Shakespeare and the Living Dead

In the following exchange from John Webster’s The White Devil (1612), the youthful Giovanni and his uncle Francisco have just received news of the death of Giovanni’s mother and Francisco’s sister, Isabella, who was cruelly murdered by her husband. [1]

GIOVANNI: What do the dead do, uncle? Do they eat,
Hear music, go a-hunting, and be merry,
As we that live?

FRANCISCO:   No, coz, they sleep.

GIOVANNI: Lord, Lord! That I were dead!
I have not slept these six nights. When do they wake?

FRANCISCO: When God shall please.

GIOVANNI:                                             Good God, let her sleep ever! [2]

Giovanni’s tender plea to the Almighty that his mother, who has suffered a fate that he does not fully understand, might enjoy a “sleep” that he cannot comprehend, serves here as a useful way of introducing the concept of “living death” in early modern drama. My studies began with a question: “What do the dead do” in Shakespeare’s theatre? After all, if they do anything, can they ever truly be considered dead? More to the point, where on earth does life end and death begin in theatre – a medium which hinges upon living actors playing dead characters who spring back to their feet at the end of the show, ready to die all over again in tomorrow’s matinee?

I am hardly the first person to ask this question: Shakespeare himself seemed to revel in this type of paradox. “I did enact Julius Caesar”, Polonius announces in Hamlet (c.1601). “I was killed i’ th’ Capitol. Brutus killed me” (3.2.86). [3] Here, an actor playing a character who is soon to be murdered, reminds the audience of a different character who died in an earlier play who was presumably first performed by the same actor! And that’s just the start of it. How do we define characters such as Yorick, the most famous and charismatic skull in the history of literature? Or Aaron from Titus Andronicus (c.1588), who is sentenced to death by being half-interred in the ground, and whose burial, therefore, comes before his death? Or, most famously, the characters of Banquo from Macbeth (c.1605) and Hamlet’s Ghost, spiritual characters who nevertheless possess a tangible physical presence?

To divide characters into “living” and “dead”, then, simply won’t do. The notion of “living dead”, on the other hand, presents a whole range of new possibilities for critical interpretation.

First of all, though, I should explain what exactly I mean when I refer to the weird and wonderful world of the “living dead”. Today, thanks to the mainstream prominence of zombie- and vampire-themed television shows, books, and film, the term brings to mind very specific notions of malevolent cadavers, ghouls and their ilk. Although these types of revenant had their equivalents in early modern folklore, I suggest that notion of “living death” as applied to early modern drama is far more flexible and dynamic than modern discussions tend to perceive. Living death is a threshold state that exists between life and death, and which may be approached from either side of the divide. It is broad concept that encompasses a whole range of on-stage bodies which exist in states that are neither entirely dead nor unequivocally living. Early modern playwrights – most famously William Shakespeare himself – were keenly aware of the symbolic potential of characters who blur the lines between living and dead, and such characters tend to represent the themes at the very heart of texts in which they appear: politics, religion, even the conflict between the self and the other.

We see living death in the body parts, such as skulls, that littered Shakespeare’s stage. In Hamlet’s hands, the famous skull of the jester Yorick seems to flicker back into life as we imagine “a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy” (5.1.141-2). In Thomas Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedy (1606), the skull of Gloriana is given even greater agency, and plants on her murderer’s lips a poisoned kiss that proves lethal.

We see living death in plentiful references to cannibalism: images such as Titus Andronicus’ famous human pies, or the corpulent Sir John Falstaff’s description of himself as “a mountain of mummy” (The Merry Wives of Windsor [1597], 3.5.12), allude to Catholic holy communion and the Renaissance fashion for consuming medicine made from corpses and Egyptian mummy – practices which normalised the idea of extracting life from human flesh.

