The Role of Ghost in Hamlet By Shakespeare

The ghost is a part of the machinery of the revenge Play, and as much the ghost is in Hamlet. The ghost is primarily connected with the motive of revenge and so there is the justification of such a convention. Now the deft- ness of Shakespeare in handling the supernatural is a thing that nobody will question. The opening scene sets the tune of the whole play, a play shrouded in mystery and terror. The ghost does indeed visibly appear, but it is a shadowy figure, resembling in dress and armour the late king of Denmark, Hamlet’s father. At once Shakespeare makes evident the intimate connection of the ghost with the action of the play. We observe the subtle skill of Shakespeare and it is manifested in the psychological effect to which Shakespeare is ever attentive in that the ghost is not made to speak but strides away majestically. It leaves a profound impression upon the night guards. Horatio, till now sceptical, has to believe the evidence of his eyes, and concludes that “this bodes some eruption to our state.” The ghost appears twice in the opening scene, but will vouchsafe no reply to Horatio’s question. The speculation that the ghost invokes Horatio has some bearing upon the play and generates the necessary tension of feeling. The news of the appearance of the ghost (ostensibly Hamlet’s deceased father) is later on communicated to Hamlet.

Hamlet is lately returned from the University of Wittenberg, and his mind has been exercised over his mother’s hasty marriage with his uncle. He has evidently been summoned from Wittenberg to accept the fait accompli-his mother’s marriage with his uncle and the latter’s accession to the throne. Hamlet keeps his own counsel and pronounces nothing on the matter at present. Then he meets the ghost (I. iv) and it is his father’s ghost. The ghost beckons Hamlet away to “a more removed ground” and then speaks (I. v). What the ghost reveals, staggers Hamlet. It is a shock to his moral sensibility—and with a great effort he keeps his reason and mental faculties from breaking loose:

“My tables, meet it is I set a down

That one may smile, and smile and be a villain.”

To many Hamlet’s action, taking out a memorandum book and writing the thing may seem trivial and irrelevant, and may appear as a hint to sanity departing. Hamlet does this to take off the edge of his moral shock and revulsion of feeling, or he would have gone crazy. Hamlet keeps himself in hand and here is the test that Hamlet could not have lost his reason and sanity for a moment we admit that thee might have been temporary and occasional be- musing of his intellect and perception. The action of the play is set going by the ghost; that is the point to be noted.

The relevant question is whether the ghost is a mere projection of the imagination or a reality. There can be little doubt of the reality and visibility of the ghost in the opening scene and later when he speaks to Hamlet. It is urged by some critics that Shakespeare’s characters, Macbeth, Brutus and Hamlet, highly gifted with the imagination are susceptible to the phenomenon of ghosts. Banquo’s ghosts at the royal banquet might be a hallucination of Macbeth, for neither the ghost addresses Macbeth, nor anybody else sees the ghost. Similarly Caesar’s ghost might have been conjured up by Brutus’s imagination, but Caesar’s ghost does speak to Brutus and can not, therefore, be dis- missed as a hallucination. In the bed-chamber of Gertrude, the ghost ad- dresses Hamlet, but remains unseen and un-heard by his mother. Kolbe, for example, notes: “Another psychological point Shakespeare takes pains to prove that the first apparition (i.e., in the first Act) was real and shows equally clearly that the second was imaginary. The first, to Hamlet, was initiative, the second inhibitive.” We accept the subtle distinction that is drawn, but we can not agree with Kolbe that in one case the ghost was real and in another, unreal. We can not explain away the words, addressed by the ghost to Hamlet:

“Ghost: Do not forget; this visitation.

Is but to whet thy almost blunted purpose.

But look, amazement on the mother sits.

O, step between and her fighting soul !

Conceit in weakest bodies strongest works.

Speak to her, Hamlet.”

