Folk-lore of Shakespeare, by T.F. Thiselton Dyer, , at sacred-texts.com
Few subjects have, from time immemorial, possessed a wider interest than ghosts, and the superstitions associated with them in this and other countries, form an extensive collection in folk-lore literature. In Shakespeare's day, it would seem that the belief in ghosts was specially prevalent, and ghost tales were told by the firelight in nearly every household. The young, as Mr Goadby in his "England of Shakespeare" (1881, p. 196), "were thus touched by the prevailing superstitions in their most impressionable years. They looked for the incorporeal creatures of whom they had heard, and they were quick to invest any trick of moonbeam shadow with the attributes of the supernatural." A description of one of these tale-tellings is given in the "Winter's Tale" (ii. 1):—
The important part which Shakespeare has assigned to the ghost in "Hamlet," has a special value, inasmuch as it
illustrates many of the old beliefs current in his day respecting their history and habits. Thus, according to a popular notion, ghosts are generally supposed to assume the exact appearance by which they were usually known when in the material state; even to the smallest detail of their dress—so Horatio tells Hamlet, how when Marcellus and Bernado were on their watch (i. 2):—
Further on, when the ghost appears again, Hamlet addresses it thus
In the graphic description of Banquo's ghost in "Macbeth" (iii. 4). we have a further allusion to the same belief; one, indeed, which is retained at the present day with as much faith as in days of old.
Shakespeare has several allusions to the notion which prevailed in days gone by, of certain persons being able to exorcise or raise spirits. Thus, in "Cymbeline" (iv. 2), Guiderius says over Fidele's grave .—
In "Julius Cæsar" (ii. 1) Ligarius says:—
In "All's Well that Ends Well" (v. 3) the king says:—
This superstition, it may be added, has of late years gained additional notoriety since the so-called spiritualism
has attracted the attention and support of the credulous. As learning was considered necessary for an exorcist, the schoolmaster was often employed. Thus in the "Comedy of Errors" (iv. 4) the schoolmaster Pinch is introduced in this capacity.
Within, indeed, the last fifty years the pedagogue was still a reputed conjuror. In "Hamlet" (i. 1), Marcellus, alluding to the ghost, says:—
And in "Much Ado about Nothing" (ii. 1) Benedick says:—
For the same reason exorcisms were usually practised by the clergy in Latin; and so Toby, in the "Night Walker" of Beaumont and Fletcher (ii. 1), says:—
It was also necessary that spirits, when evoked, should be questioned quickly, as they were supposed to be impatient of being interrogated. Hence in "Macbeth" (iv. 1) the apparition says
The spirit, likewise, in 2 Henry VI. (i. 4) utters these words:—
Spirits were supposed to maintain an obdurate silence till interrogated by the persons to whom they made their special appearance. 1 Thus Hamlet, alluding to the appearance of the ghost, asks Horatio (i. 2)—
Whereupon he replies—
The walking of spirits seems also to have been enjoined by way of penance. The ghost of Hamlet's father (i. 5) says:—
And further on (iii. 2) Hamlet exclaims—
This superstition is referred to by Spenser in his "Faerie Queen" (Book i., canto ii.):—
According to a universal belief prevalent from the earliest times, it was supposed that ghosts had some particular reason for quitting the mansions of the dead, "such as a desire that their bodies, if unburied, should receive Christian rites of sepulture, that a murderer might be brought to due punishment," &c. 1 On this account Horatio ("Hamlet" i. 1) invokes the ghost:—
And in a later scene (i. 4) Hamlet says:—
The Greeks believed that such as had not received funeral rites would be excluded from Elysium; and thus the wandering shade of Patroclus appears to Achilles in his sleep, and demands the performance of his funeral. The younger Pliny tells a story of a haunted house at Athens, in which a ghost played all kinds of pranks owing to his funeral rites having been neglected. A further reference to the superstition occurs
in "Titus Andronicus" (i. 1), where Lucius, speaking of the unburied sons of Titus, says:—
In olden times, spirits were said to have different allotments of time suitable to the variety and nature of their agency. Prospero in the "Tempest" (i. 2), says to Caliban:—
According to a popular notion, the presence of unearthly beings was announced by an alteration in the tint of the lights which happened to be burning—a superstition alluded to in "Richard III." (v. 3), where the tyrant exclaims, as he awakens:—
So in "Julius Cæsar" (iv. 3), Brutus on seeing the ghost of Cæsar, exclaims!—
It has been a widespread belief from the most remote period that ghosts cannot bear the light and so disappear at the dawn of day; their signal being the cock-crow. 2 The ghost of Hamlet's father says (i. 5):—
Again, in "King Lear" (iii. 4), Edgar says:—"This is the foul fiend Flibbertigibbet: he begins at curfew, and walks till the first cock."
