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Home :: Archive :: 2004 :: February ::
Ghost Appearance
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 15.0458  Tuesday, 17 February 2004

From:           John Reed <
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Date:           Monday, 16 Feb 2004 19:27:28 -0800
Subject:        Ghost Appearance

  All these posts regarding Hamlet, it got me to thinking...maybe it's
time for something hard and horrible.

  So, what does the Ghost look like in this play?  Or rather, what I'm
really curious about, is what did the Ghost look like to the audience --
the original audience?

  From the standpoint of a director faced with directing Hamlet, there
is a great deal missing in the oldest printed versions of the play, and
especially action is under-represented.  It is not far off to say there
is no action specified.  Well OK, there is some.  And then somewhat more
may be readily derived from the Spoken Text (Spoken Text: that's my
lingo; I hesitate to use the word "dialogue" because not all of the
Spoken Text is dialogue).  But that still leaves much to be added.
Referring to one modern edition, edited by Barbara Mowat and Paul
Werstine, we see this problem mentioned on p. xxii-xxiii, for instance
where they state, "[B]ut the question of who strikes at the Ghost and
with how much vigor will be answered variously from production to
production."

  And from the Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare there is further
lamentation:

  "Treated solely as a record of specific performances, the Folio is
remarkably frustrating, sometimes appearing more interested in
suppressing the theatrical nature of the scripts it reproduces than in
celebrating it.  It provides no clues as to where or when the different
plays were first performed, nor in which order (arranging them within
the volume in a strictly literary manner, by genre), and such stage
directions as their texts supply vary enormously in the level of
information they provide as to how they have hitherto been realized,
tending towards the barest minimum."  ('Shakespeare on the Page and the
Stage', p. 237)

  The problem of representing action in performances of plays written by
Shakespeare is to me a very big problem.  What action should we have,
and why?  How do we know, among the alternatives, whether an option is
good, or right, or true?  In the above quotation that phrase "barest
minimum" looks harmless enough, but I can convince myself there is a
hidden assumption at work, where minimum, to me at any rate, implies a
certain sufficiency.  Not so much that the Stage Directions are
sufficient, but the Stage Directions in combination with the Spoken Text
are.  Trying to bring this hidden assumption into the open it might be
stated as follows: "Although we do not have very much information on
action, the important action is either specified directly or derivable
from the Spoken Text."  Then there is the related idea that most of the
other stuff getting added that is not so closely tied to the text as to
be unequivocal is not really very important, even if necessary when a
performance is to be mounted.  In other words, there is (or was, rather)
no action which is both significant and unobvious.  Perhaps generalizing
a little the claim (mostly an unconscious supposition) might be put as:
there is no significant unobvious communication of story to audience by
any means other than what is stated or strongly implied by the original
texts.  I can't help thinking these are false notions, even if I did
make them up myself.

  Moving beyond action, how about...make-up and wardrobe?  We don't have
a very good record of their original condition, either.  And although
neither of these parameters is usually very important in a play, on
occasion one or the other might be.  And in Hamlet what the Ghost looks
like might (depending on what it really did look like) settle the
vexatious problem of what the Ghost "is."

  Modern performances are dominated by an Enlightenment Philosophy world
view, and a theory of drama derived from that philosophy, and both of
these theoretical superstructures influence how the appearance of the
Ghost is reconstructed from the available evidence.  There are clues to
how the Ghost appears: it is described in a certain amount of detail by
Horatio and the boys, and also by Hamlet himself to Gertrude.  So modern
drama, which demands a high degree of realism, might allow a Ghost, but
only if it has a consistent appearance: the one described over and over
again -- namely that it looks like Old Hamlet.  Of course certain
characters might see the Ghost slightly differently depending on such
factors as lighting, point of view, amount of time available to form an
impression, and so on, but the idea behind all that is the variation in
perception is small and the Ghost, regardless of what light it is under,
has a certain appearance, much in the same way any of the other
characters has a characteristic appearance.  One of the maxims of modern
drama is that what happens would happen if there were no audience, just
as it does in so-called real life.  So the audience is supposed to see
what the characters see -- or might see if they were looking in the
right direction.  Ordinary characters: they all look like themselves,
and no two observers looking at the Ghost from the same POV are going to
perceive it grossly differently, one seeing an old man and the other a
little girl, for instance -- especially if there is consistency in the
descriptions reported in the Spoken Text.  What I'm trying to get at is
the idea that in modern drama the appearance of a character is a kind of
constant.  Of course characters might change in appearance during the
play, but at any given moment they look substantially the same to
whoever is looking at them, because they have one and only one visible
aspect.  That supposition is transferred to Shakespeare's plays, in
particular Hamlet, and the Ghost is therefore usually interpreted and
then presented as looking like Old Hamlet to the audience as well as to
Horatio and the boys.

