Shakespeare on Ghosts

Since Halloween is right around the corner, and since this is a huge topic in Shakespeare, I would like to talk a little bit about Shakespeare’s treatment of the living impaired, specters, spirits, in a word GHOSTS.

Ghosts appear in five Shakespearean plays: Julius Caesar, Hamlet, Richard the Third, Macbeth and Cymbeline. In all but one of these plays, and in many other Elizabethan and Jacobean dramas, a ghost is a murdered person who needs someone to avenge their deaths. Their function is to warn the hero of the play to revenge their deaths, and/ or to torment their murderers.

Ghosts have been part of western drama almost as long as there have been ghost stories. After all, the Greek and Roman plays that Shakespeare emulated often mention ghosts as warnings from above and below the world is in some kind of chaos. Most of the time, the kind of play in which you see a ghost is a Revenge Tragedy, plays like The Spanish Tragedy, Locrine, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and even the Disney movie of The Lion King.


The most potent example of a Shakespearean ghost is definitely  the ghost of Hamlet’s  father. I actually played this role and, rumor has it, so did Shakespeare himself! Hamlet’s father appears as a ghost two months after his death, and soon after his brother Claudius marries his widow Gertrude. The ghost’s purpose in the play is to get his son’s attention so that he can correct the terrible regicide that Claudius committed, allowing the Ghost to Rest In Peace.

Shakespeare describes the ghost as a pale, sorrowful figure, dressed in full armor. The ghost only speaks to his son in the play, and he begins with a strange and terrifying description of the afterlife:

Ghost: I am thy father’s spirit,

Doom’d for a certain term to walk the night,

And for the day confin’d to fast in 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 could a tale unfold whose lightest word

Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,

Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres,

Thy knotted and combined locks to part,

And each particular hair to stand on end

Like quills upon the fretful porcupine.

But this eternal blazon must not be

To ears of flesh and blood Hamlet Act I, Scene v.

Many scholars believe that the tormenting realm of fire that the ghost describes is actually Purgatory, an old Catholic concept that explains where the souls of the dead go if they are neither evil enough for Hell, or good enough for Heaven. It’s also the place where people go who didn’t confess their sins before death, which was the ghost’s fate since Claudius poisoned him while sleeping.

Though neither Hamlet nor his father explicitly say it, there is a strong implication that Hamlet must avenge his father by killing Claudius, which will presumably release the Ghost from Purgatory allowing it to ascend to Heaven.

Some suggest that the ghost is a manifestation of Hamlet’s superego:

Ernest Jones in his book Hamlet And Oedipusbelieved Hamlet had an unresolved Oedipus complex and couldn’t bring himself to revenge because Claudius had achieved the very goals Hamlet himself secretly desires to kill his father and marry his mother

Faced with his guilt and lack of moral integrity Hamlet could have created a supernatural superego to spur him to revenge. As Freud describes it, the superego

The superego is the ethical component of the personality and provides the moral standards by which the ego operates. The superego’s criticisms, prohibitions, and inhibitions form a person’s conscience, and its positive aspirations and ideals represent one’s idealized self-image, or “ego ideal.”

In essence, since (in Jones’ view), Hamlet is too morally corrupt to be an effective avenger for his father, Hamlet imagines the ghost to help justify his revenge to himself. This is of course, only one way of interpreting the ghost and Hamlet as a whole. There is no right or wrong interpretation for any of Shakespeare’s characters, but it is a testament to Shakespeare’s genius that, 400 years after his own death, his ghostly writings helped inspire one the architects of modern psychology.

Ghosts Of Torment

The ghost of Banquo in Macbeth and the ghosts that plague Richard the Third the night before his battle help quicken the murderous kings’ his downward spiral. Macbeth becomes more and more paranoid, and therefore easier for his foes to defeat.

When Julius Caesar’s Ghost appears to Brutus, he does so the night before his final battle- the battle of Philippi, where Brutus was defeated and committed suicide.

When Richard III sees the ghosts of all the people he murdered, it not only terrifies him, it splits his soul in half! According to Sir Thomas More, Richard couldn’t sleep the night before his final battle at Bosworth Field. Shakespeare gives Richard a strange soliloquy where the ghosts awaken his conscience and awaken him from a fearful dream:

[The Ghosts vanish]

[KING RICHARD III starts out of his dream]

Richard III (Duke of Gloucester). Give me another horse: bind up my wounds.

