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    Departement of English Studies

    Supernatural in Hamlet and Macbeth

    Bachelor thesis

    Brno 2007

Author: Jana WENDROFF Supervisor: Lucie PODROUŽKOVA, Ph.D.



    WENDROFF, Jana. Supernatural in Hamlet and Macbeth; bachelor thesis. Brno:

    Masaryk University, Faculty of education, Department of English Language and Literature, 2007. 42 pages. The supervisor of Bachelor thesis is Mgr. Lucie Podroužková, Ph.D.


    Hamlet and Macbeth stand out from Shakespeare‟s other great tragedies, and from almost all of Shakespeare‟s plays, by the key role that the supernatural plays in them. This paper explores that role. The plays are taken up in chronological order. For each, there is first a description of the general supernatural beliefs of Shakespeare‟s original audience, for Hamlet, their beliefs about ghosts, for Macbeth, their beliefs

    about witches. The next section describes which supernatural material Shakespeare took from his sources and which he added of his own. Then comes a critical summary of the scenes in each play in which the supernatural appears. Finally, there is a survey of the differing views that several leading critics have expressed about the role of the supernatural in Hamlet and Macbeth. The paper began with the conviction that a

    modern audience for the two plays cannot experience them as Shakespeare intended without an informed and sympathetic understanding of what he and his contemporaries believed about ghosts and witches. It arrives at a conviction that those critics who recognize a presence of unexplainable mystery at the heart of the plays do them more justice than those critics who think that everything in them can be explained.


     Supernatural, ghost, witches, belief, Shakespeare, Hamlet, Macbeth



    I proclaim that this bachelor thesis was done by my own and I used only the materials that are stated in the literature sources.

    I agree with the placing of this thesis in the Masaryk University Brno in the library of the Department of English Language and Literature and with the access for studying purposes.

     Brno, 16 May 2007 Jana Wendroff




    I would like to thank my supervisor Lucie Podroužková, Ph.D. for her help and giving advice connected with the thesis.



    I. INTRODUCTION………………………………………………………..…6




     SUPERNATURAL APPEARANCES…………………………………....11


     A.C Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy…………………...….18

     J.D Wilson, What Happens in Hamlet……………………....19

     R.H.West, Skakespeare and the Outer Mystery…………..22


     ELISABETHAN BELIEF IN WITCHES…………………………...…..24


     SUPERNATURAL APPEARANCES ………………………………..…27


     A.C Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy……………………...35

     William Farnham, Shakespeare’s Tragic frontier………....37

     R.H.West, Shakespeare and the Outer Mystery…………....39

    IV. CONCLUSION……………………………….............…………………..40

    V. WORKS CITED AND CONSULTED…………………........…….41



    Hamlet and Macbeth are two of Shakespeare‟s greatest tragedies. They are great in theme, in dramatic power, and in poetry. In a less abstract way, they also have much in common. Both open in the country in which the action takes place, an elective monarchy, threatened by foreign invasion, and the threat comes from Norway. The murder of a king is at the center of the plot of both plays. In both plays, the king‟s

    murderer, who is a kinsman of his, occupies the throne, but at the end of the drama is punished for his crime by death. Both plays are psychological dramas: the central conflict in each takes place in the mind of the leading character. The action of is based on historical events set in the distant past and somewhere else than England, Hamlet‟s in medieval Denmark, Macbeth‟s in medieval Scotland. In both plays, bloody violence

    is a prominent ingredient: Horatio‟s description at the end of Hamlet of the events the

    audience has just witnessed on stage could just as truly apply to Macbeth: “carnal,

    bloody, and unnatural acts, . . . accidental judgments, casual slaughter, . . . death put on by cunning and forced cause, . . . purposes mistook fall‟n on th‟inventors‟ heads”

    (V.2.363-368). But what these two great tragedies have most strikingly in common, and what more obviously than anything else sets them apart from Shakespeare‟s other major tragedies, is that, in both, the supernatural plays a key role. The ghost of the old king in Hamlet and the Weird Sisters in Macbeth are central to the plays‟ plots, they are a major

    force in determining the two heroes‟ actions, and from the plays‟ opening scenes they are an important element in establishing the plays‟ atmosphere.

