Ghosts and dreams in the renaissance drama: A comparison between selected tragedies

Seminar Paper, 2007

22 Pages, Grade: Gut



1 Introduction

2. The Natural and Unnatural in the Renaissance Philosophy

3. Ghosts and Dreams:
3.1 The Ghost of Andrea in Thomas Kyd’s „The Spanish Tragedy“
3.2 The Ghost of Montferres in Thomas Middleton’s “The Atheist’s Tragedy”
3.3 The Ghost of Brachiano in John Webster’s “The White Devil”
3.4 The Ghosts of Shakespears’ Richard III

4. Conclusion

5. Bibliography

1 Introduction

Sinister, unearthly, sometimes even all-knowing: Ghosts and metaphysical entities accompany stories, legends and and superstitious tales throughout the centuries. They are doomed as evil and satanic, or used to illustrate morality by “settling” their earthly bussiness with human evil-doers. They might even be good, yet can never completely to be trusted. Their connection with the dead makes them attractive as characters with powers above the human boundries. Gisela Dahinten (Dahinten, p. 12) explicates the superstitious views of the sixteenth century folk by referring to the belief that the ghosts of criminals, people who committed suicide and those who were killed unrightly by others, remains on earth as strolling ghosts. They appear at midnight and wander the earth, execrate the ones who treated them unjustly and, without anybody taking note them, disapear with the morning light.

In the Elizabethan drama as in contrast to modern dramas, supernatural events and entities such as ghosts, apparitions, dreams and visions play a major and sometimes even crucial role in the plot. In this term paper I would like to take a closer look at the Elizabethan fascination with the “unseen”, how authors implemented it into their plays and what roles these ghosts and dreams played. Introductory I will look at the general view of the unnatrural from the Renaissance perspective.

In order to stay within the proper range of a term paper I have chosen a selection of four tragedies written by four different playwrights. In each of the plays, a ghostly character appears, mostly in dreamlike visions. I would like to discuss the scenes in which these characters appear and compare the characters with another in the conclusion of the paper.

2. The natural and unnatrural in the Renaissance philosophy

The world view and philisophical perspective in the Elisabethan and Jacobean era was one of duality. In Hardin Craigs[1] (Craig, p. 1) “The universal nature of things” he notes that the destinction between the worldly and that which is spiritual were mostly categorized by the Elisabethan folk within the destinction of perceptable and imperceptable.

He also notes that

One effect of this form of thinking was to make the unseen and the

imperceptible a real thing, so that the supernatural seemed ready

at any time to pass over the margin and assume a peceptible form.”[2]

The specific form of Tragedy, the Revenge tragedy, that became quite popular on the public stages during the elisabethan time, were based on the dramas by Seneca.[3] “ The Spanish Tragedy”, which will also be discussed in this paper, was one of the first of this kind and helped the genre to gain public popularity. Ghost scenes and dreams in which they appear belonged to the basic setup in these tragedies. The spectacurlarity of these scenes were well accepted and very popular amongst the elisabethan audiences (Simonis, A. in „Eine andere Geschichte der Englische Literatur“, 2004, p 34). By making use of the ghost- figures, the author was able to illuminate the psychological state of the revenger, reflect on his pain and losses, even justify his mostly very brutal consequential acts. Within this non-realistic setting, it was also possible for the author to make social critisism through the dramatic personalites.

Pierre Charron[4], philosopher living from 5041 to 1603, distinguishes between the carnal and material. He seperates between good spirits, devils and souls, yet he concedes that they are bodily and of bodily nature. He concludes that spirits are included in a finite world and are therefore finite and limited to a certain place.

Giving spirits (here stated as capable of being good “Angels” of bad “devils”) the boundry of finiteness and bodily values, it is granted certain human features. This viewpoint makes the acceptability of ghosts in dramatic plays more likely and easier. Souls and spirits are said (by Charron) to be composed of a substance more finely attenuated than air – giving them the possibility of being corporeal without being material.

One must, however, see this viewpoint on the spiritual beings within the Renaissance viewpoint of microcosmos and macrocosmos[5]. The cosmology was providing an order that created a duality and paralellism between the spiritual and the material world. Spiritually God and the Trinity was at the highest point in the hierarchy, followed by the nine orders of the angels, minor spirits and the soul of man on the lowest level. The souls were also graded – the lowest were those participating with plants and animals, the highest were those of angels and pure intellegence. In the material world, the heavens, which were seen as the throne of God, the solar system, the stars and the centring in the earth were on the highest level. This was followed by the earth and its four elements and the corporal side of man. Man was also devided into classes and orders withing the church, the state and the family unit. Then followed the animals, plants, metals and materials. For Renaissance thinkers, the purpose of their science was in figuring out and understanding this world order.

