A Comparative Analysis of the Ghosts´ Appearances, Motifs and Functions in Shakespeare’s "Hamlet" and Kyd´s "The Spanish Tragedy"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2013

11 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 Who are the Ghosts?
2.1 The Outward Appearance
2.1.1 Ghost of Don Andrea
2.1.2 Ghost of King Hamlet
2.2 The Ghosts´ Personal Motifs and Values
2.2.1 Ghost of Don Andrea and Revenge
2.2.2 Ghost of King Hamlet

3 Appearances in the Play
3.1 Ghost of Don Andrea and Revenge
3.2 Ghost of King Hamlet

4 The Ghost’s Overall Function
4.1 Ghost of Don Andrea and Revenge
4.2 Ghost of King Hamlet

5 Conclusion

6 Works Cited

1 Introduction

Revenge tragedy is, as the notion implies, primarily concerned with revenge and consequently also with death. One naturally raises the question what may happen to all those dead bodies when sudden death has terminated life on earth. Is the physical death coercively accompanied by the soul’s death?

The belief in an afterlife – not only concerning religious conceivabilities – has been popular ever since the beginning of human life. This paper focuses on a very special form of afterlife – the one of being a ghost. Between 1580 and 1590 those “spooky” creatures have been assigned a definite role among the dramatis personae of English (revenge) tragedies: Twenty-six plays written between 1560 and 1610 include fifty-one ghosts (cf. Prosser, 259, Moorman¹, 90), being highly different concerning their outward appearances, the inner life and motifs and their general functions in the play. Aeschylus was the first author using revenge ghosts (named Darius and Clytemnestra) in his plays. Euripides introduced the very first prologue ghost named Polydorus, whose function was to summarize the plot and to connect the chain of events. Seneca, finally, was the first author to combine the Euripidean prologue ghost with the Aeschylean revenge ghost (cf. Moorman¹, 85/86).

This paper focuses on the ghosts in Shakespeare’s“Hamlet” and Kyd’s“Spanish Tragedy” . While Don Andrea and Revenge primary function as prologue ghost and as a commenting and judgemental chorus, dead King Hamlet’s ghost is the “lynchpin” of the play, initiating and pursuing his very own vengeance.

In order to point out the ghosts´ different dramatic functions, they will be compared in terms of the outward appearance (chapter 2.1) and their personal motifs and values (chapter 2.2). Besides, the frequency and manner of occurrences will be analyzed (chapter 3) in order to point out the ghosts´ overall functions in the tragedies (chapter 4).

2 Who are the Ghosts?

2.1 The Outward Appearance

2.1.1 Ghost of Don Andrea

The outward appearance of Don Andrea’s ghost is for us as readers[1] entirely unknown. Since neither the ghost nor Revenge appear or talk to the dramatis personae of the “Spanish Tragedy”, there are no descriptions concerning the outward appearance. Due to this fact, Don Andrea’s ghost seems to be a much more abstract and less humane figure compared to King Hamlet’s ghost.

2.1.2 Ghost of King Hamlet

In contrast to the lack of information on Don Andrea’s visual nature, the reader of “Hamlet” receives extensive information about the ghost’s external appearance. The apparition combines characteristics typically assigned to ghosts such as being “very pale” (Shakespeare 1.2.232) but it has also remained its human like shape “in the same figure like[2] the king that’s dead” (1.1.39-41), it has a “grizzled beard” (1.2.240) and displays “a countenance more in sorrow than in anger” (1.2.232). It wears the dead King’s marshal truncheon.