    One reason why it can safely be said that Hamlet and Macbeth are two of

    Shakespeare‟s greatest tragedies is that they have been written about more than any other of the tragedies, or even of all of Shakespeare‟s plays. It has been said that

    Hamlet is the most written-about work in all of Western literature. Given the great interest, the fascination, even, which the two plays have had for scholars and critics down through the years, it is not surprising that every important character, every turn of plot, and every aspect of theme in them has been subject to different interpretations, sometimes wildly different interpretations. This is certainly true of the supernatural elements in the two plays.


    The purpose of this paper will be to explore the forms and the roles of the supernatural in Hamlet and Macbeth. I will take up the plays in chronological order,

    first Hamlet, first published in 1603, then Macbeth, first published in 1606. For each of

    the plays, I will begin by setting out the general beliefs about the supernatural held by Shakespeare‟s original audiences (and, it is reasonable to suppose, probably by Shakespeare himself), for Hamlet, what they believed about ghosts, for Macbeth, what

    they believed about witches. Then I will describe which material on supernatural Shakespeare took from his historical sources and which he added of his own invention. Taking up the plays themselves, I will briefly summarize and comment on the scenes in each play in which the supernatural makes an appearance of some kind. Finally, I will survey the various and often differing views that several leading scholars and critics have expressed about the role of the supernatural in Hamlet and

    Macbeth, and I will suggest which ones I think more persuasive and why. In all of this, I will be guided by the conviction that a modern audience for the plays, whether reading at home or watching in the theatre, cannot experience them as Shakespeare intended without an informed and sympathetic understanding of what he and his contemporaries believed about ghosts and witches and daggers mysteriously floating in the air.



Elizabethan belief in ghosts

    Most modern audience of Hamlet probably casually assume what I

    casually assumed when I read and saw the play for the first time: that Shakespeare‟s original audience, and probably Shakespeare himself, believed in ghosts. We automatically tend to think that people four hundred years ago were a great deal more superstitious than we ourselves are. Our gypsy fortune tellers, endless appetite for ghost movies, and the horoscope columns of our newspapers and magazines by themselves suggest that maybe they were not. We probably never stop to wonder what “believed in ghosts” really means.

     John Dover Wilson‟s book What Happens in “Hamlet” suggests, however, that

    to ask what the Elizabethans believed about ghosts is like asking what modern Europeans believe about God. The answer in both cases is, not one thing but a number of things. “Spiritualism . . . formed one of the major interests of the [Elizabethan] period,” Wilson says (65). It is not, therefore, surprising, that where there

    is a lot of interest there is also difference of opinion.

    Wilson says that in Shakespeare‟s time, and for a century before and after, there were basically “three schools of thought . . . on the question of ghosts” (61). English

    Catholics, who were a minority of the population but an important (and persecuted) minority, generally believed that ghosts actually existed and were the “spirits” of the dead. They believed that such spirits came from Purgatory, the vaguely located place between heaven and hell where the “souls” of those who in life were not good enough to go directly to heaven, and not bad enough to deserve hell, went to be cleansed of their sins and so made fit to enter heaven. “Purgatory” comes from Latin purgo, which

    means to cleanse or purify. It was “a place of temporary suffering and expiation”

    (Concise Oxford Dictionary). Catholics believed that ghost spirits coming from

    Purgatory “were allowed to return . . . for some special purpose, which it was the duty of the pious to further if possible, in order that the wandering soul might find rest” (Wilson, 62).


