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Wednesday, 10 August 2011

More things in Heaven and Earth

"There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy." The line comes from Act 1 Scene 5 of Shakespeare's play Hamlet, spoken by the title character to fellow student Horatio after they've both seen a ghost. The fact that there's a ghost - a paranormal phenomenon - in such an academically acclaimed work of literature has always intrigued me. And it's not just a passing reference... the ghost is central to the whole drama. When Classics Illustrated produced a comic-book adaptation of the play in the 1950s, they put the ghost right there on the cover (left).

At least three of Shakespeare's other plays have ghosts in them: Richard III, Julius Caesar and Macbeth. But in these three cases the ghost is a murder victim who is only seen by a single witness -- one of the individuals who was responsible for their death. Hence these ghosts may be purely subjective... just a way of dramatizing the murderer's conscience.

But the situation in Hamlet is completely different... the ghost there is seen by multiple witnesses. The first encounter takes place in the very first scene, when the ghost is seen by Horatio and two soldiers -- and Hamlet isn't present at all. Even at this stage, the ghost is identified by these "independent witnesses" as looking like Hamlet's late father... an identity the ghost himself confirms when, several scenes later, Hamlet finally meets him. The ghost informs Hamlet that rather than dying of a snake-bite, as was believed, he was actually murdered ("Murder most foul!") by his brother -- and he presses Hamlet to avenge him. Hamlet isn’t convinced by the ghost's story ("The spirit that I have seen may be a devil")... and this conflict between belief and doubt provides the driving force for the whole drama.

Now, you might think that Hamlet's unconscious mind could have come up with the notion of his father's murder, and that the ghost is simply an externalization of this. Shakespeare could easily have written the play that way, by having Hamlet as the only character who ever witnesses the ghost (and I bet a lot of mainstream academics wish he had written it that way!). But the obstinate fact is that Shakespeare provided multiple independent witnesses -- so he must have intended the ghost to be objectively real. Why else should Horatio and the soldiers observe the ghost, and even discuss it, before Hamlet so much as sets foot on the stage?

Which comes back to the question -- just who was Horatio, and what was this "philosophy" of his that didn't dream of ghosts? Horatio, according to Shakespeare's play, was a student from the University of Wittenberg in Germany. Now that university (or any other university for that matter) didn't exist in the Middle Ages when Hamlet was supposed to have lived... but details like that never seemed to bother Shakespeare. At the time the play was written (circa 1600), and for a century before then, Wittenberg was one of the great centres of the Humanist movement, and the Protestant movement that grew out of it (it was in Wittenberg, in 1517, that Martin Luther is supposed to have nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to a church door). So the sceptical and unimaginative Horatio may have been a Protestant!

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