Living death is present in fresh-bleeding corpses, such as that of Julius Caesar, whose multiple stab wounds become, with help from master orator Mark Antony, “dumb mouths” with tongues – each telling a story of “that should move / the stones of Rome to rise and mutiny” (Julius Caesar [1599], 3.2.221, 225-6). We even see living death in the depiction of dying characters who carefully choose their last words (or have those words carefully chosen for them by the living). When the soon-to-be-dead Othello requests that his fellows remember him as “one that loved not wisely, but too well”, he is attempting, even in death, to control his rhetorical afterlife via pre-emptive self-fashioning (Othello [1603] 5.2.387)

The remainder of this paper, however, will focus exclusively on the most famous Shakespearean characters to occupy that peculiarly liminal grey area between life and death: the ghosts.


To Shakespeare and his audience, the notion of a grey area between life and death would have been coloured by a series of contextual factors which changed the very fabric of their understanding. The most prominent influence came with the Protestant Reformation, which not only changed how the public viewed death, but also the entire relationship between the living and the dead, which during the Catholic years had been neatly coded. Traditional Catholicism allowed for an active and healthy relationship between the mortal world and the afterlife through funeral services, masses, prayers, and reverence of the sanctified bones of saints. In Catholic teaching it was commonly accepted that the dead could return to the world as both spirits and risen corpses: the pre-Reformation church taught that ghosts were souls confined to Purgatory, a temporary stage of spiritual transition in which sins were burnt away prior to the soul’s entry to Heaven. [4] Such unhappy spirits could return to the mortal plain in order to obtain spiritual alms (generally in the form of intercessionary prayer) by which their suffering in Purgatory could be alleviated.

After the Reformation, however, everything changed for the relationship between this world and the next: Protestantism placed an impenetrable “barrier between the living and the dead”. [5] Intercessionary prayer and the related concept of Purgatory – previously integral elements of day-to-day Christian practice – were abolished under the Church of England. And along with the removal of all church-sanctioned methods of praying for the dead, out also went any chance of speaking with the dead. And what, John Calvin argued, would be the point anyway? “There is nothing more that we can add or take away”. [6] Any such attempted interaction with the dead was fruitless, because the souls of the departed were beyond mortal reach, and the world of the living was beyond theirs. In short, ghosts – that is, Catholic ghosts, from Purgatory and Limbo – were outlawed. Clergyman William Perkins outlines the Anglican stance in unequivocal terms:

[That] dead men soe often appear and walke after they are buried […] is indeede the opinion of the Church of Rome and of many ignorant persons among us: but the truth is otherwise. Dead men doe neither walke nor appeare in bodie or soule after death. [7]

Ghosts were instead reclassified by influential reformist writers such as Ludwig Lavater and King James I as either demonic or angelic manifestations rather than the revenant souls of the departed. So it is that in Hamlet Shakespeare’s Protestant prince can initially conceive of only two possible origins of the Ghost that appears in the shape of his father:

Be thou a spirit of health or a goblin damned,
Bring with thee airs from heaven or blasts from hell,
Be thy intents wicked or charitable
Thou comest in such a questionable shape
That I will speak to thee.        (1.4.21-26)

Unsurprisingly, the doctrinal shift created enormous tension for many years – particularly for those who, like John Shakespeare, William’s father, had been forced to convert from Catholicism to Protestantism, and told to fear that which they once revered. It is no wonder that the newfound Protestant scepticism could not quell entirely a residual Catholic desire for, as Webster’s Duchess of Malfi would put it, “conference with the dead” (The Duchess of Malfi [1612], 4.2.20-23). [8]

By the end of the sixteenth century, there was only one location where interaction with ghosts was both possible and a regular occurrence: the stage. And by that time characters at once living and dead were more than theatrical motifs: they represented a conflict of ideologies. It is no surprise that writers living and dying in this particular environment capitalised on the emblematic potential of living death. This dichotomous state was uniquely suited to represent the liminal aspects of a contemporary society which was itself engaged in uneasy processes of religious and social transition. In short, whenever Shakespeare and his contemporaries present characters either dead or alive as somehow straddling the divide between this world and the next, it is never a simple matter of life and death.    

