see in the future, the power to command nature, and to do evil with magical charms. Others believed that witches were supernatural beings, a state they gained through the pact with the devil, who simply turn into humans to trick and harm people.
The Ghost in Hamlet
The supernatural form in Hamlet not only symbolizes a key element in the plot and atmosphere but it appears only a few times. Even though the ghost in Hamlet and the witches in Macbeth only appear a number of times it is the way Shakespeare makes those brief appearances count in the plot to make them stand out and important. Although the ghost only appears four times throughout the play and only speaks in two of them he sets the atmosphere and direction of the further actions.
Unlike in Macbeth the supernatural has only one form in Hamlet as the ghost of the deceased King Hamlet, the father of the protagonist. As he is a ghost speaking from the dead his words carry a much more deeper meaning and thus makes up for his brief appearances throughout the play.
The first appearance of the ghost is on a dark winter night outside Elsinore Castle in Denmark, where a pair of watchman are on guard duty, being joined by Horatio on request, as they want to show him the appearance of the ghost they have seen two previous nights before. The two guards urge Horatio to speak to the ghost. This is exactly what Shakespeare’s audience expects, as he is better qualified to do so, since he is a well-educated man who could protect himself in case an evil spirit from hell would try to harm him. As Horatio approaches the ghost and requests him to speak he disappears leaving the men uncertain of his identity, but gives them enough evidence to agree on the Ghost’s resemblance with the dead king. Marcellus, who is one of the guards, asks Horatio why the country of Denmark is mobilizing for war (I.I 70-79), he explains that Denmark is threatened by an invasion from the Norwegian prince Fortinbras. Shakespeare is using Marcellus question just to give plot information about the background of the dispute between Denmark and Norway, as it is questionable that a professional soldier such as Marcellus would not know about the mobilization for war. But as consequence of this question Horatio indicates the appearance of the dead king as a sign of warning for the upcoming dispute between the two countries. Right after this assumption the ghost reapers and Horatio continues confronting him with the reason why he came and asks how he can comfort him and if he is trying to warn them of danger, or if it is unsettled because of a buried treasure during its life. During Shakespeare’s time the public believed, that a buried treasure of someone who passed away was one reason for ghosts to remain in the living world. But once again before getting an answer the ghost disappears with the crow of the cock and Horatio commands the guards to tell prince Hamlet what they have seen and to tell him that although the ghost did not speak to them he will speak to him.
In Act I.2 the audience is being prepared for what is going to happen in Act I.4. Hamlet who is in a stage of bitterness after losing his father and witnessing his mother getting married to his uncle, making him King, only 3 months after his fathers death, is in a stage of disbelieve after hearing Horatio’s encounter with the ghost. Hamlet swears that:
“If it assume my noble father's person,
I'll speak to it, though hell itself should gape
And bid me hold my peace. “ (1.2. 247-249)
What’s interesting is that hell comes to his mind first, making clear that he expects the ghost to do him harm rather than good.
In Act I.4 Hamlet is immediately struck by the resemblance of the ghost with his father, but is still careful as he is aware of the danger that comes with ghosts, as they can be “airs from heaven or blasts from hell” (1.4. 20). Up to this point we can safely state, that Hamlet is taking the side of the Protestant view of ghosts, which come from either heaven or hell. Wilson argues that “an established Protestant Church was a feature of Denmark,”(Wilson 69-70) just as it was a feature of Shakespeare’s England. The question whether the Ghost in Hamlet is a Protestant or a Catholic ghost is and has been discussed by a lot of scholars, West says that an audience just did not know the truth about the Ghost with certainty, as Shakespeare did not want them to know (West 63).
The scene ends with Hamlet asking why he has come and the Ghost commanding him to follow. Hamlet shows a great deal of courage as he follows him through the fog, even though it is still uncertain on whether the ghost is good or bad. In spite of Horatio’s and Marcellus’ warning he vanishes and they end up following him with Marcellus remarking that “something is rotten in the state of Denmark” (I.4. 64).
In Act I.5 the ghost tells Hamlet that he has to listen carefully of what he is about to say, as he has to return to “sulph'uous and tormenting flames” (I.5.5). This statement at first indicates that he is talking about the fires of hell. But the ghost goes on to reveal his identity as the father’s spirit who is:
“Doom'd for a certain term to walk the night,
And for the day confin'd to wastein fires,
Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature
Are burnt and purg'd away. But that I am forbid
To tell the secrets of my prison-house“ (I.5. 10-14)
Which in return sounds much like the description of Purgatory, as he has to"undergo purification […] to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven" (Catholic Church), which again is an indication of Shakespeare mixing the evidence so that the audience is not sure where the Ghost comes from “for the sake of dramatic impact” (West 63). In the following conversation the Ghost orders Hamlet to avenge his death, as his brother has killed him before him having the chance to confess his sins in front of the church thus cleaning him of his sins and settle his account with God (I.5. 76-77). Hamlet agrees to fulfill this task and revenge his death. After Horatio and Marcellus catch up on Hamlet he tells them that it is a genuine spirit (I.5. 138) and makes them promise to keep this secret. With the Ghost echoing from beneath “Swear by his sword” (I.5. 162) the Act ends and the ghost disappears until Act III.4.
A lot of events happen until the ghost reappears in Act III.4, as Hamlet who is somewhat convinced of the genuine intentions of the ghost tests Claudius, his uncle and King, by having players reenact the killing scene of his father to see by his reaction whether the ghost spoke the truth or not. When Hamlet gets his proof that the ghost spoke the truth, the audience of Shakespeare fully understands Hamlet’s doubts about the Ghosts intensions and is now satisfied that it is an honest ghost. And those of the audience who were ignorant of the Elizabethan ghost beliefs were satisfied as well.
Before the final appearance of the Ghost, Hamlet is being called to see his mother, first by his old friends from Wittenberg Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (III.2. 324-325), and Polonius (III.2.3, 367-368). In the Queens boudoir Polonius hides behind a tapestry to listen to the conversation between Gertrude, the queen, and her son Hamlet. Before entering Gertrude’s chamber Hamlet witnesses Claudius kneeling in solitary prayer, but is not taking advantage to kill his uncle and revenge his father out of anxiety that Claudius, unlike King Hamlet, would die confessed thus going to heaven (III.3. 36-98). As Hamlet enters and Polonius listens to his threatening speech to his mother and hearing the queen crying out for help, Hamlet instinctively reacts on the movement of the tapestry and stabs through it, expecting Claudius to hide behind it but instead killing Polonius. This is the climax of a series of events that have taken place on stage, when the Ghost suddenly appears.
In this scene only Hamlet can see the Ghost, which separates it from the others, as the audience might get the image of Hamlet hallucinating the ghost as a product of his melancholy. The Ghost speaks only a few lines, as the first two are reproaching Hamlet for not having revenged his father’s murder. This reproach towards Hamlet may strike an audience as unfair. As the audience knows that the only opportunity Hamlet had was when he saw Claudius praying. The Ghost is upset with Hamlet not taking action when he had the chance, as he unlike the audience cannot enter into Hamlet’s mind to know the reason for him not killing Claudius at that time. Wilson argues at that point, that the Ghost in fact is a Ghost, as angels and spirits cannot read the minds of humans (Wilson 250, note 2). With the dissatisfaction of the Ghost Hamlet in his depression blames himself for not being “more” active in carrying out his fathers “dread command” (III.4.108). At the end Hamlet gets his revenge but dies with Claudius on stage.