Sixteenth Century Attitudes to ghosts

There has been much discussion about the theological background to the nature of ghosts and the possible attitudes of late sixteenth- / early seventeenth-century audiences when they saw them represented on stage. In the 1590s Catholics could readily believe in ghosts as spirits of the dead from purgatory (see Themes and significant ideas: Heaven, hell and judgement) whereas Protestants, who did not believe in purgatory, saw them as devils.

Usually, as for example with the ghost of Banquo in Macbeth or that of Caesar in Julius Caesar, a ghost appears only to one person, usually its murderer, and could therefore be interpreted as being simply in the mind of the one who supposedly sees it. But the ghost of Old Hamlet is seen in Hamlet by four people — it is therefore a ‘real' phenomenon.

However, when the Ghost appears to Hamlet in Gertrude's chamber in Act III scene iv, Gertrude cannot see it.

A play such as Shakespeare's Hamlet was written for a Protestant audience, but since many of them would still have Catholic beliefs, they would have appreciated Hamlet's dilemma about whether to follow the directives of the ghost of Old Hamlet.

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