  There have been exceptions, however, as noted in Marvin Rosenberg's
book The Masks of Hamlet, where he relates how in many productions
(although still a minority) the Ghost has been depicted not as Old
Hamlet, but amorphously.

  "Later theatres, playing Hamlet to audiences increasingly sceptical of
the supernatural, have experimented with techniques for enhancing both
the mystery and the menace of the ghostly figure.  Most simply it has
been rendered invisible; is never seen in any of its scenes by the
theatre audience, but only by watchers who create its fearful image with
their words and faces -- on the theory that our imagination will then
make it most horrible and least anachronistic."

""The Ghost has been a moving shaft of light, often beating on the faces
of his confronters, as with Williamson.  It has seemed transparent; it
has been a wraith of smoke or mist, en (sic) eerie glimmer, a vapor, a
silky cloud.  It has been a reflection from a series of mirrors, as in
'Pepper's' device.  The Ghost has been 'impressionist' -- for example,
anxious hands thrust through the stairs, in Poland; in Germany 'a
surrealistic form comes from the dark and seems to multiply itself,
appears like the figment of imagination in several places at once'
(Express, 1970); in France (1965) Hamlet would meet the Ghost as his own
reflection in a mirror." (The Masks of Hamlet, p. 21)

  The audience is almost being blamed for this style of depiction.
Perhaps it might be more accurate that the responsible parties are those
in the production companies; they, not the audience, are coming up with
these renderings in unconscious conformity to the expectations of proper
(modern) dramatic technique and overall world view.

  From my point of view there are a lot of things in Shakespeare which
were formerly variables but which in a modern dramatic context are
constants, such as:
Spelling
Line Directionality
Speech Prefixes

  In modern editions spelling tends to get modernized (the variable
being converted to a constant), ostensibly to help the reader --"For the
convenience of the reader, we have modernized the punctuation and the
spelling of both the Second Quarto and the Folio."  (Mowat and Werstine,
Hamlet, p. l) -- but I doubt that is the real reason.  Spelling
standards are a subset of Enlightenment Philosophy too, and it is likely
the spelling is changed in order to make it conform to modern standards,
regardless of what the reader is comfortable with.

  Enlightenment Philosophy has led to the development of a technological
civilization, and regarding that Jacques Ellul has written,

  "The twofold intervention of reason and consciousness in the technical
world, which produces the technical phenomenon, can be described as the
quest of the one best means in every field.  And the 'one best means'
is, in fact, the technical means.  It is the aggregate of these means
that produces technical civilization." (The Technological Society, p. 21)

  It would appear that spelling standardization long ago became a
feature of the one best means of written communication, and to depart
from it is thought of as bad technique.  Shakespeare can't have bad
technique, so therefore his spelling is standardized (modernized).  This
usually makes it easier for the modern reader, anyway, although again I
doubt this ease of use is the real reason for the change.

  So I am wondering whether in the same way the appearance of a
character might also be a variable.

  This brings us into territory explored by Thomas Kuhn in his book The
Structure of Scientific Revolutions.  He was analyzing scientific
problems, but his conclusions might be applicable to any old scholarly
environment, as Barbara Mowat applied it in her essay on Shakespeare's
texts in the Cambridge Companion ("The Reproduction of Shakespeare's
Texts," p. 20-21).  So trying to determine what the Ghost looked like
might be one of those questions requiring a paradigm shift in order to
resolve.

  One thing Kuhn discussed was the handling of anomalies: measurements
or observations that did not quite fit with theoretical expectations.
The anomalies (and there always are anomalies) have a tendency to be
explained in such a way that the paradigm controlling current research
remains unthreatened.  In theater if character appearance should be a
constant, and there are places in certain plays where this seems
questionable, Kuhn's theory would predict the mismatch needs to be
explained away in order to defend the paradigm (if there is one).