Why does not Hamlet’s mother see and hear the ghost? Verify offers an explanation of it: “…… the fact that the ghost, while visible to Hamlet at the interview with his mother, is invisible to the Queen, must be meant, surely, to have some moral significance. It seems to symbolize the affinity between father and son, and the absolute breach (on her side, at least) between husband and wife. And does it not suggest that it is her perfidy that seals her eyes? That the coarsening of her nature has dulled her sense of things non-material and sundered her far indeed from the spiritual world? At any rate, Hamlet’s power to see and to converse with the ghost is a measure of the gulf between mother and son.” The ghost was, accepted as a reality by the Elizabethan audience. People in those days believed in the malignant power of the witches, in the walking of spirits abroad-and the burning of hags, suspected to be witches. was not an uncommon practice. We can not, in any case, hold the plea that the ghost in Shakespeare’s play is a subjective phenomena hallucination springing from perfervid imagination.

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The point will be made still clearer by a discussion of popular belief in or attitude towards, ghost in those days. What Shakespeare personally thought on the matter, we do not know, but he seems to have conformed to current belief and tradition. Dover Wilson writes, “The ghost-scenes in Hamlet …. can not rightly be understood without some study of Elizabethan spiritualism which has a very different thing from modern spiritualism, practically everyone in that age including probably. Shakespeare himself, believed in ghosts. The traditional view was that spirits were permitted to return from purgatory and talk to the living. Note the first words of the ghost when he addresses Hamlet (I. v):

“Ghost: I am thy father’s spirit,

Doom’d for a certain term to walk the night,

And for the day confin’d to fast in fires,

Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature

Are burnt and purged away.”

Lily B. Campbell says that it is a ghost from Purgatory (an intermediate stage between Hell and Heaven where the soul is purified from sins) according to all the tests possible. They believed also in evil spirits and these evil spirits might lure an innocent man to a crime and self-destruction. The Devil might take the shape of the departed one, dear to the victim, in order to embroil his soul. When the ghost first appears to Hamlet. his natural impulse is to invoke the protection of the angles (I. iv):

“Angles and ministers of grace defined us!

Be thou a spirit of health or gblin damnd’,

Bring with thee airs from heaven or blasts from hell.

By thy intents wicked or charitable,

Thou com’st in such a questionable,

That I will speak to thee.”

Hamlet’s mind is assailed with doubt and fear at the first sight of the ghost whose reality is not, and can not be questioned. The ghost tells him. Things that none could have known but Claudius who murdered his father. In spite of the disclosure of the hidden crime, which Hamlet may not be very much disinclined to disbelieve, the doubt and fear that it might be an evil spirit, linger on in his mind. At the end of the second Act, Hamlet, while reproaching himself of non-execution of his task, positively expresses his doubt and fear:

“The spirit that I have seen

May be the devil; and the devil hath power

To assume a pleasing shape; yea, and perhaps

Out of my weakness and my melancholy,

As he is very potent with such spirits,

Abuses me to damm me.”

Note, too, that when the ghost appears again remaining invisible and in- audible to Hamlet’s mother, Hamlet cries out (II. Iv):

“Save me, and however O’er me with your wings,

You heavenly guards!”

If he did really and fully believe that it was his father’s ghost why his appeal to the protection of angles every time? The doubt must have lingered on and Hamlet finally determines to us the players to probe the king’s Con-Science.

From all this evidence it is but a step to declare, as John Middleton Murry does, that Hamlet could not believe in the ghost. Murry allows all the due importance to the ghost, but can not imagine Hamlet to have any faith in the bonafide of the ghost. “But that the ghost did shake his disposition, there is no doubt, that was the motive of the old play, and is the motive of the new one. The ghost does something to Hamlet, which it does not do to Horatio. Hamlet is exposed to the ghost in a way in which Horatio is not. He is caught in the toil, because the ghost merely confirms the hideous suspicion of his own ‘prophetic soul”….. though he would slip from its grasp, he can not, neither could any man in his position. The revelation of his mother’s animalist, his dreadful doubt concerning the manner of his father’s death-these have already meant the shattering of a whole moral universe.” There is little influence of the ghost, in the fifth Act. As Murry says, Hamlet is now rid of the ghost, and becomes a new man “a man who is no longer such that a ghost (or that of which a ghost is the emanation, or the symbol) can shake his disposition.” Does Murry mean to say that with the incubus of the ghost gone from his heart, Hamlet accomplishes the revenge quickly?



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