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Shakespeare & Beyond

How Catholic and Protestant beliefs affect Hamlet's reaction to his father's ghost

Hamlet and ghost. J. Coghlan. [early 19th century?]. Folger Shakespeare Library.
Hamlet and ghost. J. Coghlan. [early 19th century?]. Folger Shakespeare Library.

Is the ghost real, or not?

When Hamlet first encounters his father’s ghost, the Danish prince’s reactions reflect Shakespeare’s understanding of the theological differences between early modern Catholics and Protestants regarding the spiritual realm, says David Scott Kastan, the George M. Bodman Professor of English at Yale University and the author of Will to Believe: Shakespeare and Religion.

On the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast last year, Kastan discussed the religious atmosphere of Shakespeare’s time, how that plays out in Shakespeare’s works, and what Shakespeare’s own theological beliefs might have been. In this excerpt from the interview with Neva Grant, Kastan imagines the Danish prince as a student of Martin Luther at the University of Wittenberg.

KASTAN: Ghosts were a sort of flashpoint, I would say, for early modern Christians, whether Catholic or Protestant, because the reality or the non-reality of ghosts is the place where the two theological distinctions become visible. What’s at stake in that is somehow, what do you have to do to be saved? So you see a ghost in Hamlet who claims to be essentially a purgatorial ghost. Well, the Catholic believes that there could be ghosts, there are purgatorial ghosts, spirits of the dead who have not yet been sent either to heaven or hell, but Protestants don’t.

I always have this fantasy of—Hamlet in the play goes to University at Wittenberg, which was Martin Luther’s university—I think the one thing that people might’ve known about Wittenberg. So I have this fantasy of Hamlet attending Luther’s lectures and not paying complete attention as princes are wont to do. But when people write about ghosts, what they tend to say is, “Most likely, what you’ve seen isn’t a ghost; it’s a hallucination, it’s too much beer, it’s too much sausage.” The second possibility would be, it could be a sort of angelic visitor, a minister from heaven. A third possibility would be that it’s demonic. And then only Catholics believe a fourth possibility, which is it could be a purgatorial ghost. The ghost presents himself as a purgatorial ghost. So it’s a Catholic ghost presenting himself to his Protestant-educated son.

GRANT: I love that.

KASTAN: There’s an interesting example in which Shakespeare has taken a contemporary theological controversy and turned it into the stuff of drama. And what the Prince Hamlet does when he sees the ghost, he responds like a perfectly, well-trained, Wittenberg, Lutheran student. He says, you know, “Be thou a spirit of health or goblin damned”; you know, are you an angel or are you a devil? “Bring with thee intents from heaven or blasts from hell”? And then he does this incredible thing. He says, “Thou com’st in such a questionable shape that I’ll call thee ‘Hamlet,’ ‘King,’ ‘Father,’ ‘Royal Dane.’” You know, somehow, “I know what I was taught, but here’s this thing that doesn’t make any sense, but, boy, it looks like daddy, and this is really unnerving.” You know, and then he can say to Horatio, “There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” I mean theology class doesn’t quite work for this thing.

GRANT: But as you also point out, and I found this so fascinating—as he and Horatio kind of puzzle over this ghost they use “he” and “it.” Sometimes they talk about it as “he” and sometimes they refer to it as more of a kind of a specter, as kind of something that’s really ephemeral.

KASTAN: Right, at the beginning when the soldiers see the ghost they only call it “it”. And that’s Horatio’s first instinct too. And then there’s this gradual slide as the “it” gives way to a “he.”

GRANT: Yeah.

KASTAN: And you know, you realize Hamlet… Part of what this story is is not so much theological but psychological in Hamlet’s yearning for his dead father that, you know, he never really got to say goodbye too.

Listen to the full Shakespeare Unlimited episode or read the transcript: Shakespeare and Religion


Excellent new perspectives on Hamlet like it

Karuna — December 28, 2017