  All right, on Shakespeare's stage -- the Globe -- the female roles
were enacted by male actors.  It could be objected that some, anyway,
among the audience might be able to tell the difference and perceive
Lady Macbeth, for instance, as a cross-dressing man, rather than a real
woman.  But the characters in the play, such as Macbeth, treat her as if
they perceived her as a woman.  So Lady Macbeth has a variable
appearance: man to (some of) the audience, woman to the characters.
This kind of thing could be explained away pretty easily.  Somebody or
other is sure to point out that the original actors might have been
pretty good all the way around, and an average disinterested spectator
might have a truly difficult time telling them from real women.
Besides, they are supposed to be women within the context of the play,
and if they don't really look like real women, that's merely an
unavoidable technical detail.  The stage itself is supposed to represent
first Venice, then Cyprus, and so on.  Then somebody is going to bring
up the willing suspension of disbelief thing, as if it were a necessary
quality of every story (that's an idea I disagree with, following the
opinion of J.R.R. Tolkien in his essay "On Fairy Stories").

  But leaving that question aside, there might be further and more
serious objections to the constancy of character appearance.  How about
a play with a set of twins: The Comedy of Errors.  In fact there are two
sets of twins.  The audience is definitely going to perceive the twin
pairs as non-identical whereas, according the report of the characters
in the Spoken Text, the people within the play perceive them as
identical.  Again an instance of variable character appearance.  This is
a little harder to explain away, but somebody could do it, perhaps by
extending the arguments used for the male actor objection.  It could be
pointed out that it might be unreasonably difficult to find identical
twin actors just for one play, and so one could fall back on a wardrobe
convention where if characters are dressed alike they are supposed to
look alike, especially if they are reported to look alike.  The general
idea in both cases might be that although character appearance is a
variable, it really shouldn't be, and it is not something used by the
dramatist for effect -- it's an unavoidable technical failing, and not
very important in the end.  So it's no fair depicting the Ghost in
Hamlet as something other than the image of Old Hamlet, that's just not
realistic....unless it's amorphous, since there is no such thing as a
ghost in reality anyway.

  But, but, we go to The Tempest where there is a worse problem.  There
is the Stage Direction, "Enter Ariell inuisible." (3.2.39)  That is in
the Folio, not something one of the early eighteenth century editors or
other made up.  Presumably the actor portraying Ariel was wearing some
kind of clothing which by convention indicated invisibility.  By this
time it is apparent that character appearance, strictly speaking, was a
variable on Shakespeare's stage.  I feel sure, however, that the
paradigmatic application of the conventions of modern drama to
Shakespeare's plays would not be overthrown merely by this evidence
(according to Kuhn an alternative paradigm would have to be advanced
first).  Not only that but even this anomaly could probably be explained
away by extending the arguments used for the first two examples:
something along the lines of invisibility is like twindom, true
invisibility is desirable and dramatically meaningful but technically
difficult to accomplish with full effect, so we should just go along and
suspend disbelief and enjoy, realizing the invisibility should exist
within the story, even if it does not literally do so on the stage.  The
common thread of counter-argument to these potentially threatening
anomalies might be something like: the variability should not really be
there -- the characters in an ideal performance would have a constant
appearance (Ariel, for instance, actually would be invisible to both
characters and audience).

  Our modern paradigm is probably holding up well so far, but then there
is A Midsummer Night's Dream.  There is a scene where the audience sees
Bottom as having the head of an jackass.  Titania simultaneously
perceives him differently: to her he is a handsome man (a very sexually
desirable man, no less). Here the other character (Titania) really is
meant to perceive Bottom differently, grossly differently, than the
audience does, and a large part of the effectiveness of the scene is
dependent on the difference.  So here is a case where the character
appearance is not only a variable, but was utilized deliberately for
dramatic effect.  The author did it on purpose.  I don't know what the
ad-hoc adjustment defending the paradigm would be in this case, but
someone could probably generate one (as there is always a logical and
convincing argument to be made for any position).

