“List, list, O list!”
– Ghost, Hamlet, 1.5.28
We were reading Hamlet the other day and we got to the part where the ghost of Hamlet’s father says, “List!”
“A list?” we thought. “Now there’s an idea for a blog post!” Just in time for Halloween, here’s our ranking of the five spookiest ghosts in Shakespeare’s plays.
The ghosts are ranked with our patented Shakespeare & Beyond Spookiness Rating. It accounts for factors including Demeanor, Motivation, Prophecy, Blood ‘n’ Guts, and Frightening Activities, and is assessed by the three people who share this office and a few other people who walked in looking for a check request form and got stuck talking about ghosts for half an hour (sorry, Dave, I’ll get it to you first thing tomorrow).
5. The Ghost of Julius Caesar (Julius Caesar)
Caesar’s ghost is one of the iconic Shakespearean spirits, but he’s far from being the Bard’s spookiest. In his brief Act 4 visit with Brutus, he gets off one good line (“Thy evil spirit, Brutus.” Chills!). But in general, he sounds like he’s dropping by to remind Brutus about a lunch meeting they scheduled: “And, don’t forget we have that meeting at Philippi.” “We’re meeting again?” “Right, at Philippi.” “Got it. See you at Philippi.”
Spookiness Rating: 3/10
4. The Fortune-Telling Spirit (Henry VI, Part 2)
A dark horse (nightmare?) candidate cracks the top five. We’re not sure if this spirit counts as a ghost, but it’s definitely spooky. This spirit is conjured by the wizard John Bolingbroke in Act 1, scene 4 of the play, to prophecy for the Duchess of Gloucester. Bolingbroke has some pretty spooky lines himself:
Patience, good lady. Wizards know their times.
Deep night, dark night, the silent of the night,
The time of night when Troy was set on fire,
The time when screech owls cry and bandogs howl,
And spirits walk, and ghosts break up their graves—
That time best fits the work we have in hand.
Madam, sit you, and fear not. Whom we raise
We will make fast within a hallowed verge.
– Bolingbroke, Henry VI, Part 2, 1.4
That said, the Spirit politely answers all the questions they ask it and promptly goes away when they command, after which the people who conjured it up are promptly arrested. Ultimately, this ghost doesn’t demonstrate enough initiative to be truly spooky.
Spookiness Rating: 4/10
3. The Ghosts of Richard’s Victims (Richard III)
Stanley Kubrick got it: there’s nothing spookier than a pair of undead children.
The ghosts of the murdered princes Edward and Richard may not be as terrifying as The Shining’s twin spooks. But the child-ghosts are only two of the spirits that come to visit Richard III on the eve of the Battle of Bosworth Fields. In total, eleven spirits appear to Richard, including his wife Anne, his old pal Buckingham, and King Henry VI. The long queue of ghosts—all admonishing Richard to “Despair and die!”—is seriously spooky stuff. Come play with us, Richard.
Spookiness Rating: 7/10
2. The Ghost of Hamlet’s Father (Hamlet)
“I am thy father’s spirit,
Doomed for a certain term to walk the night
And for the day confined to fast in fires
Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature
Are burnt and purged away.”
– Ghost, Hamlet, 1.5
We know that the ghost of Hamlet’s father is spooky because Horatio tells us he is: when they see him, the soldiers Barnardo and Marcellus are “distilled almost to a jelly with the act of fear.” Now that’s spooky.
The ghost also benefits from the around-the-campfire atmosphere of the play’s first scene. No one can see clearly, there’s a chill in the air, and Bernardo, Marcellus, and Horatio swap ghost stories. Horatio helpfully reminds everyone that a little before Julius Caesar died, “the graves stood tenantless, and the sheeted dead / Did squeak and gibber in the Roman streets” as an omen. They discuss ghost-repellent solutions, like roosters crowing and Christmastime generally. By the time King Hamlet’s ghost appears dressed in armor, we’re ready for a good scare.
Spookiness Rating: 8.5/10
1. The Ghost of Banquo (Macbeth)
He shakes his gory locks! He sits in your chair! He’s cold-blooded! He’s got sightless eyes and marrowless bones! It’s the ghost of Banquo!
The speed with which Banquo rises from the grave is truly surprising: he appears to Macbeth in Act 3, scene 4, just one scene after he is murdered. He’s also only visible to Macbeth, which makes the scene perversely comic. When Macbeth’s lords ask him to sit down to dinner, Macbeth says that there’s no place saved for him—because Banquo’s ghost has slipped into the king’s chair. While Macbeth panics, Lady Macbeth begs him to stop being so dramatic so they can please just have a nice dinner with their friends for once.
