Thursday, 26 April 2018

FOLKLORE ON FRIDAY - Beneath the Sheets


In previous editions of Folklore on Friday we have examined why ghosts are often pictured wearing chains or depicted as headless phantoms, and so now we shall round off this little series with a look at why exactly we so often picture spooks as sheeted shapes. Of all the depictions of ghosts in popular culture, phantoms appearing as sheeted shapes is surely the most common. But somewhat weirdly, while the reasons for this used to be rather well-known, in recent years the waters have become somewhat muddied.

In recent times I've seen numerous articles making the claim that depicting ghosts as sheeted forms is a relatively recent development. It is claimed that it is based on an old theatrical convention.  Allegedly in olden times, when ghosts appeared in plays and other stage entertainments, they were costumed in suits of armour. And why was this? Well according to the TV Tropes article on this subject (which appears to be the source for many of the pieces I am refering to), it was because -
"in Elizabethan England, armor was no longer worn in combat, and the costuming convention at the time was to dress characters in contemporary (Renaissance) clothing. So, by dressing a character in armor, the character was given an out of date look, and recognized as a ghost."
However by the late 18th and 19th centuries, or so the this theory goes, audiences would no longer suspend disbelief in the stage ghosts because their armour made too much clanking and creaking. And hence costume designers cast about for a way of creating a costume that would suggest that the ghost was  incorporeal and ethereal. The solution they arrived at was to dress the actor in white sheets, which along with low lighting, would create misty figures and shapes on shape.

Now this is all very interesting, but once you start investigating the matter the theory collapses like an empty paper bag. To begin with, armour was still commonly worn in Tudor England - Henry VIII for example had several magnificent suits of armour made for his martial endeavours. And furthermore one only has to look at the Roundhead soldiers who fought for Cromwell in the civil war in the 17th century to see that armour was still very much in use a century after the Tudor era was over.

Hamlet and his father's Ghost by Henry Fuseli

Digging a little further into the origins of this theory, we find that the idea that all ghosts were depicted as wearing suits of armour is something of a misconception. Yes, one of the most well-known ghosts in literature is Hamlet's father, who does indeed appear in full battle dress. But if we go back to the text of the playwe discover that while the spirit of Hamlet's father does indeed appear dressed in armour at the beginning of the play, later on he reappears, but in a different costume. For in Act II scene IV, when Hamlet is confronting his mother and his father's shade appears again, the doomed Prince says -

Why, look you there look, how it steals away! 
My father, in his habit as he lived! 

And this is a key scene to understanding why the ghost was deliberately costumed in armour by the Bard of Avon in his first appearance in the play. When the phantom father is first manifesting, he appears in martial dress as he is seeking to combat a grave injustice (ie. his murder) which is placing the kingdom under threat. However after Hamlet has taken revenge on his uncle (the villain of the piece) and is seeking to also punish his mother for her part in the murder, his father's ghost appears without armour to stay his son's hand; his dress signals that justice has been served and the ghost can now rest. 

Furthermore we discover that there are other ghosts in Shakespeare. And Shakespeare's other famous ghost, is the spectre of Banquo in Macbeth, and this shade isn't specified as wearing armour either,. Nor does the ghosts who visit Brutus in Julius Caesar - indeed it would make no sense for a Roman spectre to appear in a suit of armour. Likewise in John Webster's The White Devil (1612) it would be nonsensical for the specter of the murdered Isabella to appear in full plate armour. In a play from the 1580s, Dr Faustus, written by one of Shakespeare's contemporaries Christopher Marlowe, when our hero conjures up the ghosts of many different historical figures, but they don't all appear dressed in armour either. Rather they appear dressed in their own contemporary clothes.

