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spectators, willingly yield ourselves up to pleasing delusion, or, as judicious' Critics, examine the merit of the composition.” *
That an undoubting belief in the actual appearance of ghosts and apparitions was general in Shakspeare's time, has been the assertion of all who have alluded to the subject, either as contemporary or subsequent historians. Addison, at the commencement of the eighteenth century, speaking of the credulities of the two preceding centuries, observes, that “our Forefathers looked upon Nature with reverence and horror that they loved to astonish themselves with the apprehensions of witchcraft, prodigies, charms, and enchantments. — There was not a village in England that had not a ghost in it — the churchyards were all haunted - every common had a circle of fairies belonging to it—and there was scarce a shepherd to be met with who had not seen a spirit ; and Bourne, who wrote about the same period, and expressly on the subject of vulgar superstitions, tells us, that formerly
hobgoblins and sprights were in every city, and town, and village, by every water, and in every wood.—If a house was seated on some melancholy place, or built in some old romantic manner; or if any particular accident had happened in it, such as murder, sudden death, or the like, to be sure that house had a mark set on it, and was afterwards esteemed the habitation of a ghost.
Stories of this kind are infinite, and there are few villages, which have not either had such an house in it, or near it." I
Such, then, being the superstitious character of the poet's times, it was with great judgment that he seized the particulars best adapted
purpose, moulding them with a skill so perfect, as to render the effect awful beyond all former precedent. A slight attention to the circumstances which accompany the first appearances of the spectre to Horatio and to Hamlet, will place this in a striking point of view.
* Essay on the Writings and Genius of Shakspeare. 8vo. 5th edit. pp. 162. 165. + Spectator, No. 419.
# Bourne's Antiquities of the Common People, 1725, edition apud Brand, pp. 119. 122, 123.
The solemnity with which this Royal phantom is introduced is beyond measure impressive: Bernardo is about to repeat to the incredulous Horatio what had occurred on the last apparition of the deceased monarch to Marcellus and himself, and thus commences his narrative:
“ Last night of all,
This note of time, the traditionary hour for the appearance of a ghost, and, above all, the mysterious connection between the course of the star, and the visitation of the spirit, usher in the “ dreaded sight" with an influence which makes the blood run chill.
A similar correspondence between a natural phenomenon in the heavens, and the agency of a disembodied spirit, occurs, with an effect which has been much admired, in a late poem by Lord Byron, where the shade of Francesca, addressing her apostate lover, and directing his attention to the orb of night, exclaims,
“ There is a light cloud by the moon
'Tis passing, and will pass full soon
The adjuration and interrogation of the ghost by Horatio and Hamlet, are conducted in conformity to the ceremonies of papal superstition ; for it may be remarked, that in many things relative to religious observances, or to the preternatural as connected with religion, Shakspeare has shown such a marked predilection for the imposing catcrior, and comprehensive creed of the Roman church, as to lead some of his biographers to suppose that he was himself a Roman Cabolic. This wioption, however, is to be attributed to the poetical Nature of the materials which the doctrines of Rome supply, and more particularly to the food for imagination which the supposition of an intermediate state, in which the souls of the departed are still connected with, and influenced by, the conduct of man, must necessarily
* The Siege of Corinth, p. 34.
Such a system, it is evident, would very readily admit some of the oldest and most prevalent superstitions of the heathen world, and would give fresh credibility to the re-appearance of the dead, in order to reveal and to punish some horrible murder, to right the oppressed orphan and the widow, to enjoin the sepulture of the mangled corse, to discover concealed and ill-gotten treasure, to claim the aid of prayer and intercession, to announce the fate of kingdoms, &c. &c. Thus Itoratio, actressing the Spectro, alludes to some of these as the probuble causes of the dreadful visitation which appals him :
" Stay, illusion!
With a still higher degree of anxiety, curiosity, and terror, does Hamlet, as might naturally be expected, invoke the spirit of his father ; his address being wrought up to the highest tone of amazement and emotion, and clothed with the most vigorous expression of noetry:
* Reed's Shakspeare, vol. xviii. p. 21.
“. Angels and ministers of grace defend us !
Be thou a spirit of health, or goblin damn'd,
The doubts and queries of this most impressive speech are similar to those which are allowed to be entertained, and directed to be put, by contemporary writers on the subject of apparitions. Thus the English Lavaterus enjoins the person so visited to charge the spirit to “ declare and open what he is—who he is, why he is come, and what he desireth ;” saying,—“ Thou Spirite, we beseech thee by Christ Jesus, tell us what thou art ;” and he then orders him to enquire, - What man's soule he is ? for what cause he is come, and what he doth desire? Whether he require any ayde by prayers and suffrages ? Whether by massing or almes giving he may be released ?” &c. &c. +
In pursuance of the same judicious plan of adopting the popular conceptions, and giving them dignity and effect, by that philosophy with supernatural which has been remarked as so peculiarly the gift ot' Shakspeare *, we find him employing, in these scenes of superhuman interference, the traditional notions of his age, relative to the influence of approaching light on departed spirits, as intimated by the crowing of the cock, and the fading lustre of the glow-worm. One of the passages which have so admirably immortalised these superstitions, contains also another not less striking, concerning the supposed sanctity and protecting power of the nights immediately previous to Christmas-Day. On the sudden departure of the Spirit, Bernardo remarks,
* Reed's Shakspeare, vol. xviii. p. 70–74. Act i. sc. 4.
+ “ Of ghostes and spirites walking by nyght,” Parte the Seconde, pp. 106, 107. 4to. B. L., 1572. From the chapter entitled, “ The Papistes doctrine touching the soules of dead men, and the appearing of them.”
“ It was about to speak, when the cock crew.
Hor. And then it started like a guilty thing
that ever 'gainst that season comes
Fare thee well at once !"
exclaims the apparition on retiring from the presence of his son,
“ The glow-worm shows the matins to be near,
And 'gins to pale his uneffectual fire." I
• Madame De Stael observes, “ there is always something philosophical in the supernatural employed by Shakspeare.” The Influence of Literature on Society, vol. i. p. 297.
t Reed's Shakspeare, vol. xviii. pp. 22-25. Act i. sc. 1. # Ibid. pp. 86, 87. Act i. sc. 5.