The London Magazine/1820–1829/Series 1/Volume 9/May/Observations on the "Ghost-Player's Guide"


And on the invariable Tendency to Corpulence in Shakspeare's Ghosts:

together with

cursory remarks on swearing.

Mr. Umbra, who has written so elaborately in favour of half-starved spirits, in the last number of the London Magazine, has clearly paid much attention to the condition in which the paunches of ghosts should be, when they visit the glimpses of the moon to hunt for glow-worms (a foolish light, by the way, to hunt by!) And, certes, he has chalked out the path which ghosts should walk, as strictly as though they were about to do some spiritual-Barclay match of 1000 miles in 1000 hours;—but, having myself devoted much time and thought to Shakespeare's ghosts, and finding my conclusions to differ materially from those of Mr. Umbra, I am tempted to examine his essay in several of its parts, and to offer my simple notions on the sort of bodies which ghosts ought to be. Mr. Umbra would have them poor, airified, thin things, seen at a distance, and gliding to and fro on feet which “prate not of their whereabout;”—he would shoe them with felt, dress them in an reign of blue gauze, and send them about, with nothing but the wind on their stomachs, to walk the night. I am not with Mr. Umbra, and, respectfully be it spoken, I think Shakspeare himself would protest (could he be consulted) he intended the senior Mr. Hamlet, the defunct Mr. J. Cesar, Henry and Company at Bosworth, and Banquo at the banquet, to be all solid, substantial, positive people,—spirits in good case,—not exactly Lamberts of the air, but “the substantials, Sir Giles, the substantials;” certainly not a set of whining vaporous Master Slenders and Master Silences, sneaking about the earth as though they were after henroosts and orchards. I am of Shakspeare’s opinion;—and therefore let good-man Umbra look to his Essay! I shall not only entirely overthrow all his rules for famished ghosts, but shall show how incorrect he is in his ideas of spiritual attire. If indeed there is any thing on earth I undetstand, it is ghostly tailorship! Oh! I could devise such a pair of breeches for a spirit, as Banquo would jump at: they should be made of a stuff to wear well—everlasting, cut by the shears of Fate!

I have little to say in reply to the question of “which character in Shakspeare is most difficult to play?” The Fool in Lear would puzzle the Fool in Life, but a sensible man might make something of the part: Hamlet, played “as he ought to be, not as he is,” might perhaps be an answer to the question. The ghosts I think, enacted according to my infallible rules, are perhaps the easiest of adequate representation. At any rate there ae a hundred characters more difficult;—Puck, Titania, Mustard-seed, Macbeth, Pease-blossom, Coriolanus, the Witches, &c. Mr. Umbra would except from the liabiliy to answer the question, several of these characters as utterly unrepresentable; but surely it is not more difficult for Ariel to take a ground floor in a cowslip, than for the Ghost in Hamlet to sink in the earth, or to smell the morning air. “The King” is supposed to smell the morning air;—and, Ariel may be supposed to sneak into a flower. Or proper cowslips for the occasion can be had at Covent-Garden;—cowslips as capacious as cabriolets: or indeed very little creatures may be hired for Ariels. If fit bodies could not easily be obtained for certain characters, Romeo and Juliet could not be performed for want of an Apothecary; neither could Macbeth proceed in the paucity of a Fleance. But to the business in hand.

I pass over the general remarks on the poetical beauty of the Ghost in Hamlet,—Which I believe no reader can deny; and come to the rules which Mr. Umbra lays down for all future Ghost-players, and which rules I shall take leave to demolish one by one, and with little remorse,—for can there be a more heinous sin than to erect a lying direction-post in our spiritual paths. Mr. Umbra’s first rule is as follows:—

