Haunted Lover’s Ballads for Shakespeare’s lifetime were a special kind of folk song where the ghosts of dead lovers would come back to haunt their unfaithful partners as a warning to future potentially unfaithful lovers. Ghosts and spiritual manifestations were fixtures in pop culture publications like songs, ballads, and of course, plays like Shakespeare’s that feature ghosts such as Banquo, Hamlet’s Father, and even a string of dead victims that visit Richard III on the eve of Battle in Shakespeare’s Richard III. They were as haunting as ever in Shakespeare’s lifetime, but what was the purpose, place, and reception of ghosts for Shakespeare’s lifetime? Did people believe ghosts were real? As we head into October, the month of all things haunted and spooky, we are sitting down with our guest, Savannah Jensen, to explore not only what people believed about ghosts but one specific piece of 16th century popular culture where ghosts were a mainstay in Shakespeare’s lifetime and that’s the haunted lover’s ballad, or songs written specifically for the lovers among us, and, surprisingly, featured ghosts as the main character.  

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Savannah Jensen is a researcher of early modern literature. Her work specializes in the popular representations of ghosts in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Currently she is working on a book project that traces how pamphlets raised recently deceased political figures as ghosts over the course of the seventeenth century. 

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I’ll be asking Savannah Jensen about:

  • In her dissertation examining ghosts from the 16-17th century, Savannah writes that “In act one of Hamlet, the ghost of Hamlet’s father states to the prince “I am thy father’s spirit.” But when Hamlet was first performed in 1600, ghosts were considered doctrinally unsupportable by most Protestant denominations, including the Church of England.” Savannah, what does it mean to say that ghosts were “doctrinally unsupportable”? Does that mean no one believed ghosts were real? 
  • Wintertime, and the Christmas period in particular, was said to be a time during the year that it was possible for the dead to commune more closely with the living through the spiritual world. Savannah, if there was a predominant rejection of the belief in ghosts, was there still a folkloric belief in the closeness of the spirit world on holidays like Christmas?  
  • One specific place that ghosts persisted in appearing was in ballads, a type of media in the early modern period that Savannah describes as “ephemera” due to its’ temporary nature. And one specific kind of ballad that featured ghosts was in haunted lover’s ballads. Savannah, there’s a lot to unpack in that term, of course, but introduce us a bit to the haunted lover’s ballad. Were these essentially love songs featuring ghosts?
  • …and more!

For a broad history of ghosts with great information about them during Shakespeare’s time, I recommend Susan Owens’ The Ghost: A Cultural History and Catherine Belsey’s Tales of the Troubled Dead: Ghost Stories in Cultural History. For ballads in particular, there’s no better resource than the English Broadside Ballad Archive or EBBA. There are nearly 10,000 ballads that can be interacted with through their text, art, and music. 

Related Resources Recommend by Cassidy

“’Twas I that murder’d thee”: Heartbreak, Murder, and Justice in Early Modern Haunted Lovers’ Ballads” by Savannah Jensen

Check out my episode on Link Boys

and you might like this episode on Blackfriars Theater

17th century Lover’s Ballad

Music of the 16th Century Broadside Ballads

Isaiah Thomas Broadside Ballads Project

When it was growne to darke midnight,
And all was fast asleepe,
In came Margarets grimely Ghost,
And stood at Williams feete.

Haunted Lover’s Ballad quoted by the character “Merry” in Beaumont’s Knight of the Burning Pestle (ca. 1611) (Qtd. from Bronson, Singing Tradition 189) Source: https://americanantiquarian.org/thomasballads/items/show/162
This is an image of a 16th century haunted Lover’s Ballad titled “Margaret’s Ghost”; the high resolution version of this image was not accessible when I tried to access it from the source website on September 12, 2023. You can find the source page and more history of this ballad here.

Coming Up Next Week: Holiday Ghost Stories

Dr. Francis Young joins us to share holiday ghost stories, including real ghost narratives (witness accounts) that date to within Shakespeare’s lifetime. We’ll talk about the difference between angels and ghosts, share fun Tudor traditions about holiday ghostly tales, and even examine one ghost story that appears in Shakespeare’s play, “Twelfth Night” to find out how that tale ties into Christmas celebrations.

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    That’s it for this week! Thank you for listening. I’m Cassidy Cash, and I hope you learn something new about the bard. I’ll see you next time!