"The Time Is Out of Joint"

Insofar as An excellent Difcourfe of the Nature and Subftance of Devils and Spirits did not appear until 1665, (1), the time does seem out of joint for any consideration in a Hamlet study. Yet the material appears so relevant that an effort should be undertaken to determine whether the content was current when Shakespeare wrote the play. The excerpts outlined in the previous chapter concerning Astral spirits are in question, and evidence must be derived from a comparative analysis with the primary sources used in this study, as well as textual evidence in Shakespeare generally and Hamlet specifically.

The O.E.D.'s primary definition of Astral reads, "of, connected with, or proceeding from the stars; consisting of stars, starry." Astral spirits are defined as, "those formally supposed to live in heavenly bodies, variously represented as fallen angels, souls of dead men, or spirits originating in fire."

The anonymous author of the second book of Scot's Appendix uses "astral" synonymously with "daemons," and the O'E'D. associates them with having a fiery origin. The Appendix states, "they are of the sources of the stars," and "are of the Elemental quality, subject to a beginning and ending, and to degrees of continuance..." (Chapter II, p, 495). Astral spirits then are identified with one of the four elements, fire, (2), and the classification appears to correlate with the sources I have examined in the last chapter.

James for example asserts that at the fall of Lucifer,

He qualifies, however, writing that this a common deception insofar as ",,.when anie of them are not occupied in that, [working as God's hangmen] returne they muft to their prifon in hel..." (I,VI, 20-21),. Chapter III of the Appendix correlates:

In Daemonologie, Book III, James identifies another similarity to the Appendix:

In other words, Astral implies both an affinity and antithesis of God. (4) The Appendix agrees:

These operate at God's bidding only to serve man, chiefly by protecting him from wicked spirits, Thus Lucifer may be classified as an Astral spirit insofar as substance was not changed after the fall, as Milton describes when in Book IV of Paradise Lost, his satan now hates the light that reminds him all too well of what he once had with God. Despite the moral fall, however, he does not lose in intelligence. James also notes that spirits can, "...rayfe stormes and tempeftes in the aire, either vpon siea or land..." (I,V,46), In the Appendix Astral spirits, "...have power sometimes to make great commotions in the Air, and in the Clowds..." (II,I,495), a belief Shakespeare acknowledges in Macbeth.

Lavater devotes considerable attention to the belief that spirits can and do frequent houses, and some Astral spirits "...are familiar in Houses, and do frequently converse with, and appear unto mortals." (II,I,495). Further, Lavater's contention that evil spirits occupy mines finds its echo in the Appendix: "...they occupy various places of this world; as Mines, and hid Treasures...," (II,I,495). We have discussed this when explicating the cellerage scene.

Evidence has been presented to warrant the hypothesis that Astral spirits ia a generic term used to describe supernatural manifestations, (5) known to James and Lavater and therefore probably known to Shakespeare, but however convincing these parallels may be, unless evidence is found within the canon, the hypothesis remains tentative . The following examples present the correspondence:

...from the Appendix:

...and in Shakespeare

II Henry VI:

...from the Appendix:

...and in Shakespeare:

King John:

Denotatively, of course "fiery kindled spirits" refer to John and Philip, but the extended personification of death in the present and future casts a supernatural aura, implying Renaissance fondness for macrocosmic-microcosmic correspondences. This view is directly confirmed later in the play by the Bastard:

This correspondence between Astral spirits and one of the elements has been demonstrated.:

...from the Appendix:

...and from Shakespeare:


(Following the apparitions' appearance, the protagonist tells Lennox:) (6)

(Later, Macbeth tells Macduff:)

...from the Appendix:

...and from Shakespeare:

Measure for Measure;

The correspondence between this and the Appendix is almost exact, as a reading of Chapter II confirms. Further, the comparisons demonstrate Shakespeare's awareness of the Astral spirit phenomena in fact, if not in name. In the plays cited, spiritual beings:

The final proof must come from Hamlet. An initial generalization from the Appendix not only correlates Astral spirits with ghosts, but also define Hamlet's ghost's alleged purpose:

In this case, King Hamlet's ghost allegedly returns and must do so until the act of revenge is complete.
Horatio addresses the ghost and asks if it,

Among the "they" may be included the Appendix's author who, writing of Astral spirits, notes that they frequent mines and treasures. (II,i,495). Horatio's knowledge of Astral spirits is apparently sophisticated enough for him to pose the question, although when taken in context with his other two is more guesswork than certitude.

The ghost's emotional description of its own plight is self-defining.

Perhaps the implication may not be Purgatorial as critics believe, but rather certain term" may refer to an astral spirit's behavior:, "...when they are worn out, they return into their proper essence or primary quality again.... (II,i,495), which in this case would be the element fire. Fire imagery predominates in the ghost's language:

The Arden edition notes that "eternal blazon" means "depiction of the world beyond," (8), which is taken to mean Purgatory, hell or in this case the element fire, The confusion is one of duration and finds expression in Romeo and Juliet, for instance, when Romeo speaks of banishment, he cries...

