“Conference With the Dead”: A Brief History of Haunting

What follows is a full chapter from my PhD thesis, “Playing Dead: Living Death in Early Modern Drama” (which you can download here, if you fancy)!

This chapter is part literature review, part mission statement: in it, I outline how the notion of a “ghost” would have been understood by somebody living at the turn of the 17th Century. What – or who – *were* ghosts? What did they look like? Where did they come from? Most importantly, I begin to explore how might the various historical, religious, and political significations of the ghost may have influenced the characters we see on the early modern stage…

For the sake of clarity, minor edits have been made here and there. I hope you enjoy!


There were a vast number of cultural and literary sources for ghost stories in Renaissance England. The sheer variety of source material meant that there was no such thing as a ‘typical’ ghost in the early modern imagination, so that ghosts were governed by few conventions, if any. First, the ghosts who were once accepted by medieval Christianity flagrantly disregarded the conventions of changing times. Specifically, the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches disagreed entirely on the matter of ghosts, and the shift away from medieval mysticism enforced by the Church of England meant that within the span of a few short generations the English people were exposed to two completely different systems of dealing with the supernatural. Just as the attitude towards the dead was deeply affected by the Reformation and led to the coexistence of conflicting beliefs and practices to do with burial, so the beliefs regarding ghosts were divided between the former Roman Catholic and new Protestant teachings. The former taught that ghosts were normally the spirits of human beings, and required compassion; the latter taught that ghosts were generally demonic, and demanded to be treated with suspicion. Nothing the Protestant regime said or did, however, could fully remove ghosts from the English imagination. “Ghosts”, as folklorist Theo Brown puts it, “were oblivious to official opinion and continued to come and go at their own sweet will”, even in a new era in which, as the new Church of England taught, they simply did not belong. [1] 

Secondly, regardless of religious sensibilities, ghosts themselves in both pre- and post-Reformation England were rarely known to adhere rigidly to the constraints of time and space. One need only consider the apparition recorded by Elizabeth Southwell, who claimed a maidservant saw the monarch’s ghost before Queen Elizabeth had even expired. [2] Similarly, in the middle ages Gervase of Tilbury recounted the tale of a young man from Apt who “had the gift of ubiquity: at the same moment he appeared to a priest who was taking a nap on the left bank of the Rhone, and to his young cousin in Beaucaire, on the right bank”. [3] Elsewhere in the literature, in the fireside stories, and in the haunted houses of Renaissance England, one could hear of formless poltergeists, revenants tangible and intangible, ghosts friendly and malevolent, and angels and devils in the guises of dead men. Indeed, the only universal trait which early modern ghosts shared was the trait of eluding any and all forms of strict definition or categorisation. 

The treatment of the ghost in everyday England was reflected in the dramatic treatments of ghosts in early modern theatre. In drama, of course, the ghost had a rich classical heritage unrelated to the religious mores of Renaissance England. The apparitions found in the tragedies of Seneca, whose tragedies were first published in English in 1581, had a profound influence upon early depictions of ghosts as pursuers of blood-soaked vengeance, far different to the intercession-seeking spirits of Catholic tradition. While Senecan ghosts provided a template of sorts for dramatizing ghosts, however, the creatures eventually depicted on the Renaissance stage tended to reflect the anxiety between Catholic spiritualism and Protestant scepticism. Ghosts on the early modern stage still functioned on occasion as prologues and choruses, such as Don Andrea in The Spanish Tragedy, but unlike their Senecan forerunners they were not confined solely to the periphery of the dramatic action, and often appeared directly to living characters within the central plots of the plays in which they appeared. The greater narrative involvement of ghosts in early modern drama was, however, mitigated by dramatists commonly depicting these visitations in ways which foregrounded a distinctly post-Reformation sense of ambiguity and uncertainty, and gave cause to question the reality of these ghosts as spirits of the dead rather than, for example, dreams, hallucinations, or demonic tricks. Instead of presenting Catholicised meaningful contact between the living and the dead, engagement between these theatrical ghosts and living characters tended to be defined by a sense of communicative frustration indicative of the uneasy socio-religious place of ghosts in contemporary society. 

Writing about depictions of Judaism on the Renaissance stage, Stephen Greenblatt suggests that, due to the complete absence of Judaism in early modern England, the abstract figure of the Jew became the very essence of stock villainy – a “useful conceptual tool”, which could signify anything villainous, evil, corrupt or blasphemous. [4] It seems to me that the figure of the ghost surely underwent a similar process in the cultural imagination. In the same way that everyone knew what it was to be “a Jew”, everyone in attendance would simply know what a ghost was, what it represented, what it signified. And what it signified by the late sixteenth century was the tension between a cultural tradition of communicating with the dead, and a new theological order which denied that any such communication could ever take place. 

Living-Dead Interactions, or, the Talking Dead

Oh, that it were possible we might
But hold some two days’ conference with the dead!
From them I should learn somewhat, I am sure,
I never shall know here. [5]

These words, uttered by the doomed Duchess on the eve of her execution, recall “an earlier, though not so distant, cultural moment when it was still possible to hold ‘conference with the dead’”. [6] In his 1999 essay on The Duchess of Malfi, Scott Dudley writes that the Duchess’ words here represent nothing less than the palpable “desire – manifested throughout seventeenth-century culture – to have conference with the dead and a past that can only be experienced as rupture”. [7] Dudley discusses the matter in relation to the taste of the medieval church for saints’ relics (made obsolete, like ghosts, after the Reformation) which combined Necrophilia and Nostalgia to the end of communicating, conferring, with the dead. I believe, however, that his observation of the Duchess in the above passage is as relevant – perhaps more so – to a study of theatrical ghosts. The Duchess’ words, after all, echo an unanswered call for knowledge from beyond the grave which defines so many encounters with ghosts in post-Reformation English drama. 

Modern scholars have no shortage of material to quench their thirst for knowledge about early modern ghostly encounters. For one, John Newton applies the theories of literary critic Stanley Fish to the various readings that early modern commentators made about apparitions. Fish’s proposal of a shift from an objective model, where the reader passively receives meaning, to one where the reader is given “the central role in the production of meaning” [8] has implications, Newton argues, for investigations into how ghosts were analysed: 

In this paradigm, those who interpreted the nature of ghosts did not merely play a part in determining meaning, but actively projected or inscribed meaning onto the narratives about ghosts which they encountered. [9] 

Simply put, Newton argues, “differing readings of Ghosts in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries represented a clash of different theologies, or interpretative orders, the ghost being read from within the perspective of the tradition to which the interpreter belonged”. [10] By this logic, the modern reader may make observations on ghost stories based upon the assumption that early modern witnesses to ghosts saw what their doctrine taught them to see – and one can read their records in light of their theology. 

