Shakespeare's Afterlives

Raising and Laying the Ghost of Authority

in Critical Survey
Author: Paul Franssen1
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One of the most impressive contributions to Shakespeare scholarship of recent years famously opens as follows: ‘I began with the desire to speak with the dead’. The author, Stephen Greenblatt, explains that the modern critic is in some ways like a shaman who calls up the spirits of the deceased. Greenblatt goes on to argue that such unmediated access to the past is, alas, impossible, as we are always bound by the preconceptions of our own era. Yet the longing for such ultimate authority remains. A similar desire to speak with the dead, translated into a fantasy, lies behind many texts which do allow us unmediated contact with dead writers, including Shakespeare. Such fantasies often take the form of Shakespeare’s ghost appearing on earth, or of mortals being granted an interview with his shade in Elysium. Before 1800, it is almost exclusively in the form of a ghost that Shakespeare is deployed as a literary character, in prologues, epilogues, plays, novels, and narrative poems. Nor are such apparitions confined to Britain alone: in broadly similar ways, from the late eighteenth century onwards, Shakespearean ghosts also appear on the European Continent. I will study this phenomenon from the perspective of authority: the authority invested in Shakespeare’s ghost itself; and hence, in the later author who ventriloquizes through that ghost, making Shakespeare the mouthpiece for her or his ideas and values; and the eventual loss of that authority in Britain, though not so much in Continental Europe.