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Shakespeare’s Ghosts Live: From Shakespeare’s Ghosts to Psychical Research


It is easy to forget that in Shakespeare’s time, talk of ghosts, spirits and fairies were not at all unusual, indeed to many there was little doubt of the existence of a reality beyond that of what is visible. This, regardless of the attempts of the Protestant religion to classify all such entities as either angels or fallen angels. Despite, what became the take-over of the Old Religion by the new, the old beliefs, thankfully, still linger on in some pockets of Western culture.  However, it is still the case that talking about psychic phenomena, never mind researching it, is not particularly ‘acceptable’ in academic circles (with the exception of the Society for Psychical Research ((SPR)) founded in 1882 by Cambridge academics and still active today).  The challenge that the SPR set for itself was to use scientific methodology to establish if any psychic phenomena actually existed.  This spurred the creation of the Koestler Professorship in Parapsychology at the University of Edinburgh which led to research being conducted at several universities in the UK.   Yet the rich references in Shakespearean plays to the spirit world have not been adequately examined for what they might add to psychical research. The authors attempt to rectify this omission, by using extracts from Shakespeare’s writings to spark off comparisons with parapsychological research cases. So, starting from the understanding that contemporary surveys indicate that about a third of the population have experienced some form of ghostly episode in their life, the authors review a number of historical cases, in the English literature and elsewhere, for comparison. Included are details of some of the more well-known ‘Ghost Seers’.

The book contains details of 30 historical case histories, which represent just a small selection of available data in the literature, and are broken down by 10 category headings: (1) Last will and testament cases, (2) Justice cases (apparitions claiming to correct injustices), (3) Missing money or treasure, (4) To give warning, (5) To solve a crime case, (6) To give advice (7) Cases relating to cures, (8) ‘Calling’ cases in which otherworldly assistance is given to help a person ‘pass over to the world beyond’, (9) Prophetic cases, and, finally (10) Promise -- where an agreement is made to make contact after death.

Some more modern cases, from 1900 onwards, particularly having to do with apparitions communicating information with themes similar to those described in the historical cases, are also described.  Drawing on surveys designed to learn about the frequency and content of such apparitional experiences, the authors discuss the cultural differences between countries studied.  (It is interesting to note that in about two-thirds of the cases, the person was in a relaxed state or, in some cases, just awakening, which points to the importance of both the hypnagogic state – phase of consciousness immediately before falling asleep – or hypnopompic state – phase of consciousness immediately preceding waking up.  This has been also noticed in various laboratory studies.)

Dr. Puhl and Professor Parker have provided a thought-provoking look into the history of modern day psychic research including touching upon the nature of consciousness and sprinkled with many references to lines from Shakespearian plays.

By Charla Devereux