Shakespeare's Hamlet in the Movies

The Perception of Hamlet's Ghost in Zeffirelli, Kozintsev and Olivier

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2002

27 Pages, Grade: 1,7



1. Introduction

2. Historical Background - Elizabethan Ghost-lore
2.1. The Catholic Concept of Demonology
2.1.1. The Catholic Doctrine of Purgatory
2.2. The Protestant Conception of the Spirit World
2.2.1. Damned or Saved
2.2.2. The Protestant Devil
2.3. Reginald Scot and his Discoveries of Witchcraft

3. The Reception of a Ghost on Elizabethan Stage
3.1. The Revenge Ghost
3.2. Ghosts in Shakespeare’s Plays
3.2.1. Hallucinations, Dreams and Paintings of the Subconscious
3.3. The Ghost in Hamlet - Where does He Come from?
3.3.1. Catholic and Protestant Debates
3.3.2. Psychological and Philosophical Approaches

4. Hamlet’s Ghost in the Movies
4.1. Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet
4.1.1. The Abusive Father
4.1.2. Olivier’s Closet Scene
4.1.3. Revenge, not Remembrance
4.2. Grigor Kozintsev’s Hamlet
4.2.1. A Ghost Clad in Iron Time is out of Order
4.2.2. Remember Me
4.2.3. The Weight of History
4.3. Franco Zeffirelli’s Hamlet.
4.3.1. A Father Returns
4.3.2. „Ghostus Interruptus“
4.3.3. Italian Family Values

5. Conclusion

6. Bibliography

1. Introduction

Shakespeare’s work is full of characters who refuse to reveal their true identity and to accept the role that society wants them to play. His most controversial play Hamlet, called „the Mona Lisa of literature“ by T. S. Eliot because of it’s many interesting but unfathomable aspects, features a supernatural element that launches the tragedy: the ghost of Denmark’s murdered king. Ever since the play was staged, the Ghost has caused many arguments because it has been impossible to pin him down to one generally accepted interpretation. His true nature and his function in the play are still much discussed issues. This paper analyses the different views, theological and philosophical ones as well, focusing on the presentation of Hamlet’s ghost in three films of different decades.

2. Historical Background - Elizabethan ghost-lore

The Elizabethan age was full of changes. Science saw a transition from medieval to modern methods and ideas, such as the introduction of Copernicus’ view that the sun was the centre of the universe. Some people believed in these new views, some others not yet. The church faced the same situation. Not every Elizabethan agreed with the Church of England that abolished auricular confession and denied faith in magic. (Suerbaum 1989:475-476)

Belief in supernatural things is as old as the human being itself. Mystic apparitions, ghosts, witches and magic have always fascinated people. Magic was certainly not an invention of the church. It rather derived from folk beliefs and traditions from ancient times. In the Middle Ages magic was an important part of ordinary people’s lives. Especially in the 15th century, when people felt the decay of those institutions that had held their society together, belief in high magic was very popular. Moreover, faith in magic helped people to bear their hard lives in poverty and gave them hope for a change of their situation. The Catholic church was wise enough to accept that and did not beat these folk beliefs to the ground. The coming of the Reformation marked a significant change for such folk lore. But a lot of people in the 16th century still believed in witchcraft and supernatural phenomena. (Salgado 1992: 72-73)

2.1. Catholic Concept of Demonology

Roman Catholics allowed for two interpretations of apparitions. Ghosts could be devils in masquerade who want to seduce and destroy man. At the same time, they believed in ghosts who are from an intermediate place between heaven and hell: purgatory.

2.1.1. The Catholic Doctrine of Purgatory

Purgatory is a realm where the souls of the dead suffer for a certain time in order to be purified from the sins they committed in their life. (McGee 1987: 28) It was imagined to be located in the centre of the earth. (Greenblatt 2001:115). There was a possibility to reduce the duration of a soul’s stay in purgatory: their families were able to help by buying „suffrages“, that is, prayers, almsgiving and fasts. (Greenblatt 2001:19) Unquestionably, these suffrages made Rome and the pope rich, because the majority of people believed that they could ease the pain of the suffering souls with their prayers.

Patrick, a fifth-century saint in Ireland, was the first to claim that he had visions of purgatory. With the help of his descriptions, a possible entrance of purgatory was found in the lake Lough Derg. This place was a popular pilgrimage site in north-east Limerick. (Gardiner 1993:151-152)

From the late 13th century on purgatory was pictured and painted. It was portrayed as a subterranean cave, a boiling vat or a flaming pit. Fire was said to have the power to cleanse sinful souls. The dead are looking out of these places with fear in their eyes crying for salvation. (Greenblatt 2001:50)

Sometimes the tortured souls were able to return from purgatory for a special purpose: to ask for remission of their sins. (McGee 1987:44) In this case they appear as a ghost who, for example, is able to speak, like in „The Gast of Gy“. This story tells of an encounter of a Dominican prior and the ghost of a dead man who haunted the bedroom of his widow. (Greenblatt 2001:105-106)

There is no clear opinion whether these ghosts were good or evil. On the one hand, they represented a sinful soul that has to suffer in purgatory. On the other hand, they sought help. According to Eleanor Prosser there was never a ghost who came back for an evil purpose, such as revenge. Thus, a ghost from purgatory cannot be regarded „unquestionably demonic“, that is, there are ghosts that are good. (McGee 1987:45)

2.2. The Protestant Conception of the Spirit World

Queen Elizabeth I was a Protestant and after many years of instability regarding religion (every reign before her established their personal belief as a national religion, according to „Cuius regio, eius religio“) her parliament passed „The Settlement“, a compromise between Protestant and Catholic beliefs, and a new Book of Common Prayers was introduced. (Suerbaum 1989:144-150) Following this, England’s population was still divided in people believing in Catholic and Protestant concepts.