Have mercy, Jesu!—Soft! I did but dream.

O coward conscience, how dost thou afflict me!

The lights burn blue. It is now dead midnight.

Cold fearful drops stand on my trembling flesh.

What do I fear? myself? there’s none else by:

Richard loves Richard; that is, I am I.


Is there a murderer here? No. Yes, I am:

Then fly. What, from myself? Great reason why:

Lest I revenge. What, myself upon myself?

Alack. I love myself. Wherefore? for any good

That I myself have done unto myself?

O, no! alas, I rather hate myself

For hateful deeds committed by myself!

I am a villain: yet I lie. I am not.

Fool, of thyself speak well: fool, do not flatter.

My conscience hath a thousand several tongues,
And every tongue brings in a several tale,

And every tale condemns me for a villain.

Perjury, perjury, in the high’st degree

Murder, stem murder, in the direst degree;

I shall despair. There is no creature loves me;

And if I die, no soul shall pity me:

Nay, wherefore should they, since that I myself

Find in myself no pity to myself? Richard III, Act V, Scene iii.

In these plays, the ghosts are a form of spectral punishment; the punishment of a guilty Conscience.

Shakespearean Friendly Ghosts

The only friendly Shakespearean ghosts appear in Shakespeare’s play Cymbeline and these ghosts are the ghosts of posthumous’ ancestors. They appear before the God Jupiter to plead for their descendant. Posthumous Leonidas. They beg Jupiter, the most powerful Roman god to end Posthumous’ suffering.

Like the witches in Macbeth, ghosts in Shakespeare are mysterious and sometimes frightened- the are sort of a mirror for how we see ourselves, our lives, and our hopes to be remembered after death; the final words Hamlet’s father utters before disappearing into the morning mist are: “Adieu, adieu, remember me.”

https://www.bl.uk/shakespeare/articles/ghosts-in-shakespeare

https://www.bard.org/study-guides/ghosts-witches-and-shakespeare

Animated Richard III, 20:00 the ghosts appear:

References:

Greenblatt, Steven Hamlet In Purgatory 2001. Princeton University Press. Link: file:///Users/jrycik/Downloads/Hamlet-in-Purgatory-Princeton-Classics.pdf

Jones, Earnest, Hamlet and Oedipus. 

https://people.ucsc.edu/~vktonay/migrated/psyc179d/HamletOedipus.pdf 

Open Source Shakespeare, Cymbeline: 

https://www.opensourceshakespeare.org/views/plays/play_view.php?WorkID=cymbeline&Act=5&Scene=4&Scope=scene&LineHighlight=3243#3243

http://www.markedbyteachers.com/gcse/english/which-version-of-the-hamlet-ghost-scene-act-1-scene-5-was-the-most-effective-and-why.html

Pearlman, E. Hamlet: Critical Essays: The Invention Of the Ghost. https://books.google.com/books?id=jdfWAQAAQBAJ&pg=PA71&lpg=PA71&dq=ghost+that+shrieked+hamlet+revenge&source=bl&ots=KY68gIrh2V&sig=MjEr2NxLQ7T4c2xW1QscrmdeMkc&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiR5o6M4I_XAhUK0oMKHQIJBeAQ6AEIKDAA#v=onepage&q=ghost%20that%20shrieked%20hamlet%20revenge&f=false

https://www.shmoop.com/hamlet/ghost.html

https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/456606.pdf?refreqid=excelsior%3A3f62aed88fb9e9b9a8f8e462186ff95c

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Trump Family Attacks Shakespeare- Julius Caesar Protest

Donald Trump Jr tweeted two questions after the Julius Caesar play protest I posted over the weekend:

“When does art become political speech, and does it change things?”

 I would like to try to answer these questions and by doing so, see if I can explain this fascinating moment in Shakespearean performance history.