Newton makes an extremely valid point: when approaching a topic as multi-faceted as early modern perspectives on ghosts, the religious divisions between different cultures provide a useful framework which facilitates effective discussions of and comparisons within a complex field. And yet in post-Reformation England, generally speaking, one’s “tradition” was an altogether different influence to one’s theology. The “certain basic presumptions” “conditioned by the world view which their form of Christianity adopted” were themselves preceded by a heritage of medieval Catholic mysticism which survived through the stories told by parents to children. [11] As performance theorist Marvin Carlson writes, “the present experience is always ghosted by those which have come before”. [12] Although the newly-formed Church of England struggled gamely to remove all earthly remnants of English Catholicism, no amount of zealous vandalism could hope to banish entirely the memory of the old ways – or the memory of the old ghosts. The new interpretation of Christianity enforced by Protestantism was thus invariably “ghosted”, in Carlson’s terms, by the faith it attempted to displace; haunted, you might say, by the Catholic ghost. 

Eliminating the means of communication with the dead, then, did not necessarily eliminate the desire, nor did it remove from English consciousness the memories of times when such communication was part and parcel of day-to-day existence. How else do we explain the Duchess’ nostalgic lament, which demonstrates an attitude incongruous with the time in which the play was written? As Stephen Greenblatt suggests, even as the ghosts of Catholic heritage were “consigned to oblivion” by the Reformation, they began to turn up onstage instead. [13] And transferred along with the ghosts was the desire which they represented, the desire voiced by the Duchess, the urge of both the living and the dead to interact.

Lines of communication between the living and the dead in medieval England were, as explained in the previous chapter, wide open. In the case of ghosts, it was commonly accepted by medieval Christians that the dead could return to the world of the living in some limited capacity. 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. 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.

The interaction between ghosts and the living took place on several levels, however, and alongside the spiritual method of interaction that was intercessionary prayer, the living and the dead could communicate verbally and physically as well. Most obviously, in terms of appearance, although the forms that revenant spirits could take and the means by which they communicate vary from story to story, ghosts were generally deceased humans [14] – men, women or children – who, in shape at least, mostly resembled “paler and sadder versions of their living selves”. [15] The reason that ghosts appeared in the same form in death as they did in life was often because they rose physically from the grave as revenants. Thus, alongside the fact that ghosts tended to be instantly recognisable, they “frequently”, writes Jo Bath, had “physical presence” as well, [16] to the extent that many ghosts were able to engage with the living in very tangible ways. Ghosts, then, allowed for living-dead interaction that took place on an extremely personal level. 

In certain cases, such as when the very corpses of the dead returned to roam about as they did in life, the level of personal interaction proved problematic to the living. M.R. James relates the tale of Robert the Younger, who used to go forth from the grave at night and disturb and frighten local villagers. One night a group of boys gave chase and eventually caught the ghost, whereupon a boy named Robert Foxton held him until the arrival of the parish priest. The priest took the ghost’s confession and absolved him, and the ghost went at peace. [17] In this example, initial physical engagement ultimately facilitates spiritual intercession and, ultimately, salvation. 

In other cases, however, it was not unknown for physical altercation to replace spiritual intercession altogether. In a village in Brittany, a deceased baker returned to help his wife and children knead dough. When word of his culinary excursions got out, the villagers, presumably outraged at the ghost’s flagrant violation of hygiene codes, smashed open the tomb and broke the corpse’s legs. While hardly an exercise in subtlety, the mob’s techniques nevertheless proved effective, and the ghost did not return. [18] This retroactive punishment enacted upon the baker’s corpse has much in common with the methods of posthumous execution frequently carried out in the streets of early modern England, [19] and undoubtedly springs from the same belief in the deep-seated connection between body and soul. To deal with the former (whether through violence or dialogue) would, by extension, affect the latter. 

The ghost-as-corpse, then, could on occasion be seen as a threat to the living. In other scenarios, however, the connection between ghost and cadaver facilitated posthumous compassion. Deceased lovers, for example, were a common theme in folk ballads of the time, and many contain variations of a refrain in which the dead man pleads with his bereaved sweetheart not to kiss his decaying corpse, for fear of her dying as well:

My lips they are so bitter,
My breath it is so strong,
If you get one kiss of my ruby lips,
Your days will not be long. [20]

In many recorded cases, living engagement with the ghost’s physical form takes on a special significance, not because it poses any inherent danger but because the condition of the corpse correlates directly with its spiritual circumstances. The connection between body and soul appears to have been viewed as something of a two-way street, and in some circles it was believed that the condition of the body upon death influences the soul’s passage to the afterlife.

This belief led some medieval Christians, notes Schwyzer, to engage in the tradition of the ‘Wednesday fast’ in the hope that their weekly sacrifice would secure them access to clerical intercession in the event of their death being overly messy or unconventional: “Rhymes reported crushed, drowned, and decapitated fasters calling out for the sacraments”, [21] the desperate cries for the last sacraments indicate fears that a sudden, messy death would not allow the faster the time to properly prepare for the afterlife before their body expired. Stories also exist of corpses that spend their posthumous existence in special circumstances because of the condition of the soul upon death. Caesarius of Heisterbach writes of a dead priest who appeared to an old friend “in broad daylight” with a pale, sallow face, clad in a ragged gown, and was tormented by a fiery chain round his body. He warned his comrade to mend his ways, for this punishment, which appears to have taken a very physical toll on the ghost’s body, was for making a fraudulent confession. [22] A more famous case is found in the anonymous fourteenth-century poem St Erkenwald in which Londoners laying the foundations for St Paul’s Cathedral unearth a perfectly-preserved human body arrayed in rich, regal clothing. The corpse is able to speak to the attending Bishop Erkenwald, and reveals that in life he was a venerated chief justice from pre-Christian London, who died ignorant of God or his covenant. As a result, he is unable to enter the kingdom of heaven, and lies instead in spiritual and physical limbo. So saddened is Erkenwald by the ghost’s story that he inadvertently baptises the justice with an errant tear, whereupon the corpse joyously announces that the baptism has accomplished its purpose, and his soul was in that very instant set at the Lord’s table. The corpse then promptly decomposed into something “blakke” and “roten” before Erkenwald’s very eyes. [23] In both the case of the priest and the justice we see the condition of the ghost’s body reflecting the condition of its spirit in the afterlife – albeit in two slightly different ways. In the former, bodily emaciation and suffering indicate spiritual torment, while in the latter it is precisely the lack of corruption or outward distress evident in the corpse – which has been rejected by the very earth – that signals the complete rejection of a soul from the afterlife. 

