Seeing and Interpreting the Ghosts in Elizabethan Revenge Tragedy

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Seeing and Interpreting the Ghosts

in Elizabethan Revenge Tragedy

Major Bachelor’s Thesis
Jana Gajdošíková

Supervisor: Mgr. Pavel Drábek, Ph.D. Brno 2006

I declare that I have worked on this bachelor thesis independently, using only primary and secondary sources listed in the bibliography.

I would like to thank my supervisor Mgr. Pavel Drábek, Ph.D., and Ass. Prof. Dr. Joanne Rochester for their kind and valuable advice and help.



This thesis deals with the interpretation of ghosts in Elizabethan revenge tragedy in England. It focuses on the different purposes of their presence in the plays, and it discusses the perception and interpretation of ghosts by the audience influenced by Elizabethan religion, superstitions, and culture.

The first two chapters provide an insight into the background of Elizabethan England discussing the question of revenge, focusing on the period attitude towards the ghost lore and the issue of Death, and how it was influenced by religion.

The three following chapters, which are the core of my work, deal with the plays by Thomas Kyd: The Spanish Tragedy, William Shakespeare: The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, and Cyril Tourneur: The Atheist’s Tragedy. They focus on the roles of the ghosts in these plays, their significance, and on the perception and understanding of their presence. They also show the different use of the ghost figures in the individual plays.

In the chapter called “Other Plays”, the focus shifts on two other plays from the period, John Webster’s Duchess of Malfi, and The Revenger’s Tragedy, whose author is not definite. These two plays serve as an example of different treatments of ghosts, where the function of the actual ghost is taken over by a skull and an echo.

This thesis analyzes the doubts and anxieties about the conception of Death in Elizabethan England. It relies on the works done by Eleanor Prosser, Stephen Greenblatt and John Erskine Hankins about the possible nature of ghosts, and follows Robert N. Watson and his analysis of the perception of Death in Elizabethan England. It rethinks the ghost plays in this perspective and traces the connection of these anxieties and their reflection in ghost figures in revenge tragedy.


When focusing on Elizabethan revenge tragedy, one should know what revenge is, and what it represented in Elizabethan England. Revenge is an action taken in return for an injury or offence. Historically, it “was the first manifestation of consciousness of justice, the only way the wrong done could be righted” (Bowers 3). It was assumed to be a duty of an injured man to avenge himself upon the one who wronged him or any member of his family. By the time Elizabeth I came to the throne the concept of justice had changed. Fredson Bowers, in his book Elizabethan Revenge Tragedy (1940), describes the evolution in detail. Starting with the system of wergeld, which was the earliest English law, Bowers leads us through the history of the concept of justice. According to the system of wergeld the “injured family had the responsibility of collecting payment” (4) from those who wronged them. Modern “justice” arrives with Henry VII, who introduced “indictment”, by which the accused person is “to be tried at once merely on the presentation of information to the authorities” (8). By Elizabethan time, justice was a privilege of the state and private blood revenge had no legal place in England. All kinds of murder, including that of revenge killing, fell into the same category in law, and punishment for the revenger was as heavy as for the original murder (11). Revenge murder in Elizabethan times was considered to be the worst of all crimes, because as the Bible says: “‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord” (Romans 12:19).1 On the other hand, there was a deeply rooted tradition and sacred duty to “take revenge for [one’s] murdered ancestor” (Bowers 39), which was still very much alive in the minds of many Elizabethans. The dilemma is reflected in revenge tragedies that “depict revenge as neither unquestionably desirable nor easy to accomplish, and, once achieved, it brings destruction upon the revengers as well as their victims” (Griswold 91).

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