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Shakespeare & Beyond

“Haunt me still”: Shakespeare’s ghosts

During the spooky season of October, when there are many Shakespeare horrors to look to for inspiration — Macbeth’s witches, Titus Andronicus’s carnage, The Tempest’s magic, sprites, and Frankenstein-like “thing of darkness” — this young Shakespearean’s fancy always turns to thoughts of Shakespeare’s ghosts. Ghosts are wonderfully literary, serving as symbols and metaphors, as in Macduff’s plaintive cry about his murdered family, “My wife and children’s ghosts will haunt me still.” But at their best ghosts are powerfully theatrical, a way to make the spirit flesh and the metaphysical physical.

a ghostly man with a white beard and light behind him

Patrick Stewart as the Ghost in the 2008 Royal Shakespeare Company production of Hamlet, directed by Gregory Doran.

Shakespeare’s most famous ghost is probably Hamlet’s father, a commanding sepulchral creature who compels his son to avenge his murder. While most of Shakespeare’s ghosts appear to only one person, usually as manifestations of a guilty conscience, the ghost of King Hamlet is seen by several people. His presence haunts all of Elsinore, not just his son. Sometimes he’s played by the same actor who plays his brother Claudius, as Patrick Stewart did in the 2009 Royal Shakespeare Company production starring David Tennant.

Sometimes the Ghost is played by actors, plural: In a Boston University production (in which I played Claudius), the role was performed by the entire ensemble, who surrounded Hamlet, dividing the lines and making unearthly wind noises from all parts of the stage, and joining together to thunder such phrases as “Murder most foul” and “Remember me!”

A man wearing ragged robes and cat-eye contact lenses on stage

The Ghost (Larry Yando) in the 2012 Writers Theatre production of Hamlet, directed by Michael Halberstam. Costume design by David Hyman. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

In a more traditional casting, actor Larry Yando donned cat-eye contact lenses and a hidden microphone to play the Ghost in a 2012 production in Chicago. Because he doubled as the Player King and the First Gravedigger, his makeup couldn’t be too elaborate, but since no microphones were used for any other role — and because Writers Theatre is so wonderfully intimate — Yando’s memorable performance was enhanced by his inhuman eyes and the spectral electronic distortion of his voice.

Such enhancements must be used with care. When used onstage, too many Hollywood-style special effects can diminish the actors and, while dazzling the audience, distract from the mood of the play. John Mullan, writing for the British Library, speculates that in the Elizabethan era the “actors probably – on the day-lit stage of the Globe – had their skin whitened with flour.” There’s also the speculation that in the original production the Ghost was first played by Shakespeare himself, an idea dating back to Nicholas Rowe’s 1709 edition of the Complete Works, and a tradition that Maggie O’Farrell uses as (spoiler alert) the climax of her 2020 novel Hamnet. O’Farrell writes that Shakespeare, still grieving the death of his son four years before, brings Hamnet “back to life in the only way he can,” by placing him onstage twice, as both young prince Hamlet and his dead father. “In taking the role of the ghost,” O’Farrell writes, Shakespeare “changed places with his son” and “exchange[d] his child’s suffering for his own.” In addition to their power to scare, literary ghosts — onstage and on the page — can provide closure and give lost loved ones a kind of immortality.

Haunted characters exist in Shakespeare’s comedies, too, though no physical ghosts appear. As Dr. Edel Semple points out, “Sometimes Shakespeare kills off a character only to surprise or delight the audience with their return.” In Twelfth Night, Viola mourns the loss of her presumed-drowned brother Sebastian, and when he reappears — very much alive — she initially thinks he might be a ghost. “If spirits can assume both form and suit,” she warns, “You come to fright us.” In The Comedy of Errors, when the Antipholuses and Dromios of Syracuse and Ephesus are revealed as lost twins, the relief is palpable, but the fear and confusion at first remain. “Which is the natural man / And which the spirit?” wonders the Duke, while Antipholus of Syracuse cautiously approaches his father and asks, “Egeon art thou not, or else his ghost?”

Marc Antony (Geoff Elliott) and Caesar’s ghost (Miriam Kerzner) in the 2017 Rude Mechanicals production of Julius Caesar, directed by Ellicia Elliott.

By some measures, Banquo’s ghost in Macbeth is Shakespeare’s scariest, but the ghost of Julius Caesar returning to haunt Brutus can be pretty creepy, too, especially in the 2017 Rude Mechanicals production, in which director Ellicia Elliott brought “great Caesar’s ghost” back more times than Shakespeare’s script calls for. The ghost of Caesar became a lingering and foreboding presence, marking each character when they died with the ashes from Caesar’s will and welcoming them to what Hamlet describes as “that sleep of death” and “the undiscovered country from whose bourn / No traveler returns.” Of course, as Shakespeare’s plays prove, many travelers return from the spirit realm, including Hamlet’s own dead father, the evidence of which Hamlet hilariously ignores while caught up in his own rhetorical soliloquizing.

But my favorite Shakespeare ghosts are also his most innovative. The three witches present to Macbeth a series of apparitions, including “a show of eight kings,” all descendants of Banquo who will one day sit on the throne. Macbeth calls them “too like the spirit of Banquo,” disturbed by (in John Mullan’s phrase) this “parade of the dead.” Shakespeare is repeating a trick he created in Richard III, when eleven ghosts torment Richard the night before the Battle of Bosworth Field (and also encourage his opponent). These Ghosts of Monarchs Future and Victims Past surely inspired the most famous ghost story of all — Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol — whose protagonist Ebenezer Scrooge, unlike Macbeth and Richard, heeds the warnings of the four ghosts who visit him that fateful Christmas Eve.

And since, as Mamillius says in The Winter’s Tale, “A sad tale’s best for winter. I have one / Of sprites and goblins,” for my money spooky season happily extends through December.