Medieval ghosts, however, did not always present the connection between corpse and spirit in terms as literal as the dead body rising from the grave. One possible reason that a ghost may reside in Purgatory, after all, was because its body was not granted a Christian funeral. On occasion, then, stories tell of ghosts that have directed living friends or relatives to their unmarked graves in order to obtain a proper burial. In Chaucer’s Prioress’ Tale, a murdered young boy’s corpse is compelled by the Virgin Mary to sing the Alma redemptoris mater, even though his throat is cut to the very “Nekke boone”,so that his mother may discover his hidden body and ensure that he receives a full Christian burial. [24] Some ghosts, as Roland Finucane points out, were certainly “less tangible than others”, [25] although even reports of ghosts which return without any suggestion of a corpse commonly describe the revenant as retaining some transcendent physical quality. One such tale, the Gast of Gy (c.1323), found widespread fame in poetic form around Europe by the end of the fourteenth century. In it, the disembodied voice of a French man haunts his widow:

he did hir dole both day and night,
bot of him might scho have no sight;
and in hir chamber oft might sho here
mikil noyse and hidos bere. [26]

Yet although Gy lacks a visible form, the locus of his haunting is identified by his widow as being that bailiwick of physical intimacy, the marital bed wherein she and her husband once lay. [27]  Moreover, the local priest who comes to draw out Gy’s ghost by reciting scripture in the bedroom is armed with considerably more than just his Bible: he also brings along a pair of scholars and, tellingly, a company of two hundred armed men. The purpose of the priest’s academic associates is a matter for debate. As masters of philosophy and geometry respectively, their specialist fields would not appear to lend themselves particularly well to the situation at hand. Perhaps the very fact that they were well-educated was reason enough to assume, like Marcellus does of Horatio, that they were qualified to help deal with the supernatural: “Thou art a scholar; speak to it” (1.1.48). [28] Whatever the reason, they play no role in the priest’s subsequent interview with Gy. Far more prominent is the small army which accompanies them, “armed … fra top to ta”, guarding every exit against the possibility that the ghost may decide to “auenture” outside the building. [29]

In medieval Christianity, then, ghosts were a fact of life that could be seen, heard, and felt. Interaction between the living and the dead could be instigated by those on either side of the mortal divide, and engagement with the afterlife was a mere prayer, or perhaps a trip to the graveyard, away. After the Reformation, however, everything changed for the living-dead relationship.

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. Any such attempted interaction with the dead was fruitless in any case, Protestantism argued; 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. [30] 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. [31]

Perkins’ reference to the “bodie” refers not only to the outmoded beliefs in revenant corpses, it also recalls the insistence of the Protestant faith in the complete separation upon death of the body from the soul. All Catholic beliefs in the significance of the corpse in relation to the afterlife were replaced with a colder, more clinical take on the matter, devoid of overt affection. “My Body’s but the Prison of my Soule”, writes John Davies in his 1612 poem The Muses Sacrifice: [32]

The Grave (though wide it gape) dismayes me not,
sith tis the Gate of glory, rest, and peace:
And though therein my mortall Part must rot,
yet thence it springs with much more faire encrease 

(sigs. X2v-X3)

Given that there was, therefore, no method of communication with the afterlife through either spiritual or physical means post-Reformation, the divide between the living and the dead had never seemed greater.

The Protestant hard-line was apparently news to the “dead men” in question. As Theo Brown notes, “as time went on it became obvious that the ghosts themselves were oblivious to official opinion and continued to come and go at their own sweet will”. [33] Not only did ghosts continue to haunt post-Reformation England, it does not seem that sightings were restricted to members of the public geographically, or theologically distant from hubs of the new religious establishment. In the late 1570s, for example, Henry Caesar, the vicar of Lostwithiel in Cornwall, observed a conjuror bring back the spirit of deceased Cardinal Pole at the request of Sir Walter Mildmay. [34] In 1587, one particular ghost aimed even further up the social spectrum and famously sought an audience with the head of the Church of England herself: Hertfordshire resident Mary Crocker was visited by a ‘bright thing of long proportion without shape, clothed as it were in white silk, which … passed by her bedside where she lay’ and gave her a warning to deliver to Queen Elizabeth. [35] On the one hand the ghost did not appear to mean any harm – quite the opposite, in fact – but on the other hand, as Crocker must have known, the apparition occurred in stark defiance of the very Church which Queen Elizabeth represented. Understandably, ghost sightings caused a great deal of public confusion as newly-converted English Protestants struggled to put aside their old traditions and reconcile themselves to the mandates of the new religious order. 

One Protestant solution to the ghost dilemma was the application of simple, elementary scepticism, which saw a great number of ghost stories consigned to the category of human error as writers began to seek out naturalistic explanations for spooky phenomena. Demonstrating the reformist tendency towards rationalisation, the theologian and author of one of the most prominent reformist texts on ghosts, Ludwig Lavater attributes many hauntings to pranks by “pleasant & merrie young men, [who] disguise the[m]selves like unto Devils, or else shroud themselues in white sheets”. Perhaps experienced in such matters, Lavater imagines a “usuall and common” situation in which

yong men merily disposed, when they travell by the way, comming to theyr Inne at night, tye roapes to the bed side, or to the coverlet or garments, or else hide them selves under the bed, and so counterfeating them selves to bee Spirits, deceyve and mocke their fellows. [36]

Thomas Nashe takes a similar view in his 1594 treatise The Terrors of the Night, but attributes ghost sightings not to the trickery of “merily disposed” young men, but to bad dreams caused by melancholy: “the mother of dreames, and of all terrours of the night whatsoever”, an upset stomach or an overactive imagination: “Anie meate that in the day time we eat against our stomackes, begetteth a dismall dreame”, he notes, while “If a dogge howle” during the night, we suppose in our disturbed slumber that “we are transported into hell, where we heare the complaint of damned ghosts”. [37]

Here it should be noted that scepticism in the face of ghost stories was hardly a new approach, and neither was it one restricted to reformist scholars. Indeed, even serious-minded Roman Catholics were unafraid to apply even-handed rationality when confronted with hauntings. In one case, the Chateau d’Arsillier in Picardy, France was thought to be haunted by a black demon with horns and a tail. A friend of the owner chased the spectre and shot it, upon which it transformed itself into the local bailiff, who had been attempting to scare away customers by sporting a leather spook costume. [38] Whether or not the owner’s friend suspected foul play before he shot the apparition remains unclear, but his refreshing pragmatism nevertheless serves to demonstrate a Catholic appreciation of human foibles. Such instances of incredulity were, however, the exceptions to the rule in Catholic Europe. The Livres des spectres ou apparitions, written by renowned French lawyer Pierre le Loyer, relate several accounts of contemporary legal cases, which endorsed Papist views on spectres. The explicitly Catholic contents, which included a review of Catholic doctrine on Purgatory, may well have alarmed English Protestants when it was (surprisingly) translated and published in 1605 as A Treatise of Specters (the translator courageously dedicated the book to King James I). Loyer’s volume, which warns readers early on of the “many and divers kindes of cunning and artificiall devises” by which ghosts may be counterfeited in order to dupe “simple and credulous folkes”, but later relates the tale of a man accused of murder who was able to vindicate himself by claiming that the ghost of his wife had visited him and testified in his favour! Helpfully, the ghost also pointed out to her husband the identity of the real killer and “asked … for revenge”, in a distinctly non-Christian manoeuvre. [39] While scepticism was occasionally accepted as an approach to hauntings in Catholic nations, then, it seems that the belief in ghosts was still powerful enough to hold sway in matters of importance.

