Shakespeare Solved ®

Shakespeare Solved ® is a forthcoming series of novels that covers the Bard's entire life and work.

These novels solve the mysteries surrounding Shakespeare by transporting us back in time, to walk in his shoes, and see his world through his eyes.

Only when we see Shakespeare in his original historical context can we understand what his plays and poems really mean.

This blog explains some of my ideas and discoveries, to prepare for this series of novels.

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Thursday, August 27, 2015

Shakespeare and Ghosts

Did Shakespeare believe in ghosts?

He probably did, as it was a very common to believe in ghosts in the 16th century.

He refers to ghosts quite often in his plays and he certainly liked to put ghosts in his plays — with ghosts in Macbeth, Julius Caesar, Richard III, Cymbeline and most famously in Hamlet.

Did he ever see a ghost?

Or did he know of a ghost who haunted a house somewhere in England?

I have never personally been haunted by a ghost, and I am not attempting to convince you that ghosts do exist.

My opinion on ghosts doesn’t matter. Our modern-day opinions on ghosts don't matter. 

What matters is whether Shakespeare and his fellow countrymen -- 400 years ago -- believed in them. And yes, they did believe in them, arguably much more than we do today.

The Elizabethans were very superstitious, and there was great interest in the occult.

Dr. John Dee was probably the most famous figure of the age who dealt in the occult. He was the Court astronomer to Queen Elizabeth I, and she consulted him often, for any number of reasons, including astrological readings.

Shakespeare probably was aware that she was interested in the occult, and therefore part of his motivation to include ghosts and the supernatural in his plays was to entertain her. 

After all, all plays written and performed in the theatres in London were not officially written for the public. They were written for Elizabeth. The public performances were considered “rehearsals” to prepare the plays to eventually be played before the Queen and her Court.

Therefore, Shakespeare was writing about ghosts ultimately because his sovereign wanted to see them.

Shakespeare could have only written about ghosts, and included them in his plays because he was allowed to. His plays would have been censored otherwise, and all references to ghosts would have been removed. 

He still had to submit his plays, filled with references to the supernatural, to the Office of the Revels to be approved or not. If a play was not approved, it would not be allowed to be performed, period.

The Master of the Revels served at the pleasure of the Queen.

It would appear then that it was her pleasure to watch ghosts and see them in plays.

Queen Elizabeth, ca 1595

So the question then becomes: what was Queen Elizabeth’s interest in ghosts?

Did she ever see one?

She may have. 

After all, the royal palaces have a history of ghost sightings.

Windsor Palace

Windsor Palace has 25 ghosts that have been reported over the centuries.

Queen Victoria has been seen. So has Charles I. And George III.

But more interesting are the sightings of a ghost of Queen Elizabeth I.

Allegedly, King George III saw the ghost of Elizabeth, and even spoke with her. King Edward VII saw her, too.

George VI — the present Queen’s father — saw the ghost of Elizabeth on eight consecutive nights, during the beginning of WWII.

But most importantly, the earliest royal ghosts to have been seen at Windsor are of King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, Queen Elizabeth I’s parents.

Henry III and Anne Boleyn

Who saw them? When did they see them? When were the first sightings of Henry and Anne?

Is it possible that Queen Elizabeth I saw the ghosts of her own parents?

Is this one of the reasons she consulted Dr. Dee?

If she did see these ghosts, who knew about it? Could it have possibly been known across London, or throughout England that the Queen was visited by ghosts?

Did Shakespeare know?

Herne the Hunter

One of the other ghosts at Windsor is Herne the Hunter, who has been seen in the Great Park. 

He was King Richard II’s favourite huntsman. He committed suicide, after being falsely being accused for theft, by hanging himself from a tree, an oak.

There is painting here of oak and other paintings online

Shakespeare mentions Herne in Merry Wives of Windsor, the only play Shakespeare wrote which we believe Queen Elizabeth specifically commissioned him to write.

Sometime a keeper here in Windsor Forest,
Doth all the winter-time, at still midnight,
Walk round about an oak, with great ragg'd horns;
And there he blasts the tree, and takes the cattle,
And makes milch-kine yield blood, and shakes a chain
In a most hideous and dreadful manner.
You have heard of such a spirit, and well you know
The superstitious idle-headed eld
Receiv'd, and did deliver to our age,
This tale of Herne the Hunter for a truth.

Why did Shakespeare include Herne in this play, and have Falstaff disguise himself as Herne? For all we know this play may have been first performed at Windsor Palace for the entertainment of Queen Elizabeth.

Falstaff at Herne's Oak
by James Stephanoff

Was Shakespeare just entertaining Her Majesty, or is there more to it? Did he know or suspect that Queen Elizabeth was superstitious enough to believe in ghosts, or had seen ghosts?

When Shakespeare turned to Hamlet, he included the most famous ghost of all — the ghost of Hamlet’s father.

It is unknown when Shakespeare wrote Hamlet, but what is known is that the ghost of Hamlet’s father is not in the sources which Shakespeare used for his play.

Shakespeare changed many things from the original sources when he wrote Hamlet — he changed the character Amleth or Hamblet to Hamlet. He changed Gerutha or Geruth to Gertrude. He changed Feng or Fengon to Claudius.

But Shakespeare invented the ghost, and put it in the story.

from the Olivier Hamlet film

There may be many reasons for his decision to put a ghost in a story that didn’t have a ghost to begin with. But one of the reasons may have been for the purpose of entertaining Queen Elizabeth, whom he probably knew had a fascination with ghosts.

Did Shakespeare’s ghost of Hamlet’s father perhaps mean to represent the Queen’s own father, King Henry VIII?

Did Shakespeare create the ghost to somehow haunt the mind of the Queen?

It would make a certain sense, since the entire play of Hamlet was primarily about the Earl of Essex, the Queen’s royal “favourite” whom she had executed in 1601.


The entire play might be considered an effort to haunt her, and remind her of the young man whom she had loved so dearly, but had to execute.

If the Hamlet play was written for this reason, then it appears to have worked.

In 1602, the year after Essex was executed, the Queen was witnessed to “sit in the dark, and sometimes with shedding tears to bewail Essex.”

In March 1603, in the days right before she passed away, the Earl of Nottingham spoke with her and she said to him  "My Lord, I am tied with a chain of iron around my neck. I am tied, I am tied, and the case is altered with me.”

It is unclear what she meant by a chain of iron, but it does certainly suggest the image of a ghost who drags chains as he haunts people. Also, this is a very similar image to the one which Shakespeare drew when he wrote of Herne the Hunter.

Athenodorus and the Ghost

Nottingham tried to get the Queen to sleep in her bed but she replied “If you were in the habit of seeing such things in your bed as I do when in mine, you would not persuade me to go there.”

Queen Elizabeth, ca 1601

It is unclear what she saw, but apparently she does suggest witnessing something supernatural. 

Was she being haunted by Essex, by a ghost of him, or merely by the memory of him?

He had died just over two years before she died, and it would seem that he was clearly in her memory to her final days.

As you can see, I don’t have many answers to these questions, but I do think that this is a rich area to investigate. 


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