Though this production raised new questions about art, and has raised passion from many people, it is not as radical as the protesters might think. Here is a list of historical points of reference to show you the many similarities between this protest and others throughout the history of Shakespearean performance:
1. This is not the first time a Shakespeare play has been seen as a spur to violence: In February of 1601, The Earl of Essex commissioned Shakespeare’s company to perform a scene of the deposing and killing of King Richard the Second one day before he attempted to overthrow queen Elizabeth, and make himself head of the English government. 

Deposition by Augustine Phillips (one of Shakespeare’s actors), pleading that his company was innocent of treason.

Shakespeare’s company was exonerated, but Essex himself was tried convicted, and executed for high treason. Similarly, when John Wilkes Booth assassinated President Lincoln in 1865, he had previously performed in Julius Caesar, and reportedly complained, (while on the run from the law),  that “I am being hunted for what Brutus did so freely” 

Source: New York Times Review. Now in both cases it is worth noting that Shakespeare’s company was not responsible for the death of a political figure, it was the people who interpreted his work that bear the responsibility themselves.

2. This play is also not the first time a director has portrayed Caesar as a contemporary president-

An Obama-like Caesar is murdered in The Acting Company’s 2012 production of “Caesar”

As many people have pointed out, in 2012 The Acting Company put on a production of Caesar with an Obama-esque version of the title character. No protests came from the left or right, though Caesar died in the exact same way- bloodily stabbed onstage. I would argue that these shows demonstrate that portraying Caesar as a contemporary figure does not itself incite violence. The audience knows that the  figure of Caesar is simply meant as a link between Shakespeare and contemporary politics. This is how the director Oskar Eustis of the Shakespeare in the Park production defended himself against criticism of his staging: https://www.google.com/amp/s/mobile.nytimes.com/2017/06/13/theater/donald-trump-julius-caesar-oskar-eustis.amp.html

I frankly also find the disproportionate reaction to these two Caesars rather insulting. When Obama was in office, he got plenty of negative criticism that sometimes extended to threats of violence. If you click here you can see a threat by country music singer Ted Nugent who threatens to shoot the president with a machine gun. The double standard that threatening a president on the left has no consequences, but threatening a Republican president is worthy of scorn, derision, and its backers pulling their support, deeply hypocritical.

3. Thirdly, this is not the first time a Shakespeare play has depicted Trump negatively. If you look at the comments of my Trump villain post, a director mentioned his production of Henry the Sixth Part Two, in which an actor portrayed the character Jack Cade as Trump. Like Caesar, Cade also murdered in the course of the play. Clearly, portraying Donal Trump as a Shakespearean character is not what is unique here.

4. Though it is certainly true that the play depicts violence and the overthrow of a regime, it doesn’t endorse violence, and is not intended to glorify the murder of a president or even a demagogue like Caesar. As I will later discuss, this play can’t be an  endorsement of violence, since everyone who commits violence is duly punished.

So why has this particular production, that uses a Caesar that resembles this president, gotten such a big reaction? Part of the issue admittedly is the timing. The protest specifically mentions the attempted murder of a GOP senator, which happened last week. It is only natural that, given this recent threat of violence, some would fear that this production might incite others to violence. Yet, as I said before, a thorough analysis of the play shows that it does not condone violence against a political leader.

Additionally, given today’s divisive political environment, it is understandable why an audience of right wing protesters might be concerned about this scene in which Caesar is murdered on stage. They may vey well think the play is wish fulfillment for those  on the left, who might enjoy watching the bloody assassination of someone who is vey unpopular right now. However, let me emphatically point out that first of all, no one on the left has endorsed violence against Trump. If you look at the backlash to Kathy Griffin’s picture of herself holding a bloody makeshift Trump head, you can see that no one left or right has endorsed support for such a treasonous un-American act. Secondly, with regards to Caesar, the  play’s message is actually nonviolent. When Brutus and Cassius kill Caesar, it starts a violent uprising that leads to anarchy. Precisely the outcome the two Roman senators hoped to avoid. Seeing their designs fail which certainly discourage anyone attempting violence against a sitting authority figure. 

