Did Shakespeare Play the Ghost?

Paternalistic Shakespeare reads "Hamlet" to his family, in a 19th century engraving that likely has no basis whatsoever in fact.

Paternalistic Shakespeare reads “Hamlet” to his family, in a 19th century engraving that likely has no basis whatsoever in fact.

I had thought to append this as an afterthought to my Line By Line post about 1.1.49, but I decided it deserved its own post.

You’ll recall how the two shared bits of dialogue that comprise line 49 both provide stage directions for the Ghost’s exit:

MARCELLUS: It is offended.

BARNARDO:                        See, it stalks away!

Embedding stage directions into dialogue is commonplace for Shakespeare. His company had little or no time to rehearse plays, and their strenuous repertory schedule (five or six different plays a week!) would have permitted very little time for directors’ notes — and that’s assuming the Chamberlain’s/King’s Men even had a director in any conventional sense. Some scholars argue that Shakespeare himself, as an active shareholder in the company, would have fallen naturally into the role of director. But there is also evidence that Shakespeare was an actor in his company, though likely not a star like Richard Burbage. Those many roles — playwright, producer, actor AND director — might be manageable for a demigod like Shakespeare, but the in-line stage directions are proof, at least, that he was willing to delegate one of his many tasks to the scripts themselves.

What roles did Shakespeare play? There is no contemporary evidence to answer this intriguing question, but hearsay puts Will in the role of Hamlet’s Father’s Ghost. The evidence is anecdotal and posthumous by about a century, but as with so many theories about Shakespeare’s life, the rumour has taken on the aura of fact.

It’s easy to see why: our ideas about Shakespeare are strongly reflected in Hamlet’s ideas about his father. “He was a man, take him for all in all,” says Hamlet, “I shall not look upon his like again” (1.2.186-187). Much as Hamlet positions his father as the apogee of manhood, we think of Shakespeare as the ultimate Renaissance Man, whose intellect and talents can never be reproduced or matched. It’s also common to see Shakespeare as a mentor or father-figure, not only to Burbage (who played Hamlet), but as a spirit of paternalism to all of us. Finally, there is the tantalizing biographical detail of Will’s son, named Hamnet, who died in 1596. Wouldn’t it be…something…if Will went on to cast himself as father to the similarly-named Hamlet about 7 years later?

I don’t know how to comment on the psychological implications of that last bit of “evidence,” but I now feel strongly that, regardless of the symmetry, Shakespeare did NOT play the Ghost in Hamlet — or, at least, he did not write the role with himself in mind. If he had, why would he have felt the need to include those stage directions (“offended” and “stalks”) in the lines surrounding the Ghost’s exit? Stage directions are instructions to another actor, not reminders to oneself.

Perhaps my dramaturgical argument is just as weak as the counter-proofs, but considering the very notion of Will-as-Ghost post-dated Shakespeare’s death by 100 years, it doesn’t feel like I need to assemble an airtight case. It’s just as likely that he wrote the role for another actor, but then stepped into it himself at some point — or that a whole succession of actors played the Ghost at various points (it’s an easy role to memorize, and the blocking is right there on the page, as I’ve demonstrated). Theatre is an ever-changing discipline, and Will probably moved expediently through his own plays as circumstances demanded — flitting from role to role like a ghost…just not THIS ghost, necessarily.


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