    English Protestants, who were the country‟s religious majority and belonged to its established or official Church, generally believed like Catholics that ghosts of the dead actually existed. But since, as Protestants, they did not believe in the existence of Purgatory, they believed that ghosts came either from heaven or from hell. Those from heaven came with good intentions and those from hell with bad intentions. While some ghosts might be angels in spirit form, Protestants thought that ghosts were in general “nothing but devils, who „assumed‟ . . . the form of departed friends or relatives, in order to work bodily or spiritual harm upon those to whom they appeared” (Wilson, 62). The king of England himself, James I, in 1597 (six years before he came to the English throne) published a learned treatise, Daemonologie, that set out this orthodox

    Protestant view of ghosts and that helped to prolong its life in England for another hundred years.

    Although just about every English man and woman of Shakespeare‟s time was a

    Christian, either Protestant or Catholic, not everyone believed in the real existence of ghosts. James I‟s Daemonologie was in fact written as an orthodox Protestant rebuttal

    of the ideas put forward in two works published thirteen years earlier, in 1584, Reginald Scot‟s Discoverie of Witchcraft and Discourse upon Devils and Spirits. Scot believed

    in the existence of spirits but dismissed ghosts as either “the illusion of melancholic

    minds or flat knavery on the part of some rogue” (Wilson, 64). The fact that King

    James felt the need to rebut Scot, and that Scot‟s books were publicly burned by the hangman at the king‟s order (Wilson, 64), suggests that enough people found his ideas attractive to cause the authorities concern. Scholars agree that Scot‟s books on spirits

    and witches were one of Shakespeare‟s sources for both Hamlet and Macbeth.

    Those who believed in ghosts, whether they were Protestant or Catholic, also generally believed that ghosts were insubstantial, that though they were “real” and not

    hallucinations, they only seemed to have a bodily form that could be sensed by touch.

    (How ghosts could be insubstantial and real at the same time is something that maybe the Elizabethans were no more clear about than I am.) They further believed that “ghosts could not speak unless addressed by some mortal,” and that they could be safely addressed only by scholars, since only scholars would know the Latin formulas that would protect them from harm if the ghost were an evil one (Wilson, 75-76). And, according to Wilson, all those of Shakespeare‟s time who wrote about ghosts, whether


    they believed in them or not, agreed that melancholics, people suffering from depression, were especially likely to be visited by one.

Shakespeare’s sources for the Ghost

    The basic Hamlet story was known to Shakespeare‟s time, although not necessarily to Shakespeare himself, through two works: the Latin Historia Danica

    (“History of Denmark”) by the Danish writer Saxo Grammaticus, which was written around 1200 but was first printed in 1514; and the Histoires Tragiques (“Tragic

    Histories”) of 1574 by Francois de Belleforest, which had been translated into English by 1608 but may have been known to Shakespeare some time before that in the original French (Kenneth Muir, Shakespeare’s Sources, 110-112). Whether Shakespeare knew

    either of these works or is not known. Nevertheless scholars agree that his immediate sources for Hamlet were two: Thomas Kyd‟s bloody revenge tragedy from around 1589, The Spanish Tragedy (first published in 1592), which was one of the most popular plays of its time and started a fashion of revenge drama that lasted for several decades, and a lost play from the 1590‟s on the same subject as Hamlet, which scholars refer to as “the Ur-Hamlet” (“original Hamlet“) and which may have been written by Shakespeare

    himself but more likely was written by Kyd (Muir, 110). Whoever the author was, he got his basic plot from either the Historia Danica or the Histoires Tragiques or from

    both (Muir, 111).

    There are no ghosts in the story of Hamlet in either the Historia Danica or the

    Histoires Tragiques, but there is one in The Spanish Tragedy, so that “we may be sure

    that the author of the Ur-Hamlet, imitating The Spanish Tragedy, invented . . . the

    ghost” for his telling the Hamlet story. He also invented The Mousetrap and “the

    madness and death of Ophelia”(Muir, 112). It is known from popular jokes of the time

    that the ghost in the Ur-Hamlet cried out “like an oyster-wife”: “ „Hamlet, revenge!‟”

    and although it is not known for certain whose ghost it was or what was its role in the play, probably they were very much like what they are in Shakespeare‟s Hamlet (Muir,



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