Think about what a ‘ghost’ means to you? It could be a child in a bed sheet dressed up for Halloween, it could be a sense or presence, a cold draft in an airless room, perhaps it is a human form but intangible and untouchable able to walk through walls or dissipate in all directions. All of these might be ghosts and yet none of them would be easy to put on stage in a play which required you feel some of the spookiness of the ghosts presence. I must admit to being a bit surprised at how often Shakespeare writes ghosts into his plays because to my literal mind they must have been a bit underwhelming on the stage. In Hamlet the ghost of Hamlet’s father enters from beneath the stage through a trap door as seen here in this recent (2006) production.
How do we know?
Well we don’t have any eyewitness accounts which describe the ghost scene (As we do in the case of Macbeth) so all our evidence comes from the text …
Ah, ha, boy! say’st thou so? art thou there, truepenny?
Come on–you hear this fellow in the cellarage–
Consent to swear.
Propose the oath, my lord.
Never to speak of this that you have seen,
Swear by my sword.
Hic et ubique? then we’ll shift our ground.
Come hither, gentlemen,
And lay your hands again upon my sword:
Never to speak of this that you have heard,
Swear by my sword.
Well said, old mole! canst work i’ the earth so fast?
A worthy pioner! Once more remove, good friends.
There are two clear references here to the ghost being beneath the stage – at first he is referred to as being in the cellarage and then he is compared to a mole.
It is possible that for added effect they used a hoist under the stage to give the ghost an otherworldly feel by allowing him to rise and fall smoothly rather than to walk up and down steps to his grave. We recently made a short film version of Hamlet in one of our historic houses and used the cellar as the place from which the ghost emerges but it was certainly a challenge to make his movements – especially as he descended again look ghostly or otherworldly.