Why does this matter today? The answer is clear. If we view the works of Shakespeare and his contemporaries through the lens of the living dead – by looking for threshold connections rather than explicit distinctions – we can tap into the core of what makes theatre so powerful. By way of an example, we need look no further than one of my favourite productions in recent years…


It is July 2011, and I am part of the audience in attendance at a showing of the RSC’s latest Macbeth, directed by Michael Boyd at the newly-built Royal Shakespeare Theatre. About to begin is the scene in which Macbeth and Banquo traditionally become acquainted with the three “weyard sisters” (1.3.33). The performance thus far has been entirely witch-free; Boyd, like several other directors of stage and screen before him, omitted Shakespeare’s famous, if narratively superfluous, opening scene in which the witches are traditionally introduced. [9] The result of Boyd’s omission is twofold. On the one hand Boyd confutes our preconceptions of a play famous for its supernatural qualities by directing our initial focus onto the human landscape of Shakespeare’s tragedy re-defining Macbeth as a “political and sectarian masterpiece as much as a human catastrophe”.[10] On the other hand, for those in the audience who are familiar with the traditional Macbeth story, the witches are conspicuous by their absence. Common sense, after all, tells me that the witches must appear in some shape or form before long; given their vital role in Shakespeare’s 1.3, a scene which forms the narrative keystone of the tragedy, it is impossible to imagine how any version of Macbeth could omit them entirely. And yet there is no mention of witches or the supernatural in the show programme. Could it simply be that Boyd has in store for his audience a new interpretation of Shakespeare’s “secret, black and midnight hags” (4.1.47)? Or could it be instead that Boyd has done the unimaginable in staging a Macbeth without the supernatural agents that Mary Griffin rightly considers “three of Shakespeare’s most memorable characters”? [11] There is buzz of anticipation in the theatre as the lights drop and the scene changes.

The set is suitably barren and godless: a sparsely-lit desecrated chapel in the style of the early Protestant war against religious iconography. A pile of rubble upstage is all that remains of various vandalised and defaced statues, paintings and murals, while smashed stained glass windows loom upstage. Through one of these windows enters Jonathan Slinger’s battle-scarred and fresh-bleeding Macbeth. The witches are still nowhere to be seen. As Slinger utters his first line, however, he is interrupted by something being lowered to the stage from the darkness above. The eyes of the audience follow Slinger’s gaze, and around me members of the audience gasp audibly at the sight that meets them: three small children – two boys and one girl – are suspended from the rafters, dangling from what appear to be meat hooks. Their heads droop; their faces are pale; their lips are a sickening shade of blue. Aghast, Macbeth cries out to the lifeless bodies. At once, the children jerk and twitch like cadaverous puppets on strings. As their feet touch the floor the dead children address the Thane in one voice: “All hail, Macbeth”.

Boyd’s enfants terribles, it transpires, are not witches – they are ghosts. And these ghosts serve to turn death – and specifically the inter-relations between the dead and the living – into a central aesthetic of the performance, in a way that cackling hags could not.

By presenting ghosts who vanish “into the air” (1.3.83) instead of witches, Boyd’s Macbeth taps into a long dramatic tradition of ghosts which seem to exist on the very boundaries of the living world, both detached from and yet somehow attached to life even in death. Ghosts which are unable to fully interact with or integrate themselves into the world, ghosts who appear unsolicited and vanish just as suddenly into what Banquo would term the “bubbles” of the earth (1.3.81). More important than the ghosts’ manner of disappearance, however, is their timing: just as Shakespeare’s witches leave the scene when Macbeth attempts to interrogate them, Boyd’s ghostly children do the same, flying about the stage before exiting on Macbeth’s final command, voiced by Slinger as a desperate plea, “Speak, I charge you” (1.3.80). In this context, it is not simply supernatural knowledge which the children deny Slinger’s Macbeth, it is knowledge from beyond the grave.