  All of this might be relevant to Hamlet.  We have one scene where the
Ghost appears to Hamlet in the guise of Old Hamlet, and is
simultaneously invisible to Gertrude (or she claims not to see it at any
rate, the which I doubt).  Character appearance, on this evidence, may
be a variable within this very play.  Then we are back to my original
question.  In this play, how does the _audience_ see the Ghost?  Does it
appear as Old Hamlet, is it invisible, or does it have some other
appearance?  It is at least possible that it has another appearance
altogether.  If the author was capable of using character appearance as
a dramatically meaningful variable, maybe this play is one of those
times.  For that matter it might be possible that the Ghost presents a
different appearance to Hamlet at one point in the play versus another
point later on.  As long as it might be a variable, how variable might
it be, quantitatively?

  It is the so-called "Augustinian" view that the Ghost is an evil
spirit.  Suppose, suppose, this view is correct.  It is written (all
over the place, really) that one of the chief weapons of the devil (and
by inference other evil spirits) is deception.  Maybe the Ghost is
deceiving Hamlet and the boys by adopting a false semblance, as Hamlet
speculates once or twice.  Why then is there all this Spoken Text
devoted to describing what the Ghost looks like?  If it really does look
the same to the audience as it does to the characters in the play, then
that amount of description is on the verge of redundancy.  On the other
hand if the Ghost appeared differently to the audience than it does to
the characters, that description reinforces the idea that the boys see
it as Old Hamlet (even if the audience doesn't) and also generates
tension.  In many of Alfred Hitchcock's movies he gives the audience
certain information about the story that the characters do not have.
For instance two characters may be sitting at a table blithely speaking
rubbish to each other, while underneath the table unknown to them is a
package containing a time bomb (ticking away, of course).  Shakespeare
might be doing the same thing, only using variable character appearance
instead of film editing to do it.  I am suggesting the original audience
may have seen the Ghost as an evil spirit.  All these tests delineated
by Eleanor Prosser (Hamlet and Revenge) which the original audience
could have used to determine the identity of the Ghost (and which Hamlet
himself does not use) would then be reinforced by the visual impression.

  There might be analogous situations in modern movies.  A friend
pointed out to me that in Terminator 2 the bad terminator (the T-1000
(Robert Patrick)) was a shape-shifter, and the audience nearly always
had information about its real identity that certain of the characters
lacked, or at least lacked initially.  When its shape shifted we the
audience saw it, as when it retracted its sword-arm from the head of the
hapless husband.  The audience then is in a state of tension, knowing
the good guys are being stalked and frequently being able to visually
identify the stalker where the characters are not.

  Another comparable example might be Children of Dune -- recently
released on video (I didn't even know they made a movie out of it).  In
the universe depicted in that story, the personalities of deceased
individuals could be preserved within the consciousness of living
persons.  This internal pantheon had to be managed by the host, and much
training was required for it.  So much training was required that only
the Reverend Mothers of the Bene Gesserit could do it.  However, if the
deceased personalities were presented to an untrained individual there
was the chance one of them could "take over" -- could possess the host.
  In this story it happened: Alia was possessed by the personality of
her grandfather, Baron Harkonnen.  The Baron was a bad guy, and Alia
knew it.  He takes over anyway, owing to the force of this personality,
Alia's weakness, and the cogency of his arguments.  But I'm wondering if
the effect might have been greater if he had posed as someone else, such
as Duke Leto, Alia's father (and, relatively speaking, a good guy).  In
this movie Alia sees an image of the Baron floating around, as does the
audience.  But the effect might have been more sinister if she had seen
Duke Leto, and the audience had seen the Baron.

  I suggest the descriptions of the Ghost given by Hamlet, Horatio, and
the boys only indicate how they see the Ghost -- and only in those
scenes early in the play (the Ghost might appear later in a different
guise).  The audience may have seen it differently, and might have seen
it in a way that would strongly suggest it is an evil spirit.  If they
saw it as an evil spirit, it would be congruent with the identification
of it the audience could have made by applying the ordinary tests for
the identity of spirits -- the ones analyzed by Prosser.  If they were
convinced it was an evil spirit, they would have experienced a
phenomenal amount of tension watching the play.  This situation would
then be generally similar to that in Othello, where the audience knows
Iago to be evil, whereas Othello, and everybody else, initially do not.

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