In the first place: under the present regime, the ghost marches in a mathematical right line across the stage; within truncheon’s length of the foot-lights. Now this is about as ill-judged a proceeding as it is an unnecessary one. By this means, whatever unhappy defects the body corporal of the ghost may labour under, whether it be redundant in point of flesh, or curtailed in point of stature, whether it be supported on pins or pillars,—whatever be its defects, they are sure to be glaringly exhibited, while thus paraded before the audience, wantonly paraded, in the full blaze of the burners, and for the whole breadth of the stage. Besides, any lapse in the gait, a trip or a faux-pas, any flaw or fissure in the panoply, an ill-fitting greave, or a basin-shaped helmet, nay the very crackling of the buckram, can be recognized with the utmost facility, whilst the Apparition thus stalks, upon the very brow, I may say, of the orchestra, near enough to shake hands if he chose it, with his sublunary acquaintances in the pit, and at a pace funereal, as if to invite an inquisition which he is seldom prepared to defy. Now there is not the smallest necessity that the Ghost should expose himself, with so much danger to the solemnity of the scene, in this barefaced manner; there is nothing in the part which calls upon him to display his person and accoutrements (both of which are generally of such a description as should court the shade) like a peripatetic brother at Bartholomew Fair. The first rule, then, to be observed by the judicious Ghost-player, is,—never to let his desire for admiration tempt him to the front of the stage, unless the mechanism of the piece compel him to transgress this salutary precept. Let the ghost always appear in the back ground; or if necessary, let him walk down the stage by the side scenes, disappearing as distantly from the proscenium as possible. In short,—let him always be the most distant point of visibility, and be as dim, as shadowy, and indefinite, as is compatible with being seen.

Now in my first place, why should not ghosts march in a mathematical right line across the front of the stage? or rather what could justify the ghost in glimmering indistinctly in at the back. He cannot indeed approach too near the foot lights, which are the only things that could supply the glow-worm’s place or warrant the allusion to it; and as to his dress crackling, or his foot catching, the apprehension is wholly idle and groundless. The armour or clothing of a ghost is not necessarily ethereal—“in complete steel,” that is the phrase; now I put it to any reasonable man to say whether a creature so habited is bound to walk as if he were in wool? Then the allusion to stumbling is beneath my notice;—and even if a false step were committed, could that be improper in a fallen spirit, who clearly must have been accustomed to it?—Mr. Umbra would keep the ghost ever in the back-ground, or set him sneaking down the side scenes on tiptoe, like a cat after a tomtit, as though forsooth the business of the scene would admit of it, or the speeches of the haunted warrant it: for instance, Horatio in the first scene says, “I'll cross it, though it blast me.” And Marcellus anon exclaims “shall I strike at it with my partizan!” Now how could Horatio intercept a ghost at a distance, or Marcellus strike at a thing out of all reach. Horatio too, in describing the visit to Hamlet, says—

——A figure like your father,
Armed at point, exactly, cap-à-pè,
Appears before them,—and with solemn march
Goes slow and stately by them; thrice he walk'd
By their oppress’d and fear-surprised eyes,
Within his truncheon’s length!

There is in truth no one passage which warrants the ghost in being kept in the back-ground. He is a stately, solemn, well-informed personage that does not blink the question (except when too rudely put by Horatio); but, haying to out with a murder to son, appears in his armour and original figure, and uses no disguise. at therefore becomes of the direction of Umbra, that he be always “at the most distant point of visibility, and be as dim, as shadowy and indefinite, as is compatible with being seen.

In the second place: our Ghost-players, instead of sweeping over the stage in a suit comporting with the dignity and darkness of the scene, generally choose to flaunt it in a crimson scarf, or a blanket cloak tastily suspended from the shoulder after the manner of an hussar’s hanging-jacket, or falling over the corslet like a waggoner’s smock-frock. I speak of such ghosts as I have lately seen at our two great houses: if others of the fraternity show a better judgment in the choice of their wardrobe, they are to consider themselves as not affected by this criticism. But as for those gentlemen-ghosts who dress themselves out as if they were going to a masque or a fancy-ball, in garments foreign to their character, it is proper that I should inform them,—they quite mistake the matter. The second rule promulgated by the Ghost-player’s Guide, in allusion to this circumstance, is this, videlicet: that a ghost should wear no flaring colours whatever, but (if he must wear clothes at all) be as dark, and as dismal as an alchemist or an undertaker, as muffled and mysterious as a monk or a mourner. This hint should be directed perhaps rather to the managers than to performers, as it is not always in the power of a ghost to choose his own clothes. And I would earnestly beseech the managers of the two houses aforesaid, to convert a little of the superfluous bullion which blazes upon their scenery, and flickers upon the tops, tails, and toes, of their dancers, into a suit of apparel fit for a gentleman-ghost to appear in. ***** The Ghost ought to appear in a complete suit of armour: I should not contend that it be “steel,” though the text so advises us, because this would be pherhaps superfluous on account of the distance; but it should be a splendid and entire suit of warlike panoply,—burnished tin we will say. The effect might be heightened, if necessary, by a thin, gauzy, sombre raiment thrown over the armour, which would give a cloudy, indefined to the figure; but by attending to the first of always keeping in the back ground, this part of the paraphernalia might be dispensed with. A crest of black and waving plumes would confer altitude and majesty where these qualifications rarely exist, scilicet, in the persons of ghost-players in general, who are for the most part fat little fellows of about five feet and an inch, with Canopus bellies and bandy legs.