In the mouths of dead children, the witches’ predictions, stripped by Boyd of any of Shakespeare’s references to black magic, take on a new significance which would have been very familiar to an early modern audience. Ghosts in the plays of Shakespeare and his contemporaries are not known for their conversational prowess. The riddle-like claims that the ghostly children make to Banquo and Macbeth thus have much in common with the words of many ghosts in early modern drama who tease their percipients with knowledge from the afterlife but leave before such knowledge can be satisfactorily imparted. Consider Old Hamlet, who can speak only briefly with his confused, astonished son before fading away “at the crowing of the cock” (1.1.150), or Brutus, whose perplexing conversation with the ghost of Caesar leaves him unsatisfied: “Ill spirit, I would hold more talk with thee” (4.2.379).

These “weird children”, as they are referred to by Steve Toussaint’s Banquo, are undoubtedly supernatural creatures but in their presentation they signify not magic or necromancy, they stand for living death. Boyd’s decision to place the witches’ bold prophecies in the mouths of dead children is at once strikingly original and thematically regressive. It serves as a callback to Raphael Holinshed’s original tale in The Historie of Scotlande (1577), in which the three creatures that prophesy Macbeth’s rise and fall are representatives of Fate itself. Stripped by Boyd of any references to malevolent black magic, Boyd forces his audience to reconsider the extent to which anyone in the play – Macbeth, Macduff, even the prophets themselves – might be said to be in control of their destiny. 

If the appearance of the ghost-children at the start of the play is shocking, it pales in comparison to the shock Boyd causes when he reveals to us the children’s identities midway through the play: in a single harrowing scene it transpires that the dead children, lowered from the rafters on hooks, are the ghosts of Macduff’s children, who were murdered alongside their mother by Macbeth’s soldiers.

The revelation is startling, because the position of these children as ghosts at the start of the play is at chronological odds with the fact that they are not shown to die until half-way through the performance. That these ghosts displace laws of time, however, makes them well-suited to the undercurrents of prophecy that define Macbeth. As ghosts of an event which has not yet transpired, Boyd’s children arise from the same anachronistic vein as Macbeth’s “air-drawn dagger” (3.4.72) covered in pre-emptive “gouts of blood” (2.1.53), and even as the old Thane of Cawdor, who “died / As one that had been studied in his death” (1.4.9-10). The presence of the ghosts thus acts as objective correlative to the philosophical confusion of cause and effect instigated by their premonitions to Macbeth and Banquo.

What is more, as mortal characters – rather than unearthly observers like the witches – these children are harbingers of the fate which lies in store for other victims of the tragedy: each of the characters who die on stage become ghosts in front of the audience’s eyes. The process by which they do so is suitably eerie: the stage lights fade, and corpses are illuminated by spotlights. Slowly, unsteadily, like puppets, the dead rise to their feet and walk upstage to a door held open by a mysterious satanic gatekeeper. Beyond the door is nothing but blackness. The ghosts step into that dark unknown, and the door slams shut. Like the children, these ghosts all return during the course of Boyd’s production. Banquo fulfils his traditional role, gate-crashing Macbeth’s banquet, and other ghosts – Duncan, Young Siward, Lady Macduff – flow onto the battlefield in the play’s climactic moments until the dead onstage outnumber the living.

The effect of these ghosts, then – particularly the children who meet Macbeth at the very beginning – is to shed new light on Macbeth’s most significant and exciting theme: fate vs free will. These apparitions demonstrate in an overt, horrifying manner what Coen Heijes identifies as “the inevitability and circularity of the events played out onstage.” [12] By having Macbeth stare into the face of the consequences of his actions before he has even committed any acts, living death emphasises the inevitability of Macbeth’s descent into evil – emphasises that Macbeth’s death, and the deaths of all those he takes with him, are foregone conclusions. As Coen Heijes observes, “all that remained to be seen was how the evil deeds would unfold … there was no escaping the horror in this Macbeth.” [13]

The sense Boyd creates with his ghosts then, is of a Macbeth in which Fate – not superstition, not black magic, not even human error is the driving force in a tragic cycle. The idea of such a cycle appears to have fascinated Shakespeare; the way that rulers rise by usurping, only to be toppled in turn; the ever-turning wheel of vengeance after vengeance, comeuppance upon comeuppance. The great Polish critic Jan Kott called this “the Grand Mechanism,” and described feudal history as “a great staircase on which treads a constant procession of kings.” [14] The real horror of Boyd’s Macbeth, Heijes notes, lies in the fact that the story will “happen over and over again, as the characters were unable to change the course of history.” [15] The dead children, simultaneously representatives of and hapless tools of a puppet-master Fate, poignantly demonstrate this notion of cyclical narrative.

