Saturday, October 27, 2007

"It harrows me with fear and wonder."

{The ghost of Hamlet's father, as played at the Booth Theatre, London, 1870. Sketch by Thomas Glessing.}

In a comment to yesterday's post, Jenny Davidson from Light Reading corrected my half-assertion that Jacob Marley is literature's most famous ghost. That crown, she rightly notes, rests with the ghost of Hamlet's father, who should also, I think, get extra credit for appearing to so many more people than your usual ghost charged with a mission. He first manifests in front of two or three of the men of the guard:
Horatio says 'tis but our fantasy,
And will not let belief take hold of him
Touching this dreaded sight, twice seen of us:
Therefore I have entreated him along
With us to watch the minutes of this night;
That if again this apparition come,
He may approve our eyes and speak to it.
Horatio, however, is having none of it:
Tush, tush, 'twill not appear.
But once the ghost does appear, there's no denying its presence, nor that it is
In the same figure, like the king that's dead.
Horatio, harrowed, hails Hamlet.

Watching the ghost of Hamlet's father, it's easy to see where Hamlet gets his flair for the dramatic. After all, need he appear in the chill of the ramparts at midnight? Wouldn't the quiet coziness of Hamlet's bedchamber have served as well? Ah, but then he'd eschew the hair-raising buildup he knows the guards will give him before he appears to his son, let alone Horatio's ascription to him of the powers of a Will-o-the-Wisp:
What if it tempt you toward the flood, my lord,
Or to the dreadful summit of the cliff
That beetles o'er his base into the sea,
And there assume some other horrible form,
Which might deprive your sovereignty of reason
And draw you into madness? think of it:
The very place puts toys of desperation,
Without more motive, into every brain
That looks so many fathoms to the sea
And hears it roar beneath.
And then there's the ghost's whole, "Oh, the stories I could tell of the horrors of the afterlife!" bit:
But that I am forbid
To tell the secrets of my prison-house,
I could a tale unfold whose lightest word
Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,
Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres,
Thy knotted and combined locks to part
And each particular hair to stand on end,
Like quills upon the fretful porpentine,
Only, well, it turns out he's not allowed to:
But this eternal blazon must not be
To ears of flesh and blood.

While Hamlet's father's technique is quite effective--as he surely knew it would be, if he possessed any understanding of the character of his son--I prefer the more straightforward approach of, as Perry White would say, great Caesar's ghost, when he appears to Brutus in his tent:
Ha! who comes here?
I think it is the weakness of mine eyes
That shapes this monstrous apparition.
It comes upon me. Art thou any thing?
Art thou some god, some angel, or some devil,
That makest my blood cold and my hair to stare?
Speak to me what thou art.

Thy evil spirit, Brutus.

Why comest thou?

To tell thee thou shalt see me at Philippi.

Well; then I shall see thee again?

Ay, at Philippi.

Why, I will see thee at Philippi, then.

[Exit Ghost]
I suppose you could ask why Caesar bothered to appear to Brutus at all--couldn't he have just shown up at Philippi? But I appreciate his straightforwardness; it seems appropriate to a great general. And after all, shouldn't a ghost be confident that his very presence will supply sufficient drama to make whatever point he's charged with putting across?

In that regard, no one tops Banquo, who doesn't even speak--or appear to anyone but Macbeth. A model of ghostly restraint, he merely sits quietly on Macbeth's stool and shakes his gory locks a bit:
Prithee, see there! behold! look! lo!
how say you?
Why, what care I? If thou canst nod, speak too.
If charnel-houses and our graves must send
Those that we bury back, our monuments
Shall be the maws of kites.


What, quite unmann'd in folly?

If I stand here, I saw him.

Fie, for shame!

Blood hath been shed ere now, i' the olden time,
Ere human statute purged the gentle weal;
Ay, and since too, murders have been perform'd
Too terrible for the ear: the times have been,
That, when the brains were out, the man would die,
And there an end; but now they rise again,
With twenty mortal murders on their crowns,
And push us from our stools: this is more strange
Than such a murder is.
And his encore is even better:
Avaunt! and quit my sight! let the earth hide thee!
Thy bones are marrowless, thy blood is cold;
Thou hast no speculation in those eyes
Which thou dost glare with!
Now that's supernatural efficiency.

1 comment:

  1. Good one! But don't you want to add the ghosts that appear to Richard III the night before Bosworth?!?