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.
- Hamlet (1.1), Horatio
palmy ] flourishing. Invented by Shakespeare.
ere ] before.
sheeted dead ] i.e., wrapped in shrouds.
squeak and gibber ] In classical texts the spirits of the dead were a disorganized bunch, meandering about town talking gibberish in high-pitched shrieks. Shakespeare likely would have been familiar with Homer's description of ghosts in the Odyssey:
MEANWHILE the spirits of the suitors quelled Cyllenian Hermes summoned forth and drew Down from the sunlight: in his hands he held Wand of pure gold, right beautiful to view, Even that wand which can men's eyes subdue, Whomso he listeth in long sleep to cast, Or sleeping wake to breathe and feel anew. Therewith he led them: the ghosts gibbering fast
Flocked with low whirr behind him, as adown he passed.
And as when bats, amid the far recess Of some great cave, flit gibbering and squeak low, If from the rock, where clusteringly they press, One fall away, and the long chain let go, While with soft whirr they huddle again ; e'en so Clustered the dim ghosts gibbering in their fear, Whom Hermes, giver of all good below, On through the wide waste places, cold and drear, Down to the sunless land was leading void of cheer (XXIV).
The image of zombie-like apparitions with little to say is in sharp contrast to the depiction of the eloquent Ghost of Hamlet's father and, likely, consciously juxtaposed by Shakespeare to explain Hamlet's fears about the Ghosts' true intentions. In Shakespearean England, a spirit who had returned wit intact, with answers to important questions, was the hallmark of a demon in disguise. King James himself made it a pressing matter to write down the differences between good and evil spirits in Daemonologie, a text that appears to have made an enormous impact on Shakespeare, particularly as he was crafting Macbeth.
As King James illustrates:
But to the most curious sort, in the forms he will oblish himselfe, to
enter in a dead bodie, and there out of to giue such answers, of the euent
of battels, of maters concerning the estate of commonwelths, and such like
other great questions: yea, to some he will be a continuall attender, in
forme of a Page: He will permit himselfe to be conjured, for the space of
so many yeres, ether in a tablet or a ring, or such like thing, which they
may easely carrie about with them: He giues them power to sel such wares
to others, whereof some will bee dearer, and some better cheape; according
to the lying or true speaking of the Spirit that is conjured therein (First Book, Chapter IV, The Devil's Contract with the Magicians)
It is a pity that the editors of the First Folio thought it necessary to omit the entire passage¹, possibly believing that the lines were too similar to those found in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar:
And graves have yawn'd, and yielded up their dead;
Fierce fiery warriors fought upon the clouds,
In ranks and squadrons and right form of war,
Which drizzled blood upon the Capitol;
The noise of battle hurtled in the air,
Horses did neigh, and dying men did groan,
And ghosts did shriek and squeal about the streets. (2.2. 19-25, Calpurnia's warning to Caesar)
¹ This passage from Hamlet was also omitted from Q1. It should be explained that modern editors reference three texts of Hamlet: the Bad Quarto (Q1), the Good Quarto (Q2) and the First Folio. The Good Quarto is probably closest to Shakespeare's own manuscript. The editors of the First Folio removed hundreds of lines from Q2, while actually making some additions. The text of modern editions of the play is based on Q2.
Homer. The Odyssey. Ed. Philip Stanhope Worsley. London: William Blackwood and sons, 1862.
How to cite this article:
Mabillard, Amanda. Shakespeare Quick Quotes: In the most high and palmy state of Rome. Shakespeare Online. 20 Aug. 2000. (date when you accessed the information) < http://www.shakespeare-online.com//quickquotes/quickquotehamletgibber.html >.