The most important of all this was to live in harmony with the natural given order of things. Striving toward attaining a better position in this order was one of the greatest sins – ambition, therefore was a feature that characters in the revenge tragedies often paid dearly for.

Natural magic was understood to be the most intelligible and superficially the most practical instrument for understanding the universe. Also called white magic it was however not quite accepted in the general community. Although white magic supporters tried to bring it into conformity with the Bible and the physical and moral sciences, it remained under suspicion due to the reputation of black magic. According to Craig christianity created a border that only the most liberal amongst the thinkers dared to cross. To illuminate and illustrate this he quotes Raphael’s adivice to Adam (Craig, p.6):

Solicit not thy thoughts with matters hid:

Leave them to God above; him serve and fear.

Of other creatures, as him pleases best,

Wherever placed, let him dispose; joy thou

In what he gives to thee, this Paradise

And thy fair Eve; Heaven is for thee toohigh

To know what passes there. Be lowly wise;

Think only what concerns thee and thy being.

The order of the world was seen as part of the very nature of God. Just as it is in his nature to be all-knowing and powerful. The universe is ruled in harmony by Him and harmony means that every part of the universe is functioning properly.

3. Ghosts and Dreams:

From this perspective one can better understand the emotional and dramatic effect the use of ghost-figures, dreams and mysterious visions as Thomas Kyd and his contemporaries incorporated in their – already through their themes emotional and morally edgy - revenge dramas had. The creature from another realm can inform a character of facts he could have never learned in the normal way of things, and so sets him to a different course as he might have taken. This way the ghost exaggerates the situation. And a mortal man being asked to perform an appalling act becomes an agent of a more powerful deity. The ghosts bring with them clear notions of fate and destiny or justice. Generally the intermediaries only serve to defer the mystery. The Ghost and any number of the references to heaven and hell are part of a greater power and opens the play to of a greater variety of different perspectives.

The dreams and visions might light up the darkness and confusion of a play or a characters’ situation. It may also cast a shadow of coming doom and reckoning. In these plays the morality of punishment for the unjust and untruthfull were also illustrated. In the pain the dead are said to suffer, the audience can recognize pain as a living person might endure – this envokes the thoughts of lasting punishment and terror. By making use of supernatural appearences, conventional positions of justice claims its part in the mind of the audience. The ghost can also serve to radicalize or slow down the actions of a character, and the ambivalence of the nature of a ghost can burke the true psychological state of a character by influencing his actions.

Stephen Greenblatt notes in his essay “Shakespear bewitched” (Shakespears Tragedies, 1998, p116) that acoording to the scholastic psychology of Malleus maleficarum, devils and spirits can intervene in the mind and incite a motion in the minds of the subject while he is asleep – and less rarely when he is awake. By shifting images in the brain it can lead the person to see objects (Greenblatt uses the example of a dagger) that are not truely there – on the other hand it can lead the object to not see things (Greeblatt here uses the example of a penis[6]) and so move them to irrational activities and temporary madness. These believes were of good use for dramatic movement and created more dramatic possibilties withing plays that dealt with emotionally extraordinary events such as murder and rape.

In the following plays these occurences will be looked on at hand of the ghost characters and their mortal subjects.


[1] In his essay „The universal nature of things“ , Craig gives a broad backround on the neo-platonistic and aristotlian perspectives – specifically how the catholic church employed these.

[2] Craig, p. 1

[3] Lucius Annaeus Seneca, (ca. 4 BC–AD 65) was a Roman philosopher, statesman and dramatist. Through him the European world first became acquainted with classic tragedy. A translation of his plays, made by different writers, was published in London in 1581

[4] gives a detailed biography on Charron.

[5] Craig states that the general beliefs were mostly a mixture of ancient philosphies (whom was seen with quite an interest in the Elisabethan times) and the christian beliefs and doctrines of the church.

[6] Greenblatt notes that this tale was told to adress a particular hystericla symptom that was claimed to be widespread: That the penis is independent of one’s control and that „Witches sometimes collect male organs in great numbers, as many as twenty or thirty together and put them in a brids nest“ (Greenblatt, p134)

Excerpt out of 22 pages


Ghosts and dreams in the renaissance drama: A comparison between selected tragedies
University of Bonn  (Institut für Anglistik, Amerikanistik und Keltologie)
Revenge in the Renaissance
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Ghosts, Revenge, Renaissance
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Tinani van Niekerk (Author), 2007, Ghosts and dreams in the renaissance drama: A comparison between selected tragedies, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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