Beyond Verona is death of some kind, and Shakespeare articulates what must have been a popular confusion. Read as metaphors, hell and purgatory are identical which, according to Aquinas, is the case at least in terms of the pain inflicted. Read sequentially, however, purgatory is the least agonizing either in terms of time or pain. Probably Romeo means the former, and in Hamlet the ambiguity, a reflection of the Renaissance Protestant/Catholic dispute over the legitimacy of Purgatory (We might recall Hamlet's university and what happened there: Hamlet himself puns on the consequence) may be resolved if the fire imagery used so frequently by the ghost be in reference to the element fire, where Astral spirits are confined, "...until the Consummation..." (II,II,495),

Certainly Shakespeare at the zenith of his career did not use language carelessly. The repeated references to fire throughout the ghost's dialogue confirm an Astral nature, Image patterns in Hamlet have thus the serious dramatic function of helping to identify the ghost's nature.

Other Appendix references provide additional documentation. Astral spirits of departed men behave in a fashion not unlike the ghost:

And further,

There can be little doubt that King Hamlet was disturbed at death. We are told that he died without benefit of the sacraments, that Gertrude had been unfaithful, and that he sorely missed being king. His Astral presence on earth thus suggests an intense hatred, demanding revenge and further accounting for the obscene language used to describe Claudius and Gertrude.

The ghost's dialogue is in effect a superb dramatic monologue, wherein is revealed the deepest cravings and yearnings. With absolute irony, the grotesque scene reveals the very lust for Gertrude that he condemns in Claudius, and the "lands" of course is Denmark, The motive power is an imagination corrupted by an outraged ego. Such behavior correlates with Astral spirits, What must be accomplished, given the moral tone, is private revenge on Hamlet's part as he is the only means available to the ghost.

These investigations cast derious doubt on the identity of the ghost as a departed saved' soul. Chapter II of the Appendix refutes such on the belief that a saved soul wards off dangers, and reveals heavenly secrets:

If a holy soul's intent is to appear to one like itself, then Hamlet at the time of the visit probably qualifies, but heavenly secrets are certainly not revealed by an evil ghost, and Hamlet is too emotionally charged to listen to Horatio. Conversely, if the soul be damned, the Appendix intimates that the apparition senses an affinity between itself and the subject and comes in dreams to provoke evil.

Two responses are possible, each not flattering to the ghost, Taken literally, the ghost does not appear to Hamlet in dreams-although the Prince has bad ones, nor is Hamlet, at least in the beginning evil. Thus, the ghost is disqualified as a good departed soul. However, from a dramatic perspective, a likely hypothesis is that Shakespeare modified the damned soul concept insofar as the ghost reinforces Hamlet's diseased wit, corrupted imagination, and love melancholy, qualities which make him flawed but not evil. Either way, the case for benevolence fails.

Given Shakespeare's mastery of his dramatic sources and his willingness to change what suited him, and given the Renaissance debate over Purgatory, the poet in creating the ghost, fused the notion of Astral spirit and damned soul. This synthesis finds substantiation in the Appendix:

Shakespeare himself never hesitated to combine or continuously refine his character prototypes; indeed the skill with which the Bolingbroke-Cassius-Claudius-Macbeth line matures is a tribute to the dramatist's genius.

The final chapter of this study demonstrates the effects of my hypothesis on Hamlet's character, noting especially how Shakespeare utilizes irony.




(1) The Discourse, according to the title page, appears in two books: the first by Scot, and the second, "now added in this Third Edition, as Succedaneous to the former, and conducing to the compleating of the Whole work..."

(2) "...Thye are part of the faln Angels, and consequently subject to the torments of Hell at the last Judgment...: (II,495).

(3) In The Second Shepherd's Play, the comedic sheep stealing episode is wedded to Christ's nativity with "day starre."

(4) Milton will dramatize Satan's near regeneration with constant references to light imagery in Book IV of Paradise Lost.

(5) In Elizabethan Daemonologie, T.A., Spalding notes in this connection: "The subject was one which, from its nature, could not be settled ex cathedra, and consequently the subject had to grow up as best it might, each writer adopting the arrangement that appeared to him most suitable." (p. 34).

(6) The Appendix specifically argues a correlation between Astral spirits and witchcraft. See Appendix I.

(7) Thus the ghost tells Hamlet, "But soft, methinks I scent the morning air: / brief let me be...Fare thee well at once; / The glow -worm shows the matin to be near..." (I,v,58-59; 88-89).

(8) Harold Jenkins (ed). Hamlet. Arden edition, New York: Methuen, 1982. (Note 21), p. 217.