Perhaps the best way I can prove this point is to remind everyone that Shakespeare himself lived in a monarchy. His theatre was strictly controlled by the government. If anyone in 1599 believed that Julius Caesar seemed to support the killing of queen Elizabeth, the play would have been burned and Shakespeare and his whole company would have been arrested and hanged.

https://youtu.be/Y7BtKlGGFKs

Also, people have criticized the murder of Caesar as “too realistic,” again believing that the gore is intended to glorify violence. In reality the violence of the murder is intended to incite revulsion and disgust. Look at Mark Antony’s reaction when he shows Caesar’s body to the crowd. https://youtu.be/tRceRJAz6_Q

I frankly think that the main reason why this production is getting bad press is  because it’s a portrayal of President Trump, not Obama, not the historical Caesar, not Hitler, not even Trump before he was president, but the current president, that a group of people elected, and who believe support their values.

I believe that the main reason Trump’s  supporters are angry at this production is they feel an attack on him is an attack on them. The president’s supporters have shown repeatedly that they are willing to overlook almost anything to show their support of him. And I imagine that they have no desire to see him as an autocrat and dictator, let alone entertain the notion that he might ever be taken down by his opponents. 

The irony is that the real Caesar was a man of the people who died because his opponents thought he was an autocrat. The real Caesar helped create the modern calendar, gave money to the entire city, and according to Marc Antony, “When the poor hath cried, Caesar hath wept.” Trump is the exact opposite; he is a self-centered con artist who pretends to be a man of the people. As I predicted, after his inauguration, he has vowed to cut taxes on businesses like his, he put his family in positions of power, used diplomatic meetings and press conferences to sell his products, and obstructed justice when his FBI director tried to investigate him. With this in mind, it seems bizarre to claim that this production is designed to ridicule the right, since Trump is neither Julius Caesar, nor is he an embodiment of the political right. He only stands for his own interests. Therefore an attack on Trump is not an attack on conservative values. 

So to go back to the beginning point, “When does art become political speech?” I would argue art always becomes political when it comments about our world, and this quality of art is essential for our society to function. We need a healthy dose of satire and critical thinking, and art can provide it to us. However, there is a difference between disagreeing with a play and openly shunning it onstage.

To address Mr. Trump’s second question, art  doesn’t change things, people change things, so we need to temper our reactions, including to art pieces like Julius Caesar. Remember, Caesar only died because people said he wanted to be king. Cinna the poet died because the mob said he should. This play warns us all to be careful and remain critical thinkers, or mob rule will result. 

References

What depicting Julius Caesar as Donald Trump really means – CBS News

https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.theatlantic.com/amp/article/530037/

https://www.google.com/amp/s/mobile.nytimes.com/2017/06/12/theater/julius-caesar-shakespeare-donald-trump.amp.html

https://apple.news/AW6FmlDY3TEe4C97AG7UI4Q

Ted Nugent once said Obama should ‘suck on my machine gun.’ Now he wants to tone down ‘hateful rhetoric.’
– The Washington Post

View story at Medium.com

https://apple.news/AE9eeH-L6TxeY1qJwq4Ur8w

Scary Shakespearean Stories!

“Let us sit upon the ground, and tell… THE MOST MESSED UP, MACABRE, EVIL SHAKESPEARE STORIES EVER!”

I have three macabre stories that are 100% true relating to Shakespearean plays, just in time for Halloween!

Lithograph of a demon tempting John Wilkes Booth, created by John McGee in 1865.
Lithograph of a demon tempting John Wilkes Booth, created by John McGee in 1865.
Tale #1: Life Assassinates Art. Everyone knows John Wilkes Booth was an actor who murdered President Abraham Lincoln at Fords Theater, on April 14th 1865. However, not too many know that he was a Shakespearean actor, and that his experience with the Bard’s play of Julius Caesar, might have encouraged Booth’s murderous hand!

The whole Booth family were  a Shakespearean theatrical dynasty; John Wilkes and his two brothers, Edwin and Junius-Brutus Booth Jr were professional actors. The three brothers only appeared together onstage once: in a benefit performance of Julius Caesar- which as you know from my previous posts, is a play where the noble Roman Brutus becomes the head of a conspiracy to assassinate a dictator in the name of peace and freedom. Booth’s father coincidentally was Junius Brutus Booth, and many scholars suspect that Brutus’ son might have taken inspiration from this ancient Roman assassin. In John Wilkes Booth’s mind, Lincoln was a tyrant oppressing the south, and it was up to him to “nobly” sacrifice himself for the good of the Republic.

