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Shakespeare’s Sad Tale for Winter: Hamlet and the Tradition of Fireside Ghost Stories



CATHERINE BELSEY


The suspense that invests the elusive Ghost in Act 1 of Hamlet is unprecedented on the early modern English stage, where Senecan ghosts are commonly bloodthirsty but not eerie. Recent work has pointed to a purgatorial source for the Ghost, but this ascription ignores the long vernacular tradition, often at odds with clerical orthodoxy, of popular fireside stories or “winter’s tales.” Folk specters from the Middle Ages onward were corporeal, earthy, and dangerous; of uncertain origin, they presented themselves as bodies cast up by the sepulcher to revisit the night. Their stories stress the uncanny, investing them with an unearthly horror. Paradoxically, these ghouls may also be wistful, soliciting attention and regretting the loss of irrecoverable human warmth. At the same time, they long for rest. Like Old Hamlet, such figures often return to report their own undetected murders or to urge survivors to put right injustices perpetrated against their heirs. In addition, the walking dead offered the living a mirror where they were invited to see their own inevitable future. Hamlet’s encounter with the revenant who shares his name constitutes his first confrontation with his own mortality, the issue that will continue to haunt him and the imagery of the tragedy.



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