Here Mr. Umbra is throughout quite at fault, and I must take the liberty of proving him to be so. But to the last sentence in the extract I must first reply, as it clearly proves that the author’s notion of the Ghost is not such as a sensible man should entertain; it is to my understanding a covert objection to the comfortable and reasonable corpulence of the spirit, an objection which I will oppose so long as I have an ounce of flesh on my bones. I do solemnly assert that the Ghost in Hamlet ought to be fat, weighty, and impressive—not a thing to ride feather weight for a silver cup,—but a person that might “go to scale,” and not be found wanting in the lists: a substantial, good, ghost! In the first place, to go back to the ghost’s original, it is very clear from evidence on record that Hamlet’s father was a man of rather a corpulent turn. His habits bespeak it. He describes himself as having been sleeping in his orchard—“his custom always of an afternoon,”—now we all know that men who sleep after dinner, are not your puny, wiry fellows,—but rogues that run to belly,—varlets that have considerable linings to their waistcoats. Old Mr. Hamlet was just one of these. His son, in referring to his picture, exclaims, “Could you on this fair mountain leave,” &c. This mountain could have but one explanation! Besides, Hamlet himself, who may be expected to take after his father, is mentioned as being “fat and scant of breath,” that is, pursy, like his parent;—full, and puffy at a little exertion. Having thus proved the ghost's original to have been, in existence, a gentleman of aldermanic person and propensities, I come to justify a transfer of the suet to his ethereal image. The ghost is described to Hamlet as “a figure like your father”—Horatio says, “I knew your father; these hands are not more like;” and, on its first appearance, Marcellus asks of Horatio “Is it not like the King?” to which the reply is “as thou art to thyself!” Hamlet knows his parent the moment the Ghost enters—and could all these speeches and confirmations be borne, if a poor silent withered anatomy of a man were to glide in “no more like my father, than I to Hercules!” The idea of a thin ghost is not to be endured. It is monstrous!

I agree not either with Mr. Umbra in his mode of apparelling our spirit. Why should “a ghost wear no flaring colours whatever”?—Suppose the old King Hamlet in his life-time to have admired a crimson scarf, or to have been partial to a loose cloak; would it be reasonable or fair in us to have expected his spirit to forsake a favourite colour or jacket? Oh no! “Let him,” says Mr. Umbra, meaning the Ghost, “be as dark and as dismal as an alchemist or an undertaker.” Zounds! (for I get nearly out of patience) Zounds! I say, how would such a dowdy spirit have been known as the King? What a pretty figure would such a long stick of slate pencil cut before the following description of his late lamented Majesty.

See, what a grace was seated on this brow,
Hyperion’s curls, the front of Jove himself;
An eye like Mars to threaten and command;
A station like the Herald Mercury
New lighted on a Heaven-kissing hill;
A combination, and a form indeed,
Where every God did seem to set his seal,
To give the world assurance of a man.

Is a King, thus admirably fashioned, to be libelled by a gloomy old pope of a ghost, as Mr. Umbra would endeavour to make him? I do agree, I admit, with Mr. Umbra in this, that the dress ought to be armour—but I protest against its brightness being rendered sombre by gauze,—or the warlike panoply being “read at a short notice” by tin! Complete steel—and complete steel only, I say! And let the Ghost ring his iron heel to the ground as he passes stately by. The airy vision should have the power of its fleshy forefather threefold!—and the steel attire, so divinely inhabited, ought to stalk by with additional energies. It should have the effect of a suit of armour going by steam!

