Introduction of Ghost Plots in Tragedy Genre of Shakespeare

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In late 16th century English drama vengeful ghosts, adapted from a Senecan drama, became a common occurrence. William Shakespeare, a well revered writer, “is unique in the fact that he is the only author who fully participates in the popular vogue for presenting ghosts onstage”. According to Stephen Greenblatt, “Shakespeare, more than anyone of his age, grasped that there were powerful links between his art and the haunting of spirits”.

In two of Shakespeare’s works, Julius Caesar and Hamlet, the supernatural for the most part, is represented through the presence of ghosts of the former rulers. In relation to the topic of revenge tragedy, both plays touch on fundamental principles that constitute the genre. Shakespeare in Hamlet uses revenge as a tool that influences the actions of the protagonist, Brutus, while in Caesar he touches on two aspects that constitute revenge tragedy and tragedy as a whole, recognitions and reversals. The supernatural helps to present these concepts of revenge tragedy and tragedy as a whole. The three principal ways that Shakespeare represents the deceased are through three modes: the ghost as the projections of fear, the ghost as the spirit of history, and the ghost as the embodiment of deep psychic disturbance. Both plays touch on aspects of these modes of presentation, but the supernatural is presented in an even more complex way. In Hamlet, the ghost directly influences the psychology of the protagonist which leads him to revenge. In Julius Caesar, the presentation of the supernatural is much more complex as it appears to be embedded in the protagonist’s own psyche.

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In Julius Caesar the main protagonist, Brutus, is influenced by Cassius to kill the high and mighty Julius Caesar who has just gained an immense amount of power. Brutus conspires with his fellow colleagues and is successful in killing Caesar. Although this appears to be a victory, it causes Brutus intense mental turmoil as he battles to justify his actions. In Act three Caesar is stabbed and exclaims: “Et tu, Brute? - Then fall, Caesar'. Richard Proudfoot in the footnotes of this line make an interesting point to Caesar’s final words as he says: “My guess is that at this moment Brutus knows he is wrong and that all is lost”. Although there is no concrete evidence of Brutus actually having a recognition, it is a recognition of Caesar. This recognition foreshadows the recognition that Brutus will have when he meets the ghost of Caesar. The best sort of recognition according to Aristotle, is that accompanied by peripeteia…” Not only is a recognition happening in this scene but a reversal of fortune for Caesar as well because he is murdered. It is potentially the beginning of reversal for Brutus as well due to the fact that his demise begins when Caesar dies. What is particularly interesting about the demise of Brutus is that it appears to begin when he encounters the ghost of Caesar. According to Kerrigan, “revenge plays specialize in recognitions of this sort. The object of retribution does not just suffer from what is done to him but from perceiving in what is done to him what he did to his victim, and from enduring that knowledge”. Brutus suffers due to the fact that he has allegedly encountered the ghost of Caesar and does not know if his actions for murder were justified. He feels tied to Caesar because he orchestrated his murder and also because he has this supernatural encounter. This causes him to take his own life by committing suicide in the end.

The ghost in Julius Caesar does not appear frequently throughout the play but does have a monumental impact on Brutus and his actions. In Act 4, Brutus notices something is in his presence as he states: “How ill this taper burns! Ha! Who comes here? I think it is the weakness of mine eyes that shapes this monstrous apparition. It comes upon me. Art thou anything? Art thou some god, some angel, or some devil, That mak’st my blood cold and my hair to stare?” Stephen Greenblatt has a great analysis of this scene in relation to how the supernatural is presented. Greenblatt states: “The lines trace a seesaw of conflicting responses: a dimming of the candlelight by which he is reading leads Brutus to look up. Startled, he sees someone-it is a “who, not a “what”, that he perceives- and then immediately calls into question the legitimacy of his perception”.

Brutus continues as he demands for a response stating: “Speak to me what thou art”. Greenblatt questions the ghosts response which is, “Thy evil spirit, Brutus”, because it is an answer that is quite distinct from the three options - God, angel, or devil - that he has advanced. In analyzing it this way, Greenblatt allows for one to interpret the supernatural as more complex than just presented through a ghost. One may even claim that the ghost appears to be a part of Brutus as his own “spirit” rather than an actual representation of the supernatural. Although there seems to be a psychic disturbance as the candles are dim and Brutus describes his “blood as cold and hair as stare”, the ghost never implies that it is supernatural force or even the dead Caesar. Greenblatt claims this as well as he states that the response of the ghost “calls into question the relationship between the projections of the mind or thy eyes and the weird supernatural forces that seem to exist objectively in the cosmos of the play…” It is important not to disregard the supernatural forces that are present such as the soothsayers that predict Caesar’s fall along with the prophetic dreams that Caesar’s wife has.

This experience that Brutus has drive’s him further into a frenzy as he becomes paranoid: “Didst thou see anything?” - he exclaims to Lucius after the incident. His remorse grows as he says: “Friends, I owe more tears to this dead man than you shall see me pay”. The final words of Brutus as well shows the impact that Caesars “spirit” has had on him as he claims: “Farewell, good Strato - Caesar, now be still”. In the footnotes it says: “The spirit of Caesar, like the ghost in revenge tragedy, is able to rest when his murderer is dead…” It is not apparent that the ghost of Caesar was pursuing revenge, but Brutus’ last line appears to be a recognition of the wrong he has done. In saying, “Caesar, now be still” Brutus’ appears to recognize that Caesar’s spirit is restless. The apparition he had helps to fuel this recognition of Brutus. Brutus’ last line is also evidence of his own reversal of fortune as he runs on his sword right after speaking. Although the supernatural entity may have just been a figment of Brutus’ imagination, it still influenced him to ultimately end his own life.