Furthermore, it seems to be noteworthy that the ghost even changes its clothes. When it appears to young Hamlet in Gertrude’s chamber, the ghost wears a “night-gown” (3.4.101). Changing an outfit is usually a humane ritual and it seems reasonable to claim that there is no obvious necessity for a ghost to change its clothes. (The sole reason I could think of is that ghosts might stink as well which would consequently imply that they also need to do the laundry which would be a very unlikely occupation for a ghost). I thus argue that Shakespeare intentionally assigned different dresses to the ghost to stress dead King Hamlet’s strong emotional connection to his former life on earth and his unwillingness to accept his new, inhumane role. According to the factors mentioned above, one might deduce that the marshal’s truncheon, for instance, epitomizes strength and the King’s erstwhile role as warrior. Meanwhile, the night-gown symbolizes his lasting sexual desire to share the bed with his former wife Gertrude. The night dress thus is a way to carve out the “territory” he used to own which is now “possessed” by his brother Claudius, who married Gertrude.

King Hamlet’s ghost is generally endowed with a more detailed personality which not only differentiates him from Don Andreas´ ghost, but also from the majority of all ghosts in dramatic plays: “whereas, in the plays of his [Shakespeare’s] predecessors, the ghost was a mere machine, a voice mouthing vengeance, it now became endowed with personality (Moorman², 192).

The fact that the ghost shows substantial similarities with dead King Hamlet is certainly also a determining factor, causing young Hamlet to trust the ghost’s words and consequently follow its commands.

2.2 The Ghosts´ Personal Motifs and Values

2.2.1 Ghost of Don Andrea and Revenge

Since the ghost and Revenge always appear together, it is reasonable to consider the role of Revenge and the way both are interrelated to each other.

After Don Andrea was killed in a battle by the Portuguese Prince Balthazar, he and his new companion Revenge were sent back from the underworld to earth by Prosperine and Pluto to take revenge for having been murdered (cf. Kyd, 1.1.3-5).

The ghost and Revenge“function essentially as a unit” (Hallet, 46). Whereas Don Andrea seems to have a rather passive role as a cautious, emotional and thoughtful ghost that is permanently questioning the events around him, Revenge has supernatural powers and is thus mandated the “mean” and active part: “I’ll turn their friendship into fell despite, their love to mortal hate, their day to night, their hope into despair, their peace to war, their joys to pain, their bliss to misery (1.5.185-188). Revenge seems to be omniscient and answers all the ghost’s questions that aim to ensure the success of his intended vengeance. Even though the reader is likely to sympathize with the seemingly gentle and emotional ghost, we ought to keep in mind that it is Don Andrea who “engages” revenge and who is moreover very pleased with the bloody catastrophe in act four: “Now my hopes have end in their effects, when blood and sorrow finish my desires” (4.5.1/2).

Moorman ¹ (92) assigns “grandeur” and “dignity” to Don Andrea and Baker claims that the ghost has neither “inclinations toward vengeance” (32) nor any “responsibility for the tragedy” (34). I would rather suggest that Don Andrea only seemingly epitomizes innocence: If he did not want to revenge his murder, there would be no necessity for his companion Revenge to act. Andrea transfers his own responsibility onto Revenge because it has the supernatural skills the ghost lacks. I propose denoting Don Andrea’s rather passive role as a legislative one , whereas Revenge wields the executive power. Moreover, Andrea passes his own vengeful intentions not only onto Revenge but also to Hieronimo whose “desire for revenge mirrors that of Andrea” (Hallet, 50).


[1] In contrast to the reader, the audience viewing the play on stage, gains insight into the ghost’s outward appearance, since Don Andrea and its companion Revenge remain on stage during the whole play.

[2] The term “like” implies that the ghost’s outward appearance indeed looks like dead King Hamlet, nevertheless, it does not necessarily mean that it is the true ghost of King Hamlet (cf. chapter 2.2).

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A Comparative Analysis of the Ghosts´ Appearances, Motifs and Functions in Shakespeare’s "Hamlet" and Kyd´s "The Spanish Tragedy"
Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz
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comparative, analysis, ghosts´, appearances, motifs, functions, shakespeare’s, hamlet, kyd´s, spanish, tragedy
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Katharina Unkelbach (Author), 2013, A Comparative Analysis of the Ghosts´ Appearances, Motifs and Functions in Shakespeare’s "Hamlet" and Kyd´s "The Spanish Tragedy", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/231899


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