A true cycle, of course, is one that ends where it begins. And so it is that Boyd’s production concludes by feeding directly back into its beginning: while other ghosts disappear into the audience, the dead children retreat back into the darkness beyond the stage, ready to appear once again to their murderer in the decrepit church. Macbeth’s fresh-bleeding corpse, slain by Macduff, centre-stage, rises to its feet and turns slowly to the abyss – the same blackness from which he emerges at the opening of the play. Macbeth follows the child-ghosts – both foul and fair, devil and doll – to  their doom. And the tragedy begins once again.


I would like to conclude by returning to young Giovanni’s question at the start of this paper, a question which, I propose, has an answer both undeniably complex and terribly simple: “What do the dead do, uncle?”

They perform.


[1] This paper is largely adapted from the first and final chapters of my PhD thesis, although my discussion of Goold’s Macbeth includes additional original material. See: Alsop, James. ‘Playing Dead: Living Death in Early Modern Drama’. Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Exeter, 2015.

[2] Webster, John. The White Devil, ed. Christina Luckyj (London: Norton, 2002). 3.2.327-332.

[3] Shakespeare, William. Hamlet, in William Shakespeare: Complete Works, ed. Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 2007). 2240-2322
All subsequent references to this play and others by Shakespeare are from this edition, unless stated otherwise.

[4] See, for example: White, Thomas. The Middle State of Souls from the hour of Death to the Day of Judgment (S.Aug, 1659).

[5] Schwyzer, Philip. Archaeologies of Renaissance Literature (Oxford: OUP, 2007). 122.

[6] Quoted in Davis, Natalie Zemon. ‘Ghosts, Kin, and Progeny: Some Features of Family Life in Early Modern France’, Daedalus, special issue on The Family (1977). 87-114, 94-5.

[7] Perkins, William. A Discourse of the Damned Art of Witchcraft (Cambridge: The University of Cambridge), sig.H2.

[8] Webster, John. The Duchess of Malfi, in English Renaissance Drama: A Norton Anthology, eds. David Bevington, et al. (New York: Norton, 2002)

[9] For example, Richard Goold’s theatrical production starring Patrick Stewart (2006) took place in a hospital and replaced the witches with gory nurses. 

[10] Coveney, Michael. ‘Macbeth, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon’, The Independent, Thursday, 28 April 2011.

[11] Griffin, Mary. ‘Review: Macbeth at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre’, Coventry Telegraph, 27 Apr. 2011.

[12] Heijes, Coen. ‘Macbeth (review)’. Theatre Journal 64.1 (March 2012). 102-105. 105.

[13] Ibid. 102.

[14] Kott, Jan. Shakespeare our Contemporary, trans. Boleslaw Taborski (London: Routledge, 1988). 9.

[15] Heijes. 104.

3 responses to “Shakespeare and the Living Dead”

  1. Hi James
    I haven’t gotten through the whole article yet, but it is clear to me that we are talking about different things when we use the word “liminal.” Below is a link to the PCUSA website and an article on how protestants regard purgatory.
    That not withstanding, I think it is worth having a discussion, if only because your article interests me, and I am happy to be talking about Shakespeare again.
    More when I have time.


    • I think what makes the difference is that you are referring to a state of being when you use the word liminal as an adjective, and I am referring to a space. Am I correct in reading this quote that way?
      “Living death is a threshold state that exists between life and death, and which may be approached from either side of the divide. It is broad concept that encompasses a whole range of on-stage bodies which exist in states that are neither entirely dead nor unequivocally living.”

      Thin spaces are liminal in this way:
      I understand if this does not interest you. Even within Protestant theology it is pretty esoteric.



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