Staging the ghost in Shakespeare´s "Hamlet" along the possibilities of the theatre at Shakespeare´s time

Term Paper, 2007

13 Pages, Grade: 2,0


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Background Information

2.1 Ghosts

2.2 Staging Possibilities at Shakespeare’s Time

3. The Four Ghost Scenes
3.1 Act 1, Scene 1
3.2 Act 1, Scene 4
3.3 Act 1, Scene 5
3.4 Act 3, Scene 4

4. Conclusion

5. References
5.1 Primary Literature
5.2 Secondary Literature

1. Introduction

Shakespeare does not provide his readers with many direct stage directions in his plays. Comparing Hamlet to - just as an example - the twentieth century play The Glass Menagerie by William Tennessee shows that Tennessee, in contrast to Shakespeare, gives detailed information on how the players should look like, how they should move and speak. There is a whole chapter called “Production Notes.” Each character has a full paragraph describing how he looks like and has to act, even before they appear on stage. The description of a scene’s setting, as another example, fills up to two pages here. (Compare Tennessee 1945)

Shakespeare, in contrast, leaves his readers with many indirect stage directions. Here, the reader has to find hints in the actors’ speeches that tell him how the stage-settings and actors should look like, what mood they are in, and thus how they should speak and move. Detailed studying is therefore necessary in advance of any production. Not only the play itself needs a close look but also the culture and beliefs of Shakespeare’s contemporary audience. The theatres’ possibilities at his time are another aspect.

The following considers a single character in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, namely the ghost of Hamlet’s father. Since ghosts are supernatural and thus do not lead to the same image in everyone’s mind it is important to especially take a look at this character and try to find out how Shakespeare might have wanted it to appear on stage. This paper provides necessary background information, at first, about ghosts and the theatre at Shakespeare’s time. Then, the four ghost scenes in Hamlet are analyzed, considering their staging of the ghost during Shakespeare’s age along the play’s direct and indirect staging instructions.

2. Background Information

2.1 Ghosts

The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English defines a ghost as an “apparition of a dead person or animal, often as a nebulous image,” as “a disembodied spirit,” or “a spirit or soul” (1995: 570). In Collins English Dictionary, “a hunting memory” is an additional definition for a ghost (1979: 649). These definitions stand for untouchable, imagined apparitions rather than real human beings.

Foakes notices that at Shakespeare’s time it was believed that spirits could turn into humans and were able to talk (2005: 46). A ghost appearing in form of a human being was thus imaginable for Shakespeare’s audience.

2.2 Staging Possibilities at Shakespeare’s Time

The theatres for which Shakespeare wrote his plays consisted of a platform, in front of a wall with doors and a second floor in form of a balcony. The stage was partly covered by a roof. The audience surrounded the stage in form of a U or half circle sitting in the two or three galleries, next to the stage, or even on top of the stage. It was possible to raise or lower actors from below the stage through traps or from above the stage by the use of machinery. (Compare “Elizabethan Playhouse” 1972)

Daylight and torches were used to light the stage (“Lighting, Stage” 1972). Electric light or electronic sound effects were not available at Shakespeare’s time (compare Childs 1962: 464).

3. The Four Ghost Scenes

3.1 Act 1, Scene 1

In act 1, scene 1 of Shakespeare’s Hamlet Barnardo and Marcellus are on guard accompanied by Horatio. It is midnight, as Barnardo mentions (line 7), and “bitter cold,” according to Francisco (line 8) who has just finished his guard. If this play would be performed on an early winter evening, the temperature and light would be suitable for this scene. The guards might hold torches, so the audience would be able to see them. It would be difficult to create a dark and cold scenery in an outdoor-theatre during the day.

The appearance of something, which Marcellus and Barnardo have seen before, is expected. Since Horatio should talk to it, it must have some similarity to a human being, but is called a “thing” (Hamlet, act 1, scene 1, line 21) or an “apparition” (Ham. 1.1.28). The audience is aware of this because of the dialogue they hear before the ghost appears on stage. The attention of the audience is led upwards where Barnardo might point telling them about a star and the illumination of a certain part of the sky by that star. The ghost enters during Barnardo’s speech, probably unseen by the audience at first, because they are following Barnado’s pointing. (Compare Ham. 1.1.21-39)

That the ghost should be played by a human and cannot be represented by a painting, smoke, etc. becomes clear because of its movements, its ability to speak, and the fact that it is recognized as the ghost of the dead king because of its outer appearance (compare Ham. 1.1). Ghosts on the Elizabethan stage were usually clad in burial clothes, white sheets or normal clothes (compare Foakes 2005: 44). This makes Hamlet’s father’s ghost unique, because it wears “complete armour” (Ham., “cap-à-pie” (Ham. 1.2.200) meaning “from head to foot” (Foakes 2005: 35). Foakes mentions that the term “cap-à-pie” also refers to “a kind of heavy armour that encased the whole body” (2005: 35). A picture showing this kind of armor is added by Foakes (2005: 35) making clear that there is no part of the person wearing it that is not covered by steel. According to Shakespeare’s direct stage direction, the ghost wears “its visor raised [and holds] a truncheon in its hand” (Ham.

There are several possibilities for the entrance of the ghost: It could rise through a trap, come from above, enter through one of the stage doors, walk upstairs on the balcony, or enter through one of the arras or curtains behind which Claudius and Polonius hide later in the play. Coming from above would resemble something coming from Heaven, like the entering of a god. This is unsuitable because of the later hints that the ghost comes from Purgatory (compare Ham.

