catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 1, Num 4 :: 2002.10.25 — 2002.11.07


How to see dead people

A ghostly guide to apparitions and phantoms in film and literature

Shakespeare’s Ghosts Part I

In order to become an expert witness of the supernatural, one cannot overlook two of the most prominent ghost sightings in English literature. At the beginning of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, three guards stand watch over the castle in the middle of the night. A ghost enters the scene, looking an awful lot like the late king, Hamlet’s father. One of the watchmen, the scholar Horatio, demands the ghost make a proper introduction.


What art thou, that usurp’st this time of night,
Together with that fair and warlike form
In which the majesty of buried Denmark
Did sometimes march? by heaven I charge thee,
speak! (I. 1. 47-50)


But the ghost apparently does not speak to scholars, and so it disappears. Horatio is bothered by the fact that the ghost does not speak to him but is even more horrified by the naked truth of sight.

Before my God, I might not this believe
Without the sensible and true avouch
Of mine own eyes. (I. 1. 58-60)


Horatio’s experience is particularly unsettling because it forces him to decide between knowledge and the senses. Horatio knows that the appearance of one who has died goes against nature, yet his senses contradict his belief.

The horror of this most unnatural appearance of spirits can be seen also in Macbeth. As the ghost of Banquo enters to dine with his murderers, taking Macbeth’s own seat at the table, the frightened Macbeth wonders at this occurrence which surpasses the horror of his own bloody deed.


Blood hath been shed ere now, i’th ‘olden time,
Ere human statute purged the gentle weal;
Ay, and since too, murders have been perform’d
Too terrible for the ear: the time has been,
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: this is more strange
Than such a murder is. (III. IV.77-85)


Even more unnatural than murder, Macbeth says, is the return of the murdered one. Even the strangest and most terrifying creatures on Earth do not frighten like the appearance of the dead. At the second appearance of Banquo, Macbeth pleads with the ghost to come in any other earthly form than that of Banquo’s likeness. “Take any shape but that, and my firm nerves shall never tremble. Hence, horrible shadow! Unreal mockery, hence!” (III. IV. 106-107)

When Lady Macbeth rebukes her husband for ruining the dinner, Macbeth is all the more perplexed. How could others not see the ghosts before their very eyes?


Can such things be,
And overcome us like a summer’s cloud,
Without our special wonder? You make me strange
Even to the disposition that I owe,
When now I think you can behold such sights,
And keep the natural ruby of your cheeks,
When mine is blancht with fear. (III. IV. 110-116)


Macbeth is appalled that his wife refuses to acknowledge the appearance of the ghost. Lady Macbeth’s denial of the reality of the phantom calls Macbeth’s own senses, and therefore his sanity, into question.

<< Shakespeare’s Ghosts Part II >>

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