2.2.1. Damned or Saved

Protestantism teaches people to constantly pray and make any effort necessary to lead a humble life, because God decides who He will look on with favour. There is no possibility to change God’s will. Those who suffer from their fate have to accept it. Thus, salvation does not depend on personal action but upon divine election, that is, God’s decision, because He has the absolute sovereignty. (Salgado 1992:25) Hence, there is no salvation for a damned soul either. Protestantism believes that a soul is either damned or saved at the moment of death and finds peace in Heaven or suffers eternally in Hell. (McGee 1987:45) This concept denies the existence of purgatory. Moreover, Protestants criticised purgatory for its fraudulent purpose. Suffrages for the suffering souls were considered a nasty means of taking away money from the poor. (Greenblatt 2001:35) This criticism was justified. But the idea of a possibility to rescue a wicked soul by paying money was certainly much more appealing than the view that God alone decided whether a soul was saved or not. Therefore, we can assume that there were still many people in the 16th century who wanted to believe in purgatory.

2.2.2. The Protestant Devil

Both Protestants and Catholics believed in the existence of evil. The Catholic Church was an intermediary between man and God. Thus, it was able to relieve a person from their sins by confession and letters of indulgence. There are no such means for Protestant sinners. A Protestant cannot influence God’s grace. This makes it easier for Satan to seduce someone who feels that there is no chance for him to please God. (Vatter 1978:106)

In the New Testament the devil tempts, murders and lies in order to destroy man. He hurts physically and possesses men spiritually to make them sin. To do so, he has extraordinary skills. He is not restricted to one physical form but has the power to change his shape in order to deceive and seduce his victims. (Russell 1977:254) In short, he is able to make people believe in apparitions that are not real. Following this, he is able to take on the form of any imaginable person or thing.

The image of hell does not derive directly from the bible, because it is only mentioned unclear and with different expressions. Dante and Milton portrayed hell as a place under the earth that is ruled by Satan. (Russell 1977:240) This concept corresponds to the Catholic purgatory.

Satan and his devils were believed to appear as ghosts too. The general Catholic view was that a ghost can be good or bad. Protestants believed that ghosts were mostly demons and, as Dover Wilson (1979:62) states,

the orthodox Protestant conclusion was that ghosts, while occasionally they might be angels, were generally nothing but devils, who ‘assumed’ - such was the technical word - the form of departed friends or relatives, in order to work bodily or spiritual harm upon those to whom they appeared.

This view corresponds with the Ancient Greeks who thought that spirits tempted mortals to sin and then punished them for it. (Russell 1977:144)

The idea of the devil gained new interest when King James I of England published his Daemonologie in 1597. He was introduced to demonology and witchcraft in Denmark where he collected his bride. At that time, witch-hunting was endemic in Denmark and obviously James was very much influenced by it. The story goes that there was a heavy storm that almost destroyed James’ ship on his way back to England. The storm was believed to be caused by the devil in order to kill James. This incident made James fear for his life and many people, accused of co-operating with the devil, were prosecuted. Moreover, James strictly denied apparitions to be angelic or good. He considered them to be evil in any case. (Larner 1984:5-13)

2.3. Reginald Scot and his Discoveries of Witchcraft

Reginald Scot was a demonologist and published his views about magic and witchcraft in 1584 under the title Discoverie of Witchcraft, which included a Discourse vpon Diuels and Spirits. Some years later it was burnt publicly because King James did not agree with Scot’s view. Shakespeare knew this book for sure. Scot believed in apparitions, but he doubted that there was something like purgatory. Moreover, he denied that the devil can assume the body of a dead person. His theory was that ghosts are illusions from a melancholic, disturbed mind. People who are prone to melancholy are very likely to see supernatural phantoms. (Wilson 1979:63-64)

Unquestionably, the identity of ghosts was a topic of much interest and much doubt in Elizabethan times. Hence, it is not surprising that writers dealt with it too. Many Elizabethan plays feature supernatural elements. Some say that Shakespeare invented supernatural elements for his plays to earn more money. But this „box office theory“ is undermined by the fact that plays without ghosts, such as Romeo and Juliet, were highly successful too. (Kozintsev 1966:146-147)


Excerpt out of 27 pages


Shakespeare's Hamlet in the Movies
The Perception of Hamlet's Ghost in Zeffirelli, Kozintsev and Olivier
Free University of Berlin  (Englische Philologie / Filmwissenschaften)
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ISBN (Book)
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shakespeare, william, hamlet, movie, film, ghost, zeffirelli, laurence olivier, kozintsev, denmark, prince, ophelia, reginald scot, purgatory, katholiken, katholizismus, catholic, protestant, evangelisch, protestanten, christentum, christen, christianity, geist, vaterfigur, vater, church, kirche, england, british, philosophie, theologie, theology, philosophy, drama, theater, elizabethan, belief, lore, Thema Hamlet, fegefeuer, katholisch
Quote paper
Magister Artium Melanie Bobik (Author), 2002, Shakespeare's Hamlet in the Movies, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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