In Hamlet, Shakespeare takes a more direct approach to the revenge genre tragedy as Hamlet aims to get revenge on Claudius, his uncle, who has married his mother Gertrude. Hamlet is enraged and sad because he lost his father and now has to accept his uncle as ruler. He struggles to figure out what the best action would be to take. Kerrigan emphasizes this question of what action may be in stating: “Shakespeare’s Hamlet, for instance, revolves around the question, what might action be?” Hamlet is urged towards vengeance because of the fact that there is disorder in the royal family due to his father’s death. According to Kerrigan this is common in a revenger’s position as he states: “Injured by another, or urged towards vengeance by a raped mistress or murdered father, he is forced to adopt a role”. Another point that Kerrigan makes is that: “a revenger’s position is different. His predicament is imposed on him, and to know this is part of his plight”. Both of Kerrigan’s points are applicable to Hamlet as he is forced to bear the burden of his father’s predicament and also must adopt the role as the revenge seeker. The ghost of Hamlet’s father is the culprit who imposes his own predicament onto Hamlet in stating: “If tho didst ever thy dear father love-Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder!” Hamlets becomes mad as he pursues revenge which ultimately leads to the destruction of the royal family along with a majority of the people within the play. Kerrigan sums up the tragic end in claiming: “Revenge is a building-block, the seed from which something larger can grow, since, one man’s vengeance being another man’s injury, the single exchange on an open stage will breed others as blood calls for blood and the symmetries of action extend into plot'.

The ghost of Hamlet’s father is therefore of the utmost importance to analyze and discuss as it has such a large influence on the plot. In reference to the supernatural, the ghost appears to be an entity that is foreign to Horatio and Marcellus. Although at first Horatio is skeptical of it, he eventually acknowledges that it is a different entity as he fears that it will draw Hamlet into madness if he follows it. When Hamlet leaves Horatio and Marcellus to follow the ghost, it states: “I am thy father’s spirit, Doomed for a certain term to walk the night and for the day confined to fast in fires till the foul crimes done in my days of nature are burnt and purged away”. The words the ghost says gives it the properties that constitute the supernatural as it is a spirit that appears to be in purgatory. The ghost tries to get Hamlet to feel pity as it says: “When I to sulphurous and tormenting flames Must render up myself”. The ghost speaks about what it currently is enduring as a way to manipulate Hamlet. According to Kerrigan this is common in Revenge tragedy as it “likes to show how the sins of the fathers are visited upon the sons when only the fathers are directly punished”. Hamlet gives into the manipulation as he responds with pity “Alas, poor ghost.” The ghost continues as it pleads for Hamlet to swear that he will seek out revenge for him. Later on, when Hamlet is with his mother Gertrude, the ghost appears again. It claims: “Do not forget! This visitation Is but to whet thy almost blunted purpose…” it continues as it says: “Speak to her, Hamlet.” It is interesting how the ghost appears to be using Hamlet as a way to speak to Gertrude. The words that the ghost speaks to Hamlet are direct and commanding which reveals its power over him. Kerrigan again touches on this idea in his work as he says: “There is a sense, however, in which the structure of obligation under which Hamlet labors makes him, on a psychologically significant level, a substitute for the father he is out to revenge”. This further makes the play more tragic as it is not even Hamlet’s revenge, it is his father. Hamlet does not need to necessarily take action on the matters, but the ghost of his father uses its position to influence Hamlet and his decisions. The most tragic aspect of the play is the fact that in pursuing revenge, the royal family is completely destroyed and is taken up by an outside ruler Fortinbras.

Although Hamlet is fully revenge tragedy while Julius Caesar only has aspects of it, both plays fully present the genre of tragedy as a whole. In both plays there is a disruption of the natural order as the former rulers are murdered. In both plays the protagonists eventually commit suicide. The supernatural helps to shape the outcome of these plays but it accomplishes it in different ways. Hamlet’s ghost has a straightforward influence while Julius Caesar’s ghost may have not even been a full representation of the supernatural. What is important to state about the presentation of the supernatural is that it is not completely clear. There are multiple ways to interpret the presence of the supernatural within both works. Greenblatt comments on this as he says: “Shakespeare was fascinated by the way in which disoriented or anxious people construct desperate explanatory hypotheses - his contemporary Gascoigne called them “supposes”- about their world.”

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Introduction of Ghost Plots in Tragedy Genre of Shakespeare. (2023, February 01). Edubirdie. Retrieved July 14, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/introduction-of-ghost-plots-in-tragedy-genre-of-shakespeare/
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Introduction of Ghost Plots in Tragedy Genre of Shakespeare [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2023 Feb 01 [cited 2024 Jul 14]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/introduction-of-ghost-plots-in-tragedy-genre-of-shakespeare/
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