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Seeing Shakespearean Ghosts | Early Modern and Open Access

By February 1, 2015 No Comments

This is part of a weekly series here at TSS: Early Modern and Open Access regularly showcases peer-reviewed articles (or other resources) of interest to early modernists that are freely available in open access formats.

Citation and Link:

Catherine Stevens, “Uncanny Re/flections: Seeing Spectres in Macbeth, Hamlet, and Julius Caesar,” Journal of the Northern Renaissance 3 (2011)

First Paragraph (in lieu of an abstract):

Is this a dagger, which I see before me,
The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee.
I have thee not, and yet I see thee still.
Art thou not fatal vision, sensible
To feeling as to sight? Or art thou but
A dagger of the mind

(Shakespeare, Macbeth  2.1.34–9)

When Macbeth reaches towards the invisible dagger hovering before him, he clutches not only at a vision of his murder weapon, but at one of the problems underpinning the spectre’s entry into the visual realm. How is one to understand sensory information that is riven with contradiction? Forced to reconcile the visible appearance of the floating knife with his understanding of plausible daggerly behaviour, Macbeth rapidly persuades himself, ‘There’s no such thing, / It is the bloody business which informs / Thus to mine eyes’ (1998: 2.1.48–50). In this he is correct, insofar as the dagger does not appear to exist in the material plane outside of his perception. This does not resolve the problem, however, of what it is he sees.  Lady Macbeth protests that it is an ‘air-drawn dagger’ that ‘would well become / A woman’s story at a winter’s fire’ – a popular reading of the matter, although a prejudiced one given her fear that Macbeth’s visions may sabotage her own ambitions (1998: 3.4.62–5). Typically, the play’s critics have concurred with her, presuming that the dagger is an illusion that Macbeth must overcome. For instance, Nicholas Brooke comments in his introduction to the Oxford World Classics edition that ‘even Macbeth knows it is not there,’ while in Shakespeare and Cognition, Arthur Kinney describes the dagger as a ‘self-acknowledged […] hallucination’ (Brook 1998: 4; Kinney 2006: 78). Macbeth’s response is considerably more clouded than such readings suggest though: his speculation that it might be a ‘false creation / Proceeding from the heat–oppressèd brain,’ is only one of several questions in which he endeavours to reconcile the evidence of his eyes with the conflicting evidence of his other senses (Shakespeare 1998: 2.1.39–40). Despite his best efforts, the vision persists — he subsequently complains, ‘I see thee still; / And on thy blade and dudgeon gouts of blood, / Which was not so before’ (1998: 2.1.46–8). It is only at this point that he attempts to regain control over his vision and asserts, somewhat unconvincingly, ‘There’s no such thing’ (1998: 2.1.48). It seems more accurate, therefore, to suggest that Macbeth’s only means to restore his courage is to persuade himself that there is no such thing, than to argue that he is wholeheartedly certain of it.


Author Lindsay

Lindsay Ann Reid is a regular contributor to The Scrivener and Early Modern and Open Access. She holds a PhD from the University of Toronto and is a Lecturer in English at the National University of Ireland, Galway.

More posts by Lindsay

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