A popular brand of Protestant scepticism, on the other hand, took the extreme view that all reports of hauntings and apparitions were simply the products of human error influenced by superstition and popish mysticism. Of such sceptics, the most outspoken critic of the unfounded superstitions dispersed and enforced by both Catholic and Protestant faiths was Reginald Scot. Although Scot was not primarily concerned with ghostly apparitions in his seminal Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584), he did devote a chapter to the matter. Initially toeing the standard Protestant line, he ridiculed the “fond and superstitious treatises” of medieval Catholic scholars and also rejected the profane doctrines of the “Sadducees & Peripatetics who denie that there are any Divils or spirits at all”. [40] Controversially, however, Scot recognised that contemporary Protestant beliefs on the matter were just as laughable: “I for my part have read a number of their conjurations”, Scot remarks of the witches accused by Protestant zealots of raising the dead, “but never could see any devil of theirs, except that it were in a play”. [41]

There was, however, a third position that lay between the two extremes of Scot’s outright denial and Loyer’s fervent belief. Many writers began to incorporate ghosts into the new order of things through a careful process of re-categorisation – one officially sanctioned by the Protestant Church. Ghosts did exist, the reformists explained, Christians had simply been misinformed as to their true nature. As Lavater explains, ghosts were not the bodies and souls of dead men and women, they were the earthly manifestations of angels and demons. As far as Lavater is concerned, the logic required to come to such a conclusion is very simple. He begins his study by reviewing the official Protestant stance on the afterlife and, as was common practice among early Protestant writers, he puts to task the “Foolishe superstitions” of Catholic mysticism along the way. [42] Upon death the human soul is fated to one of two “mansions”, he reminds readers, “the one in everlasting fyre, the other in the everlasting kyngdome”. [43] 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 of a goblin damned,
Bring with thee airs from heaven or blasts from hell,
Be thy intents wicked or charitable…


The dead cannot wander the earth seeking spiritual alms; there is no Purgatory or Limbo because there can be no “middle or meane place … other where than with the divell”. [44] Lavater cites St Augustine frequently throughout and using the example of St Augustine’s mother to substantiate his claim. His message is clear: the living have no more power to influence the fate of the dead than the dead do the living. Therefore, he reasons, if ghosts are not the spirits of the dead then they can only be “Good and evill angels”, and probably more usually the latter: ghostly visions are “nowe so seldome tymes séene … bycause the Dyvell perceyveth, that wée understande hys subtleties and craft”. [45]

Even between Protestant writers expounding the revised faith, however, there was dissent and disagreement regarding the exact details of said faith. One of the most strongly-opinionated authors was none other than King James I, whose Daemonologie, in forme of a Dialogue (1597) comprised“a touchstone of seventeenth-century belief” but was very much “a product of the late-sixteenth-century spiritual environment”. [46] Daemonologie agrees more or less with the general Protestant view of ghosts, but contradicts Lavater at several points. Lavater, for instance, opines that although Satan was capable of creating illusions of the dead, he was powerless to literally raise dead bodies from the grave. [47] James, on the other hand, believed that not only could Satan and his followers forge spiritual ‘bodies’ for themselves, they could also reanimate and manipulate corpses of the good and bad alike. After all, he reasoned, ghosts may “easely inough open without dinne anie Doore or Window, and enter in thereat”, feats which, logically, they can only achieve “if they have assumed a deade bodie, whereinto they lodge themselves”. [48] Furthermore, as Finucane observes, James does not once suggest that angels can present themselves in the guise of ghosts: “This seems to leave only Satanic interference to account for the apparitions that troubled the people of his realms”. [49]

Although the disputes between writers are evidence of the burgeoning reformist discourse of ghosts and the important place that ghosts still held in both the religious and cultural imagination of early modern England, disagreements between influential writers reflect a wider division between the Church and the people as far as ghosts were concerned. The ghost problem under Protestantism was, in a nutshell, an issue of interpretation and accommodation. As part of the old Catholic order, apparitions were no more common and no less problematic, but their presence was mitigated by the virtue of the restless dead having a clearly-defined place in the Christian world view. To wit, no matter how troublesome a ghost may have been, the living knew with relative certainty what it was and how it had come to be, and had access to an established set of rules by which they could deal with the ghost accordingly. After the English Reformation, however, those who came across hauntings and other such supernatural occurrences were left without any such religious security blanket. There were no rules in place to help everyday men and women deal with ghosts because ghosts themselves were not supposed to exist. And so it was that a number of religious texts attempted to answer the ghost dilemma. Such was the level of public demand that Lavater’s De spectris, lemuribus et magnis atque insolitis fragoribus (1570), was published in five different languages and ran to at least nineteen early modern editions. The English title of the translated 1572 edition, Of ghostes and spirites walking by nyght, and of strange noyses, crackes, and sundry forewarnynges, gives a rather clear idea of the sort of superstitious, scared reader that Lavater (or at the very least, his publishers) hoped to attract. The public fear of spirits was sufficiently well-known to be satirised in the late-Elizabethan burlesque Tarleton’s News out of Purgatory (1590). Confronted by the ghost of the actor Richard Tarleton, he starts back, crying out a typical Protestant address: “In nomine Jesu, avoid, Satan, for ghost thou art none, but a very devil. For the souls of them which are departed … never to return into the world again”. Evidently unimpressed, the ghost of Tarlton responds, “Oh there is a Calvinist”. [50]

Nothing written on the matter by Lavater, James or their contemporaries was, strictly speaking, theologically canonical, and so doctrinal changes, as Bath notes, “were not uniformly taken up”. [51] As a matter of fact, the revised edition of the Church of England’s Canon Laws was not completed until 1604, and, as Theo Brown observes, contains “no mention of ghost-laying” whatsoever. [52] In a reference to demonic possession, which may be considered a related subject, the clause itself, no.LXXII is worryingly unhelpful. 

Neither shall any minister not licensed [i.e. by the Bishop for this express purpose] … attempt upon pretence whatsoever, either of possession of obsession, by fasting and prayer, to cast out any devil or devils, under pain of the imputation of imposture or cosenage, and deposition from the ministry. [53]

Since apparitions of any kind were often deemed to be devils come in disguise, Brown continues, “it might be argued that their existence was implied, but clearly no such interpretation is admissible in the actual wording” of the clause, which deals with possession, a totally different subject. [54] The law was clearly worded to prevent false exorcists and charlatans such as the Jesuit William Weston from roaming the countryside and performing ad hoc exorcisms for gullible townsfolk. [55] As an unhelpful consequence, however, the clause also restricted the ability of genuine priests to assist the victims of hauntings, leaving the laity with a distinct problem. G. Bennett summarises things nicely: 

A large number of manifestations, once neutral, had been reclassified as evil, without any equivalent gain on the side of good, at precisely the same time as the Church lessened its own ability to deal practically with supernatural creatures by outward means. [56]

By the end of the sixteenth century, then, there was only one location where interaction with ghosts was both possible and a regular occurrence: the stage. In the dramatizations of ghosts in Renaissance drama we see reflected the whole gamut of Protestant attitudes towards the spirits of the dead – not least of all the universal fear of the dead. Ghosts are frequently depicted as terrifying creatures, mirroring the fear which theatregoers would themselves have felt at the thought of them. Wittenberg-educated Horatio cannot hide his trepidation when confronted by the ghost of Old Hamlet – “How now, Horatio?” asks Barnardo, “You tremble and look pale” (1.1.61). Hamlet’s initial shock upon seeing the Ghost mirrors the terror of Tarleton’s Newes: “Angels and ministers of grace defend us!” (1.4.20). In Antonio’s Revenge, the very first words which Antonio addresses to the ghost of his father Andrugio are a plea – “Fright me no more” (3.2.78). The request is repeated again in the very next scene, when Antonio falters in his conviction to kill young Julio, who cries for mercy “For my sister’s sake” (3.3.26), but the cry of “Revenge!” from dead Andrugio is enough to scare Antonio into murderous action: “Stay, stay, dear father, fright mine eyes no more” (3.3.31).  