1.5). Traps were traditionally used to raise ghosts (“Elizabethan Playhouse” 1972), and the part beneath the stage platform represented Hell (Childs 1962: 464). An unnoticed entrance through a trap during a dialogue would not be possible though, since the machinery to lift the actor would be very loud, according to DeLuca (1973: 148). This kind of entrance would also be very slow and a clear attention- getter rather than a surprising entrance. DeLuca mentions that portable stairways were in use in Shakespeare’s age (1973: 153). The ghost could step upward on it, but it is clad in full armor (Ham. which is probably difficult to walk in, except if the armor would be an imitation. Since the ghost “walk[s] the night,” as it says later (Ham. 1.5.10) and Marcellus interrupts Barnardo saying “it comes again” (Ham. 1.1.40) instead of something to argue for the ghost’s rising, the ghost might just walk onto the stage, here. If real armor is used, this can also be heard. It might seem more ghost-like if the armor would be an imitation and the sound expected during the ghost’s movement is missing. Wells mentions that in later stage traditions ghosts were to move without a sound (1991: 52). However, the ghost marches solemnly in Hamlet (compare 1.2.201), and a march without its typical sound would probably look funny rather than frightening. Even though the ghost could be heard being lifted through a trap or by walking onto the stage, the latter would still be a more sudden, surprising, and save appearance. Save in that way, according to DeLuca, that the machinery used in Shakespeare’s age might not work right leaving the ghost “perhaps stuck halfway” or “tumbling headlong down the stage” (1973: 148). Since it “walk[s] the night” (Ham. 1.5.10), and it is already after midnight (Ham. 1.1.7), the ghost must have risen from Purgatory earlier, which gives another reason for the ghost entering the stage through a door or the arras. An entrance on the balcony would probably not be as rich in sound but might be too far away, because the guards recognize the ghost’s face and even see how its beard looks like (compare Ham. 1.2.242-243). Entering and leaving through the arras would give it a supernatural character, according to DeLuca, because the arras represent the cover of solid walls later in the play when Claudius and Polonius hide behind them, making the ghost seem to be able to walk through walls (1973: 150).

When Horatio tries to speak to the ghost, the ghost’s first exit occurs. Since Barnardo says that “it stalks away” (Ham. 1.1.50) and it is known to “walk the night” (Ham. 1.5.10) a walking exit through the arras would be the most appropriate (DeLuca 1973: 150 supports this idea, too).

During a long speech by Horatio, the ghost suddenly re-enters (Ham. Again, it is an unexpected, sudden, and interrupting entrance while somebody is speaking. According to DeLuca, W. J. Lawrence and James G. McManaway want the ghost to appear in the traditional way through a trap at its first entrance as well as here again (1973: 150). This would oppose the ghost’s nightly wandering though. Entering through another part of the arras as where it has left before would show that it has been walking around. “The ghost spreads its arms” now, according to Shakespeare’s direct stage direction (Ham. Horatio still wants the ghost to speak, when a cock crows, and the ghost apparently starts to move off (he wants Marcellus to stop it) (Ham. 1.1.110-121). A

confusing moment follows: Barnardo suddenly utters “’Tis here.” which sounds like a surprise. Horatio, following Barnardo’s utter, claims “’Tis here.” as pointing somewhere else (Ham. 1.1.123-24). It seems that the ghost might disappear here and immediately appear at another place leaving Barnardo and Horatio in confusion. The ghost is supposed to exit the stage during the second “’Tis here,” according to Shakespeare’s direct stage direction (Ham. 1.1.124). Wells offers a different idea on staging this moment: There could have been two actors playing the ghost: One slips behind the arras and the other enters somewhere else (1991: 62). However, Shakespeare clearly states that the ghost exits only once here (compare Ham. 1.1.124). The confusing exchange between Barnardo and Horatio might just be there to lead the attention away from the ghost’s actual exit. The ghost might exit through the arras or a door or might jump into a trap, which is suggested in Wells (1991: 62). The jump would hardly be possible in full armor as is also claimed by Wells (1991: 62). The ghost should leave suddenly, since the repeated “’Tis here.” is immediately followed by a “’Tis gone.” by Marcellus (Ham. 1.1.125). The exit through the arras would be appropriate here since the ghost will appear again later (compare DeLuca 1973: 151 supporting this). Marcellus says that the ghost “faded on the crowing of the cock” (Ham. 1.1.139) and Horatio states that “it shrunk in haste away/And vanished from our sight” (Ham. 1.2.219). Fading, shrinking, and vanishing oppose an exit through the arras. They rather support an exit through the trap. Since the cock announces the beginning of the day, as Horatio tells us (Ham. 1.1.132), the ghost of Hamlet’s father has to return to Purgatory. This is another argument for the use of a trap, symbolizing the return to Hell or here: Purgatory.

To sum up, the ghost should wear complete armor, as Shakespeare directs it. Real armor would certainly add more solemnity to the ghost’s march than an imitated one. The first entrance of the ghost should be a walking entrance through a door or the arras to resemble its nightly wandering and to be unnoticed at first. The ghost should not appear too far away from the guards, because they need to recognize it. The ghost’s first exit should be through another door or part of the arras to emphasize its nightly walk. It should appear again at another entrance, walking, and might disappear by the use of a trap, shrinking into the earth, resembling Purgatory, when the sound of a cockcrow is heard.


Excerpt out of 13 pages


Staging the ghost in Shakespeare´s "Hamlet" along the possibilities of the theatre at Shakespeare´s time
University of Cologne
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
362 KB
Staging, Hamlet, ghost, ghosts, shakespeare
Quote paper
Helga Mebus (Author), 2007, Staging the ghost in Shakespeare´s "Hamlet" along the possibilities of the theatre at Shakespeare´s time, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: Staging the ghost in Shakespeare´s "Hamlet" along the possibilities of the theatre at Shakespeare´s time

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free