That, when the brains were out, the man would die,
And there an end. But now they rise again
With twenty mortal murders on their crowns
And push us from our stools.”
How did Banquo’s ghost score a higher Spookiness Rating than King Hamlet? There’s a great line in Henry IV, Part 1 that explains. King Henry tells his son that before he was king, “By being seldom seen, I could not stir / But like a comet I was wondered at, / That men would tell their children ‘This is he.'” King Hamlet’s ghost appears to at least four people over the course of four scenes and delivers multiple monologues about his death. He’s overexposed; we get to know him too well.
Banquo accomplishes all of his gory lock-shaking in one scene with no lines, appearing, disappearing, and reappearing right where you were about to sit like an avenging Whoopie cushion. It’s that kind of performance that secures you the title of Shakespeare’s spookiest ghost.
Spookiness Rating: 10/10
Who do you think is the spookiest ghost in Shakespeare? Who’s your favorite? Who did we forget (we know, it’s Hermione from The Winter’s Tale)? Tell us in the comments.
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I`d like to make one assumption: the shadow of Hamlet’s father might be a made-up guard Francisco (after meeting with his father’s shadow, Hamlet said that the sight of the Ghost was `questionable`). In the opening scene, Francisco leaves the post, and soon before the sentinels the Ghost arises; all other nocturnal appearances of the Ghost also occur when Francisco is not on duty.
In this case, Francisco’s somewhat strange remarks become clearer: Bernardo, who came to change him, asked: “Was it calm on guard?”, To which the answer followed: `Not a mouse stirring`. And before that, Francisco said I was sick at heart but did not explain the reason. The words about the mouse at one time outraged Voltaire, who considered such a “low” detail to be inappropriate to the spirit of tragedy. We can say that Voltaire felt a certain stylistic roughness in these words, and Shakespeare often has a sign that something important is hidden here.
Our version: in this way, the playwright wanted to make it clear that some secret was connected with Francisco. It is likely that some people loyal to the king knew about the murder of the king, and Francisco was one of them — it was not by chance that Marcellus called him an “honest soldier”.
The ghost appears once again during the conversation of Hamlet with his mother, and only the prince sees him. We believe that Hamlet had a hallucination — as the queen said, “all this is just an inflamed brain.”
If our hypothesis is true, then there is no mysticism in the tragedy — “feudal realism”.
Lev — October 26, 2019
Most of the spirits in the plays are ambiguous I think, meaning we can never be certain whether they’re “real” in the play or projective or hallucinatory.
Charles W Kiley — October 28, 2019
This was a delightful read! Or did I mean to say frightful? Delightfully frightful? Anyway, I love your very scientific rating system, and I agree 10,000% that Banquo is the spookiest spook!
Carrie — October 30, 2019
I’m sorry, I think King Hamlet is the spookiest because he asks his son, his only child, to commit murder ignoring the consequences of what it would bring to his son to become a murderer. By appearing again in the bedroom scene, papa
ghost really puts the parental pressure on his son, and young Hamlet feels the shame:
Do you not come your tardy son to chide
That, lapsed in time and passion, let’s go by
Th’ important acting of your dread command?
I mean, REALLY?!?!
I know that I m judging this creepy dad through 21st century eyes, but asking you child to commit murder to avenge your own sibling hornet’s nest is NOT right! It’s creepy, it’s unacceptable and , in the words of my husband, “No good can come of this.”
That’s my story and I’m sticking to it!
Christine — October 30, 2019
Caesar’s ghost was actually pretty memorable in The Donmar Warehouse’s recent trilogy of all-female Shakespeare productions, starring Harriet Walter. There is a haunting dance between Walter’s Brutus and the ghosts of first Portia, then Caesar.
Katheryn — October 31, 2019
I’d also vote for King Hamlet’s ghost as the spookiest, as his second appearance to Hamlet Jr begs the question: Is Hamlet Insane? Why can he see the ghost, but his mother can’t? He’s truly haunted, and so are we. At least, I am, as my sympathies lie so much more with Hamlet than with Macbeth. Prince Hamlet and Macbeth are both complex characters, but Macbeth is a vicious cold-blooded murderer of his best friend, and poor Hamlet doesn’t wanna kill anybody.
Janet — October 28, 2021
You’re underselling Caesar! “When Caesar’s spirit comes ranging for revenge with Ate by his side come hot from hell to cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war” as Antony says. That is scary to me.
I would love an honorable mention for Posthumus’ ghost family in Cymbeline. They are not scary but so comically doleful that Jove comes down from heaven just to shut up their moaning and groaning.
Sam — October 28, 2021