Encounters with ghosts in Renaissance drama are rarely defined entirely by fear, though. More pervasive than terror in the presence of ghosts is a sense of desire – generally on the part of living characters, but occasionally on the part of the deceased also – for more interaction between the living and the dead than is available. If the desire to converse with the dead is commonly depicted as a powerful motivation in Renaissance literature, however, it is almost without exception pitted against and confuted by an equally potent negative force that makes any such dialogue impossible. The Duchess of Malfi yearns for “conference with the dead” but receives only a death sentence; Brutus wishes to “hold more talk” with the ghost of Caesar, but is unable to; Old Hamlet’s return is cut short when the “glow-worm shows the matin to be near” (1.5.94). Almost without exception, then, we observe the desire for “conference with the dead” played out unsatisfactorily. The ghosts that appear during various plays do not stick around long enough to partake in satisfying discussion with the living – instead, their roles are periphery; their appearances confined to mere cameos. On the one hand, this lack of communication adheres to Protestant expectations concerning living-dead interaction. On the other hand, however, the laments of characters such as the Duchess and Hamlet seem to evoke feelings of nostalgia for the old ways – a desire to once again be able to engage in meaningful, mutually-satisfying discourse with the dead.

Although the tradition of confining ghosts to peripheral roles appears to have grown out of Senecan tragedies such as Thyestes and Agamemnon in which ghosts function only as prologues, the archetypal example as far as Renaissance tragedy is concerned comes in one of the plays which first popularised the revenge tragedy genre in Elizabethan England, Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy (c.1587). Kyd’s ghost, Don Andrea, who is killed in battle before the play opens, differs from those of Seneca in several minor ways: Andrea functions as both chorus and prologue, for instance, and possesses no apparent foreknowledge of how the story will conclude. However, like Seneca’s tragic ghosts, which, as Geoffrey Bullough observes, do “not interfere in the action” but rather expound the past in a way which “prepares the atmosphere of horror”, [57] Andrea takes a background role which lends itself to the same principles of personal revenge rather than divine retribution that Seneca’s tragedies were based upon. The Spanish Tragedy’s play-within-a-play structure places Don Andrea as a constant onstage presence, but one unseen by living characters, literally and figuratively confined to the sidelines of the main plot. From this position he is helpless to assist his living friends Horatio and Hieronimo, and unable to exact vengeance upon his murderer, Balthazar. Although Andrea’s ghost wishes to interact with those still living, his spiritual guide Revenge insists that he “sit down to see the mystery, / And serve for chorus in this tragedy” (1.1.90-91), a command which causes Andrea much frustration: “Brought’st thou me hither to increase my pain?” he protests (2.6.1).

Few works from the period frame the separation of ghosts from the main action in terms as categorical as The Spanish Tragedy, but the communicative divide between living and dead represented by Don Andrea is echoed in several other contemporary plays. In the anonymous Tragedy of Locrine (c.1591) [58] the ghost of Albanact drifts from scene to scene, undetected by the other characters on stage. His imperceptibility is used to darkly comic effect in one particular scene which sees Humber and Hubba, Albanact’s living enemies, engage in a dialogue with their deceased foe without realising it:

HUMBER … every place is straw’d with carcasses,
The sweetest sight that ever may be seene.

ALBANACT I, traitorous Humber, thou shalt find it so,
Yea to thy cost thou shalt the same behold,
With anguish, sorrow, and sad laments,
For now revenge shall ease my lingring grief,
And now revenge shall glut my longing soule.

HUBBA Let come what wil, I mean to beare it out…

(Sig. Fv)

In many ways the scene is similar to that familiar theatrical device popular in Renaissance drama which sees one figure hidden from the view of others on stage respond to the action in the form of asides, unheard by those other characters. In this sense Albanact’s behaviour in this scene may be likened to Hamlet’s, as the prince contemplates murdering the kneeling Claudius (3.4.76-99), or Romeo’s ruminations as he overhears Juliet on the balcony: “Her eye discourses: I will answer it. / I am too bold, ‘tis not to me she speaks” (2.1.58-9). The difference, however, is that Albanact’s comments are not asides to the audience or the vocalisations of internal conflict – they are instead addressed directly to his enemies, whose failure to perceive him is due to the obfuscating properties of a divide far less flimsy than a stage curtain or arras: the veil of death itself. The exchange between the unknowing living and the unheard dead thus acts, like the impermeable barrier between Don Andrea and his friends, as an explicit illustration of the inability of ghosts to fully physically or verbally engage with the living.

Even as this pseudo-conversation between Albanact, Hubba and Humber seems on the one hand to represent the communicative gulf between the living and the dead through the (non-) interaction between characters on stage, on the other hand it functions, somewhat ironically, to forge between the play’s living audience and the dead ghost the very sort of living-dead connection which the action of the scene would appear to deny. The scene thus is something of a literary curio, not only in the sense that Albanact is unusually verbose for a ghostly character, but also because of the fact that, given that neither living character on stage can see Albanact, this is an uncommon example of a scene in which the audience view the action from a ghost’s perspective and are therefore directly equated with the living dead. The same may reasonably be said of Don Andrea, who observes the events of The Spanish Tragedy in a manner akin to that of a theatregoer, but the differences between the characters of Andrea and Albanact are, I believe, clearly defined. Don Andrea functions in Kyd’s tragedy less as a sympathetic figure to whom an audience may relate, but as an admitted “chorus” – that is, a dramatic device who does not interfere with the main action and whose sole purpose is to provide context for Hieronimo’s story. Furthermore, any resonance between Andrea and theatregoers is diminished somewhat by the fact that the audience’s perspective is also shared by the figure of Revenge, who operates from beyond the realm of death, but is not himself a “ghost” in any real sense. An audience to The Spanish Tragedy, then, may be said to view the play not from the perspective of a ghost, but from the perspective of a generalised, distant, classically-inspired afterlife. Moreover, while Albanact’s afterlife takes place more or less entirely in view of the audience, the audience of Kyd’s tragedy cannot truly be said to share in Andrea’s posthumous experience, which is recounted verbally (1.1.1-85) rather than depicted with any kind of palpable immediacy.  