The time of night as the season wherein spirits wander abroad, is further noticed by Gardiner in Henry VIII. (v. 1):—
It was a prevalent notion that a person who crossed the spot on which a spectre was seen became subject to its malignant influence. In Hamlet (i. 1), Horatio says in reference to the ghost:—
Lodge, in his "Illustrations of British History" (iii. 48), tells us that among the reasons for supposing the death of Ferdinand, Earl of Derby (who died young, in 1594), to have been occasioned by witchcraft, was the following:—"On Friday there appeared a tall man, who twice crossed him swiftly; and when the Earl came to the place where he saw this man, he fell sick."
Reginald Scot in his "Discovery of Witchcraft" (1584), enumerates the different kinds of spirits, and particularly notices white, black, grey, and red spirits. So in "Macbeth" (iv. 1), "black spirits" are mentioned:—the charm song referred to (like the one in Act iv.), being found in Middleton's "Witch" (v. 2):—
A well-known superstition which still prevails in this and foreign countries, is that of the "spectre huntsman and his furious host." As night time approaches, it is supposed that this invisible personage rides through the air with his yelping
hounds; their weird sound being thought to forebode misfortune of some kind. This popular piece of folk-lore exists in the north of England under a variety of forms amongst our peasantry, who tenaciously cling to the traditions which have been handed down to them. 1* It has been suggested that Shakespeare had some of these superstitions in view when he placed in the mouth of Macbeth (i. 7), while contemplating the murder of Duncan, the following metaphors
Again, in the "Tempest" (iv. 1), Prospero and Ariel are represented as setting on spirits, in the shape of hounds, to hunt Stephano and Trinculo. This species of diabolical or spectral chase, was formerly a popular article of belief. As Drake aptly remarks, 2 "the hell-hounds of Shakespeare appear to be sufficiently formidable, for, not merely commissioned to hunt their victims, they are ordered, likewise as goblins," to—
Shakespeare has several references to the old superstitious belief in the transmigration of souls; traces of which may still be found in the reverence paid to the robin, the wren, and other birds. Thus, in the "Merchant of Venice" (iv. 1), Gratiano says to Shylock:—
Caliban, when remonstrating with the drunken Stephano and Trinculo, for delaying at the mouth of the cave of Prospero, instead of taking the magician's life ("Tempest," iv. 1), says:—
In "Hamlet" (iv. 5), in the scene where Ophelia, in her mental aberration, quotes snatches of old ballads, she says:—"They say the owl was a baker's daughter! Lord, we know what we are, but know not what we may be." 1
Again, in "Twelfth Night" (iv. 2), there is another reference in the amusing passage where the clown, under the pretence of his being Sir Topas, the curate," questions Malvolio, when confined in a dark room, as a presumed lunatic:—
Although this primitive superstition is almost effete amongst civilized nations, yet it still retains an important place in the religious beliefs of savage and uncivilized communities.
43:1 We may compare the words "unquestionable spirit" in "As You Like It" (iii. 2), which means "a spirit averse to conversation."
44:1 Douce's "Illustrations of Shakespeare," pp. 450, 451.
45:1 Vast, i.e., Space of Night. So in "Hamlet," (i. 2.)
45:2 See page 98.
47:1 See Hardwick's "Traditions, Superstitions, and Folk-lore," 1872, pp. 153–176.
47:2 "Shakespeare and his Times," i. p. 378.
48:1 See Owl, chap. vi.