Ham. Armd, say you?
Hor. Arm’d, my Lord!
Ham. From top to toe ?
Hor. My Lord, from head to foot !

A ghost, so armed and so potential, was never intended to be a noiseless vapour moving about indistinctly and irresolutely. He is, throughout the play, described as a spirit awful, lofty of port, majestic, and imposing of gait! “We do it wrong, says Marcellus, “being so majestical, to offer it this show of violence.” And Horatio appeals to it, not as to a flimsy half-seen dim-armoured sprite,—

What art thou, that usurp’st this time of night,
Together with that fair and warlike form,
In which the majesty of buried Denmark
Did sometimes march?

Again, Marcellus says:

Thus twice before, and just at this dead hour,
With martial stalk hath he gone by our watch !

And Horatio recollects the particular suit of armour the apparition wears, which he could never do under the abominable gauze with which Mr. Umbra would enshroud it:

Such was the very armour he had on,
When he the ambitious Norway combated;
So frown’d he once, when, in an angry parle,
He smote the sledded Polack on the ice.

I trust I have made it clear, on incontrovertible evidence, that the Ghost in Hamlet should be fat and imposing, that he should wear real armour, and keep as much in the eye of the lamps as possible.

It would, perhaps, be invidious to recommend any particular actor for this part; but, until a stouter gentleman of equal talent is seen, I shall be content with Mr. Egerton, who weighs somewhere about eighteen stone , and is of a serious cast. He could have performed the part without stuffing is gone; but I should think a good ghost might be got from the City.

The concluding passage in Mr. Umbra’s letter runs thus:

To the above remarks I have but this to add, with a particular view to the play of Hamlet,—that the manner in which, I have sometimes heard the Ghost utter the word “Swear!” when the prince invites Horatio and Marcellus to swear upon his sword, is a infraction of the decorum which should always be observed on the stage; it is bellowed through the side-scene by some fellow or other with a throat like a trombone, or in the tone of an enraged alderman. The voice should come from under the stage, as the text plainly expresses, and the greatest possible care should be taken to manage this scene, so as that the audience shall not laugh, instead of quake, through its representation.

I have yet to learn why a ghost’s voice should be so exceedingly thin, airy, and tremulous. Hamlet does not remark that his father’s voice is changed; and I therefore should incline to a full, wholesome, and manly voice for the King. Indeed, allowing a little for the solemnity of the hour, and conceding a paleness to the features, and a fixed lustre to the eye, I am not for having the Ghost vary a tittle from the gentleman whom he is destined to represent. I do not attach exactly the same meaning to the word “Swear!” here that all the commentators do; indeed, I find several allusions to the King’s habit of swearing scattered throughout the play, as though Shakspeare would intimate to us that he was rather addicted to it in his lifetime.[1] Horatio says, “I'll cross it, though it bl—t me,” by which he plainly shows that he remembered the consequence of crossing his Majesty. Hamlet himself exclaims on seeing him, “Be thou a spirit of health or goblin d—d!” as much as to convey that he would know his father by the reply: and he further inquires whether he brings “airs from Heaven, or bl—ts from Hell!” This is delicate ground to touch upon, and I therefore but touch on it. The manner, however, in which Hamlet receives his ghostly father’s directions to “Swear” at hin associates, is sufficingly confirmatory of my reading of it. I see no reason therefore for the old gentleman mincing the word as Mr. Umbra directs.

A few words on Shakspeare's ghosts in general, and I have done. It may not have been observed, but it is a fact, that all Shakspeare’s ghosts are fat and determined. Julius Caesar is not only jolly himself, but hates all lean and hungry men. He wishes Cassius were fatter. Banquo is a merry gentleman who is craved for at the feast, as one who would do it justice, and who comes upon the wish. Indeed, it is quite to me, that Shakspeare wished his ghosts to be well embodied; and if I but add one ounce to the ribs of any of his spirits I shall not have written in vain.

Horrida Bella.

This work was published before January 1, 1928, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.

  1. I understand it is clearly shewn by several old tattered Danish manuscripts, that King Hamlet was descended from Otho or Oatho the Great.