Unlike Andrea, Albanact is not an ineffectual chorus or the subject of a play-within-a-play framing device, but a character who exists within the same world as the living, as demonstrated by his slapping food out of Strumbo’s hand in 4.3, and his persistence in haunting Humber for seven years. His placement within the central action, however, is precisely what allows his perspective to overlap with that of the outside observers, the audience. Albanact’s afterlife is not merely recounted in an introductory monologue like Andrea’s, it takes place before our very eyes and we share in it. Albanact even soliloquises – a rarity for stage ghosts – on two occasions (at the ends of 4.3 and 4.5), speaking directly to the audience. As it pertains to Albanact’s intrusion in the conversation between the unwitting Humber and Hubba, in Albanact’s act of speaking but remaining unheard by his enemies he and the audience occupy the same observational space, being the only ones who perceive the entire exchange. For a fleeting moment the audience become ghosts, sharing Albanact’s living dead perspective. The effect is compounded by the fact that Hubba and Humber are clear-cut antagonists, making Albanact’s ghost the only sympathetic character on stage. In its creation of a bond between on-stage ghost and off-stage audience that transgresses conventional audience / character relationships this scene is a true rarity in the early modern corpus.

Where communication – verbal or otherwise – between living and dead characters isexplicitly depicted rather than denied in early modern drama, it is frequently presented as brief and unfulfilling, and usually ambiguous in terms of the ghost’s message, its presence, or both. Frequently we see the ghost’s appearance placed in doubt, with ghosts commonly encountered in scenes that provide possible alternative non-supernatural explanations for their appearances. In several cases they present themselves to living characters whose powers of perception are in some way compromised. In such instances, what little interaction there may be between living characters and ghosts is diminished by the implication that the ghost in question may be a hallucination, or an otherwise imaginary creation. The most famous example is Banquo’s posthumous appearance at Macbeth’s banquet. Early on in the play Macbeth demonstrates that he is susceptible to hallucinations when weighed down by guilt or doubt – on the way to Duncan’s chamber he encounters a “dagger of the mind” which he attributes to his “heat-oppressèd brain”: “It is the bloody business which informs / Thus to mine eyes” (2.1.45-6, 55-6). Therefore, when Macbeth is later confronted by the ghost of Banquo, the man whose murder Macbeth had masterminded, it is questionable whether the ghost is actually present at all. Not only does Banquo’s ghost remain silent, compounding the sense of uncertainty surrounding its presence, but what seems to Macbeth to be a real and present danger – “Hence, horrible shadow! / Unreal mock’ry, hence!” (3.4.122-3) – is invisible to everyone else present onstage. The implication is that the ghost may be the product of Macbeth’s own ravaged conscience rather than a supernatural phenomenon: “When all’s done”, Lady Macbeth admonishes her husband, “You look but on a stool” (3.4.77-8). 

Likewise, in John Webster’s The White Devil (1612) Francisco echoes Lady Macbeth’s dismissal of ghosts as products of a tormented mind. While Macbeth’s sighting of Banquo is labelled “the very painting of … fear”, however, Francisco attributes the ghost of his dead sister Isabella to his melancholy disposition. The apparition (identified as “Isabella’s ghost” by Webster’s stage directions at 4.2.99) appears as Francisco closes his eyes to imagine Isabella’s presence, and thus in the scene’s staging alone Isabella’s ghost would appear to exist somewhere between the realms of the imaginative and the supernatural. Francisco’s reaction, too, lends itself to either interpretation: on the one hand he openly intends to cast an imaginary image of Isabella, to frame “in a melancholic thought … / Her figure ‘fore me” (4.2.98-9). On the other hand, though, he is shocked at how realistic the apparition seems. “How strong / Imagination works!” he exclaims, “How she can frame / things which are not!” (4.2.99-101). Such is the seeming tangibility of the apparition that Francisco wonders against his better judgement whether it may be the genuine article. He assures himself that “Thought, as a subtle juggler, makes us deem / Things supernatural which have cause / Common as sickness”, and yet he cannot help himself from addressing the ghost directly: “How cam’st thou by thy death?” (4.2.107) Francisco immediately reprimands himself for being duped by his own creation – “How idle am I / To question mine own idleness?” (4.2.107-8) – and he banishes the ghost before he can find out whether or not Isabella would have answered. Francisco’s parting words to the apparition provide an insight into Francisco’s mind which lend the ghostly encounter an air, not of imagination, but of Catholic recusancy: “What have I to do / With tombs, or deathbeds, or funerals, or tears …?” But whether that signifies that the ghost is real or not is another matter. It is possible, after all, to infer from the fact that Francisco is able to dismiss the ghost from the scene by dismissing it from his mind – “Out of my brain with’t!” (4.2.110-111) – that Isabella’s ghost is predominantly an imaginary construct, like the melancholic “dreams” described by Nashe.

Elsewhere in early modern drama we are presented with other reasons to doubt the reality of ghostly manifestations, either because their presence is explained as an illusion of some kind, or because they appear to percipients on the verge of sleep, and may thus be explained away as dreams. In several of Shakespeare’s most famous works, depicted apparitions of the dead possess a dreamlike quality. The ghost of Caesar appears to Brutus as the latter is beset by “murderous slumber” (Julius Caesar,4.2.357): “I think it is the weakness of mine eyes / That shapes this monstrous apparition” (4.2.366-7). Similarly, the fifth act of Richard III sees both Richard and Richmond visited by a myriad of deceased friends, victims and relatives while the two men sleep. These ghosts, unlike those of Banquo or Caesar, have a great deal to say to both men, but their visits to sleeping Richard and Richmond are interpreted by the two men as a “dream” caused by the “coward conscience” (5.3.182-3) in the case of the former, and as the “fairest-boding dreams / That ever entered in a drowsy head” (5.3.229-30) in the case of the latter. That the apparitions are mere dreams is far from a foregone conclusion: it was, after all, believed in early modern superstition that strangely-burning lights indicated the presence of ghosts, and Brutus and Richard both note, before and after their respective ghosts have come and gone, that their candles burn strangely. Richard’s “lights burn blue” (5.3.184), and Brutus’ taper burns “ill” (4.2.365). Shakespeare thus provides some evidence to suggest that in these scenes the dead truly are attempting to communicate with the living. In these instances, however, there is just as much reason to believe that the presence of ghosts actually occludes the possibility of the posthumous interaction by demonstrating instead the power of the “coward conscience” and “murderous slumber”.

Although examples suggesting that ghosts may be creations of an imaginative internal force are frequent in the drama of the English Renaissance, there are also instances in which we see spirits of the dead presented as explicitly non-imaginary phenomena. In these instances, however, the presence of non-imaginary apparitions does not necessarily facilitate meaningful exchanges between the living and the dead. In The Tempest, Prospero claims to possess power enough that “graves at my command / Have waked their sleepers, oped, and let ‘em forth / By my so potent art” (5.1.53-5). Despite this open admission that such living-dead contact is possible, however, the only apparitions that he summons during the course of the play are images of classical gods and pastoral memes – nymphs, Naiads and “sunburned sicklemen” in “rye-straw hats” (4.1.146-8). As Greenblatt notes, then, the shapes summoned by Prospero are “not the souls of the dead but something less ominous”, [59] a matter clarified in the exchange between Prospero and Ferdinand: “May I be bold / To think these spirits?” Ferdinand enquires. “Spirits”, Prospero confirms, 

which by mine art 
I have from their confines called to enact
My present fancies.