Photo from the 1864 benefit performance of "Julius Caesar," starring John Wilkes Booth, Edwin Booth, and Junius Brutus Booth Jr (left to right).
Photo from the 1864 benefit performance of “Julius Caesar,” starring John Wilkes Booth, Edwin Booth, and Junius Brutus Booth Jr (left to right).
In the photo on the left, you can see the three Booth brothers onstage as Julius Caesar. In a true twist of fate, John Wilkes did not play one of the conspirators Brutus or Cassius, (who stab Caesar in the back), but Marc Antony, the man who spoke for Caesar at his funeral and incited all Rome to avenge his murder. Five months after this photo was taken, Booth shot Lincoln onstage at Ford’s Theater, and shouted in Latin: “Thus shall it be to all tyrants.”

And the Julius Caesar parallels don’t stop there: just as Caesar’s wife had dreams predicting his murder, President Lincoln was haunted by dreams that warned him of his own death which he told his own wife, Mary Todd Lincoln. Days before the assassination, Lincoln himself had a terrifying vision:

“About ten days ago, I retired late. I soon began to dream. There seemed to be a death-like stillness about me. Then I heard subdued sobs, as if a number of people were weeping. I thought I left my bed and wandered downstairs. There the silence was broken by the same pitiful sobbing, but the mourners were invisible. I went from room to room; no living person was in sight, but the same mournful sounds of distress met me as I passed along.

“It was light in all the rooms; every object was familiar to me, but where were all the people who were grieving as if their hearts would break? I was puzzled and alarmed. What could be the meaning of all this? Determined to find the cause of a state of things so mysterious and so shocking, I kept on until I arrived at the East Room, which I entered. Before me was a catafalque, on which rested a corpse wrapped in funeral vestments. Around it were stationed soldiers who were acting as guards; and there was a throng of people, some gazing mournfully upon the corpse, whose face was covered, others weeping pitifully.

” ‘Who is dead in the White House?’, I demanded of one of the soldiers.

” ‘The President’, was his answer, ‘He was killed by an assassin.’

“Then came a loud burst of grief from the crowd, which awoke me from my dream. I slept no more that night; and although it was only a dream, I have been strangely annoyed by it ever since.” (reprinted from http://www.prairieghosts.com/a_lincoln.html). 

The tragic tale of Lincoln mirrors in many ways the assassination of Caesar, a man who to some was a tyrant and to many was a savior. Surely few other moments from history demonstrate Shakespeare’s poignancy, in a more gruesome and macabre way.

Works Cited:

  1. Andrews, John F. “Was the Bard Behind it,” The Atlantic. Accessed from http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1990/10/was-the-bard-behind-it/308480/
  2. http://shakespearestaging.berkeley.edu/index.php?option=com_g2bridge&view=gallery&Itemid=256&g2_view=core%3AShowItem&g2_itemId=15120&g2_imageViewsIndex=1
  3. http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2003689283/
  4. http://www.prairieghosts.com/a_lincoln.html

A Few More Updates

Hi folks!

I’ve now finished my work on Romeo and Juliet, and this October, I’m taking a little time to talk about two of Shakespeare’s spookiest plays- Macbeth, and Julius Caesar. Right now, the Royal Shakespeare Company is putting on a very inventive production of the play, and I’d like to talk a little about this interpretation. You can read about it here: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/theatre/theatre-reviews/9317659/Julius-Caesar-Royal-Shakespeare-Theatre-Stratford-upon-Avon-review.html 

You can read my analysis of Julius Caesar here.

Here are some posts I’ve got waiting in the wings:

  1. A spooky Shakespeare Stories related to Julius Caesar, and the assassination of President Lincoln!
  2. Analysis of the speeches in Julius Caesar (podcast, hopefully).
  3. Play of the Month for Macbeth.
  4. Explanation of the curse of Macbeth.
  5. Review of “Haunt Me Still,” the sequel to “Interred WIth Their Bones” by Jennifer Lee Carrel.

Stay tuned!