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Shakespeare's Ghosts

Shakespeare certainly took inspiration from the stories he would have heard in his childhood when writing up his plays - and ghost stories weren't exempt from his extractions. Arthur Ratham's illustration depicts a ghost scene from "A Midsummer Night's Dream".

Sylvia Morris

Shakespeare was no different from his contemporaries, recalling the stories which he would have been told at his mother’s knee, rather than those he read in books like Ovid’s Metamorphoses. As Reginald Scot wrote in The Discovery of Witchcraft, on a dark night “a polled sheepe is a perilous beast, and manie times is taken for our fathers soule, speciallie in a churchyard."

In the opening scene of Hamlet, the ghost of the hero’s murdered father appears on stage, and later in the play Hamlet begins one of his soliloquies by reminding the audience of the supernatural:

'Tis now the very witching time of night,
When churchyards yawn and hell itself breathes out
Contagion to this world."

Rackham A Midsummer Night's Dream
Arthur Rackham’s illustration for "A Midsummer Night’s Dream" showing ghosts returning to their graves at dawn

And illustrators like the early twentieth century artist Arthur Rackham have always found Shakespeare’s scenes of the supernatural irresistible, such as the moment, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, when, at the crowing of the cock at dawn:

"…Ghosts, wandering here and there,
Troop home to churchyards"

Even though we’re not superstitious in the same way today, how many people would willingly walk through a churchyard on a dark night, particularly on Hallowe’en?

During half-term week each of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust’s houses is hosting events based on Hallowe’en from traditions about plague to the telling of spooky tales. Information is on our website. Please come along and join in the fun!