That the play features a magician in command of such spirits at all is proof enough that Shakespeare has no objection to presenting supernatural activities per se. Prospero’s words here, however, read as a calculated removal on Shakespeare’s part of the dead and the living from one another – an overt dismissal of Ferdinand’s implicit suggestion that Prospero’s activities might constitute necromancy. This scene’s careful separation of unacceptable and acceptable concepts – of ghosts from the merely ghost-like – mirrors a similar scene in an earlier play, Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus (c.1594), in which Faustus conjures up at the request of a German Emperor the shapes of long-dead Alexander and his paramour. Although the two apparitions are convincing enough that the Emperor believes them to be “the true substantial / bodies of those two deceased princes” (4.1.68-9), Faustus dispels the idea that these figures could be the genuine articles. Faustus is unable to resurrect “the true substantial bodies” because they “long since are consumed to dust” (4.1.46-7). What Faustus presents instead is, like Prospero’s magic trick, a mere illusion performed by “such spirits as can lively resemble Alexander and / his paramour” (4.1.50-1) and not, crucially, the ghost of Alexander, who remains inaccessibly entombed in “vaults below” (4.1.34). This illusion Greenblatt takes one step further: Faustus is not merely unable to conjure the dead bodies, but instead purposefully conjures lookalike spirits to perform a dumb show in order to control and set conditions on this moment of living-dead interaction. [60]

In cases in which living characters are confronted by ghosts, which one may reasonably perceive as objectively present rather than the products of hallucinations, dreams, or a ghost-like illusion conjured by magic, interaction may eventually take place, although this interaction may not be what the living characters were hoping for.  In the example of Albanact, unlike Don Andrea he is eventually acknowledged by the living – in this case by Humber. And yet for all of his loquaciousness in the earlier scenes when he was unheard, on this sole occasion upon which Andrugio’s “wandring ghost” is able to confront his foe he speaks with uncharacteristic abruptness, uttering only that most common of ghostly refrains, “Revenge, revenge for blood”. [61] Humber, for his part, accepts that Andrugio is “fearfull to behold” but remains unintimidated: “when as I die, ile dragge thy cursed ghoast / Through all the rivers of foule Erebus”, [62] he threatens, before exiting and putting the brief dialogue to an end. Even as their presence on stage suggests an unquashed desire to speak with the dead, the ways in which ghosts are so often depicted in drama serves only to highlight the fruitlessness of that desire. 

To return to the Duchess’ desire for “conference with the dead”, then, I suggest that we may read in her words a calculated cynicism on Webster’s part as it pertains to the accessibility of living-dead communications. The sequence of events, which sees the Duchess desire to speak with the dead before she herself becomes one of the dead, finds its natural counterpoint in the later scene in which Antonio and Delio enter the Duchess’ grave. As Antonio speaks, his words are returned to him by a very selective echo from the grave, an echo which subtly changes the meaning of his own words to warnings, and sounds, he observes, “very like my wife’s voice” (5.4.28). The voice “that many have supposed … is a spirit” (5.3.8) is, we are led to believe, the Duchess’ ghost, attempting to save her husband from beyond the grave by offering him the same conference with the dead that she herself was denied. That her ghost speaks only by echo, however, casts enough doubt on her spiritual presence that Antonio, despite engaging in a dialogue with his late wife, “marked not one repetition of the echo” but the last, and any concern he may feel over the sole echo he heard is quickly dismissed by Delio as “Your fancy, merely” (5.3.47, 50). Heedless of the echo’s advice that Antonio “fly [his] fate” (5.3.39), he leaves, and marches directly to his death. The message that appears in this scene is simple, but sums up neatly the relationship between ghosts and the living in early modern drama in general: where the living desire “conference with the dead”, Webster tells us, it is denied; and where that conference does occur, it invariably comes to nought.

Works Cited

[1] Theo Brown. The Fate of the Dead: A Study in Folk-Eschatology in the West Country After the Reformation (Ipswich: D.S. Brewer Ltd., 1979). 19.

[2] Catherine Loomis. “Elizabeth Southwell’s Manuscript Account of the Death of Queen Elizabeth [with text]”. English Literary Renaissance, 26/3 (September 1996). 482-509. 486.

[3] Jean-Claude Schmitt. Ghosts in the Middle Ages: The Living and the Dead in Medieval Society (London: University of Chicago Press, 1998). 179.

[4] Stephen Greenblatt. Will in the World (New York: Norton, 2004). 259.

[5] John Webster, The Duchess of Malfi, in English Renaissance Drama: A Norton Anthology, eds. David Bevington, et al. (New York: Norton, 2002),4.2.20-23.

[6] Scott Dudley. “Conferring with the Dead: Necrophilia and Nostalgia in the Seventeenth Century”. English Literary History, 66/2 (Summer 1999). 277-294. 277.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Stanley Fish. Is There a Text in This Class? The Authority of Interpretive Communities (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1980). 7.

[9] John Newton. “Reading ghosts: early modern interpretations of apparitions” from Early Modern Ghosts, ed. Newton (University of Durham: Centre for Seventeenth-Century Studies, 2002) 57-69. 57.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid., 59.

[12] Marvin Carlson. The Haunted Stage (Michigan: Michigan University Press, 2001). 2.

[13] Stephen Greenblatt. Hamlet in Purgatory (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001). 151

[14] Although this chapter exclusively discusses human ghosts and the theatrical performances thereof, stories of visitations by deceased animals were not unknown in medieval and Renaissance England. M.R. James identified one example of ghosts which “ride their own ‘mortuaries’ (the beasts offered to the church, or claimed by it, at their decease)” in his edited Latin text of the Byland Abbey tales (c.1400), while in 1594 Thomas Nashe attacks “old wives tales” of riders pursued by ghostly “wesels and rats, and oftentimes with squirrels and hares”. Even in the Queen’s court, Nashe claims,

they will tell you of a mightie worthie man of this Land; who riding in his Coatch from London to his house, was all the waye haunted with a couple of Hogges, […] hee caused them to be shut up in a barne, and commanded milke to be given them; the barne dore was lockt, and the key safely kept, yet were they gone by morning, and no man knew how.

There may be at least some connection between the spirits that Nashe mentions and the witches’ familiars described by, among others, King James I. Although not strictly ghosts, familiars were alleged to be evil spirits “in likenes”, according to James I, “of a dog, a Catte, an Ape, or such-like other beast”. See M.R. James, “Twelve Medieval Ghost Stories”, English Historical Review, 37/147 (1922), 413-422, 421, n.2, and Thomas Nashe, The terrors of the night (London: Printed by John Danter for William Jones, 1594), sig.H; for witches and familiars, see King James I. Daemonologie (Edinburgh: Printed by Robert Walde, 1597). Sig.D2. James I famously refuted the scepticism of Reginald Scot. See Scot. The discovery of witchcraft (London: Printed for Andrew Clark, 1665 [originally published 1584]). Sigs.A2-A3.