In short then, what I shall term the armour theory collapses when you look into the range of ghosts and spectres in 16th and 17th century drama, for only a select few of these stage phantoms are kings or soldiers for whom it would be logical to depict as wearing armour. Furthermore Shakespearean scholars have written much on the technical aspects of staging plays, with John Mullan, Professor of English at University College London, in a 2016 article, theorising that "the actors probably – on the day-lit stage of the Globe – had their skin whitened with flour"

The Gambols of Ghosts by William Blake

So where did the armour theory come from? Well tracing my way through the perilous underworld of footnotes and references, the misconception appears to begin in an article entitled The Ghost in Hamlet by RA Foakes published in Shakespeare Survey: Volume 58, Writing about Shakespeare (Cambridge University Press 2005). In this piece Foakes examines the history of portraying the ghost of Hamlet's father, citing on the work Renaissance Clothing by Rosalind Jones and Peter Stallybrass, who document several reports of the ghost of Hamlet's father provoking laughter thanks to the noise made by the armour. Hence as a response to this, in the18th and 19th centuries, ditching the armour in favour of a lighter more ethereal looking costume came into fashion. However the key point here is that Roakes, and Jones and Stallybrass, were only speaking about one particular stage ghost, Hamlet's father. But it is thanks to some very careless readings of their studies that the historical evolution of the depiction of the ghost of Hamlet's father has been applied firstly to all stage ghosts, and then  to all popular depictions of ghosts in the eras discussed.

illustration by James McBryde for Oh Whistle and I'll Come to You My Lad

So why are ghosts depicted as wearing sheets? Occasionally I have seen the origin laid at the door of MR James, for in one of his most famous ghost stories, Oh Whistle and I'll Come to You My Lad a dreadful spectre manifests in a bed sheet. However here James was playing with the already popular notion of ghosts appearing dressed in white sheets, by having his malevolent apparition actually be a sheet with "a horrible, an intensely horrible, face of crumpled linen". Indeed the ghost as appearing as a white shape was very well-established by the 18th century, as can be seen in  the numerous spirits and phantoms depicted by William Blake, as well as in reports of hauntings such as the Cock Lane ghost and the case of the Hammersmith Ghost from 1803. In another of his tales, There Was a Man Who Dwelt By A Churchyard (which appropriately enough is actually James's guess at the ghost story Maxillius was going to tell in Shakespeare's A Winter's Tale) features another sheeted spectre, and James gives us the real reason why -
Have you ever seen an old brass in a church with a figure of a person in a shroud? It is bunched together at the top of the head in a curious way. Something like that was sticking up out of the earth in a spot of the churchyard which John Poole knew very well.
Now while we always think of burials and funerals as involving a coffin, this is a relatively new development. In ages past only the rich could afford a tomb or a coffin and most folks therefore were buried wrapped up in sheets, with more well-off folks being able to afford fine linen for their shrouds, but often wool blankets were used if they were poor. In fact in There Was A Man Dwelt by a Churchyard James details the funeral of the old woman who later returns from the grave, and tells us "She was buried in woollen, without a coffin."


Hence for many centuries, when people thought of the dead they thought of shapes wrapped up in sheets. Ironically had any proponents of the armour theory read a little more Shakespeare they would have found a passage that highlights this. In Julius Caesar, the Bard has Horatio deliver these lines (which were memorably quoted in one of the eeriest sequences in the original A Nightmare on Elm Street) -
A mote it is to trouble the mind’s eye.
In the most high and palmy state of Rome,
A little ere the mightiest Julius fell,
The graves stood tenantless and the sheeted dead
Did squeak and gibber in the Roman streets
Even more ironically, had anyone bothered to consult one of the original sources, they could have easily discovered the truth. For the matter was concisely and clearly wrapped up, if you'll pardon the pun, by Mr Peter Stallybrass himself - 
If you ask people today, when they imagine ghosts, they say they come back in sheets. But if you ask people why they were in sheets, most people don’t know. And they come back in sheets because you’re buried in sheets. So you come back in your shroud.


 Frontispiece to Tales of Terror by Matthew Lewis, 1808 edition


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