[15] R. C. Finucane, Ghosts: Appearances of the Dead & Cultural Transformation (New York: Prometheus Books, 1996). 81.

[16] Jo Bath. “‘In the Divell’s likenesse’: interpretation and confusion in popular ghost belief”. John Newton, ed. Early Modern Ghosts (University of Durham: Centre for Seventeenth-Century Studies, 2002). 70-78. 74. Medievalist Jean-Claude Schmitt also refers to the corporeality of such apparitions in Ghosts of the Middle Ages: The Living and the Dead in Medieval Society, trans. Teresa Lavender Fagan (London: University of Chicago Press, 1998). 196-200.

[17] James. “Twelve Medieval Ghost Stories”. 418.

[18] Schmitt. Ghosts in the Middle Ages. 147-8.

[19] See James Alsop. “Playing Dead: Living Death in Early Modern Drama(Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Exeter, 2014). 20-59. 

[20] “The Twa Brothers”. in Francis James Child, ed. The English and Scottish Popular Ballads. 4 vols. (New York: The Folklore Press, 1957). i: 439.

[21] PhilipSchwyzer. Archaeologies of Renaissance Literature (Oxford: OUP, 2007). 52.

[22] Caesarius of Heisterbach. Dialogue of Miracles. bk. 30, trans. H. von E. Scott and C.C. Swinton Bland (London: Routledge, 1929). 24. cited in Finucane. Ghosts. 61.

[23] St Erkenwald. Clifford Peterson, ed. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1977). Philip Schwyzer analyses this poem, extracts of which he translates into modern English, as part of a wider discussion on the medieval motif of the uncorrupted corpse. See Archaeologies. 45-51.

[24] Geoffrey Chaucer. The Prioress’s Tale. In The Riverside Chaucer. Larry D. Benson, ed. (Oxford: OUP, 1988). Fragment 7. 209-212. Lines 453-690; line 649. page 212.

[25] Finucane. Ghosts. 81. 

[26] Anon. “Spiritus Guydonis” in Yorkshire Writers: Richard Rolle of Hampole and his Followers. Vol.2. C Horstman, ed. (London: Swan Sonnenschein & Co., 1896) 293. lines 51-54. WEB <;, last accessed 10 Jan. 2014. For more on the Gast of Gy, see Greenblatt. Hamlet in Purgatory (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001). 105-120.

[27] “Spiritus Guydonis”. Lines 79-80 (294): in “ƥat bed” where “mi lord and I lay in”. 

[28] Theo Brown notes that Wittenberg, the university from which famous graduates include Hamlet, Horatio and Dr Faustus, was known by Scandinavians as the ‘Black School’ (Svarti skoli), and associated with supernatural education. “Remembering that Shakespeare was placing his characters in the world he knew”, writes Brown, “it seems hardly surprising that Hamlet should have returned home in [a] somewhat confused state, or that the locals thought Horatio the person best qualified to address a ghost”. See Brown. The Fate of the Dead. 84.

[29] “Spiritus Guydonis”. Lines 141, 170 (295).

[30] See Church of England. Thirty-nine Articles (1562) (London: Richarde Jugge and John Cawood, 1571).14.

[31] William Perkins. A Discourse of the Damned Art of Witchcraft (Cambridge: The University of Cambridge). Sig.H2.

[32] John Davies. The muses sacrifice (London: Printed by T.S. for George Norton, 1612).

[33] Brown. Fate of the Dead. 19.

[34] A.L. Rowse. Tudor Cornwall: Portrait of a Society (London: Jonathan Cape, 1943). 335. 

[35] Keith Thomas. Religion and the Decline of Magic: Studies in Popular Beliefs in Sixteenth and Seventeenth-Century England (London: Penguin, 1991; first published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1971). 717.

[36] Lavater. Of ghostes. C3r-C3v.

[37] Thomas Nashe. The Terrors of the Night (London: John Danter, 1594). Sig. C4v.

[38] Augustine Calmet. The Phantom World. Tr. H. Christmas (London: Richard Bentley, 1850). 1.250-2. Cited in Finucane. Ghosts. 96.

[39] Pierre le Loyer. A treatise of spectres (London: Printed by Val. Simmes for Mathew Lownes, 1605). Sigs.T2v, X. Case cited in Finucane. 99-100.

[40] Reginald Scot. The Discoverie of Witchcraft (London: Printed for Andrew Clark, 1665 [originally published 1584]). 491.

[41] Ibid. 443.

[42] Lavater. Of Ghosts. sig.P2v.

[43] Ibid. Sig.B2v.

[44] Ibid.

[45] Ibid. Sigs.T2v. AAv.

[46] Finucane. Ghosts. 95.

[47] Lavater. Of ghostes. Sig.Rv.

[48] James I. Daemonologie in forme of a dialogue (Edinburgh: Robert Waldegrave, 1597). Sig.Iv. 

[49] Finucane. Ghosts. 96.

[50] J. Belfield. “Tarleton’s News out of Purgatory (1590): a Modern-spelling edition, with Introduction and Commentary” (unpublished doctoral thesis, University of Birmingham, 1978). 284.

[51] Bath. “‘In the Divell’s likenesse’”. 70.

[52] Brown. Fate of the Dead. 18.

[53] Edward Cardwell, Synodalia, 1842, 287, cited in and translated by Brown, Fate of the Dead, 18.

[54] Brown, Fate of the Dead, 18.

[55] See Greenblatt, “Shakespeare and the Exorcists”, Literary Theory: An Anthology, 2nd edn., eds. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan (Malden: Blackwell, 2004), 592-620.

[56] G. Bennett, “Aspects of supernatural belief, memorate and legend in a contemporary urban environment”. (Unpublished doctoral thesis, Sheffield University, 1985). 74-5. Cited in Bath, “‘In the Divell’s likenesse’”. 74. Bennett expands upon the lack of aid offered by the clergy in her article of the following year, “Ghost and Witch in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries”. Folklore 97, 1981. 

“It was not until the early part of the eighteenth century”, Brown notes, “that sophisticated writers like Daniel Defoe and John Beaumont could boldly observe that since many ghosts came expressly to give good advice or to warn their descendants to desist from evil ways, it was hardly likely that they could be emissaries of Satan” (Fate of the Dead. 19). See Daniel Defoe. A History of Apparitions. 1738; John Beaumont, Treatise of Spirits (1705). 183.

[57] Geoffrey Bullough ed. Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare. Vol. 7 (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1973). 25.

[58] Anon. The Lamentable Tragedie of Locrine (London: Thomas Creede, 1595).

[59] Greenblatt. Hamlet in Purgatory. 259.

[60] Ibid. 155-6.

[61] Anon. Locrine, sig. G.

[62] Ibid. Sig. Gv.

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