In William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the ghost of Hamlet’s father appears very briefly.
However, he provides the basis for the development and eventual downfall of Hamlet’s
character. The play begins with a dismal Hamlet mourning his father’s death
Recognizing this gloom, Queen Gertrude urges Hamlet to “cast thy nighted color off, and
let thine eye look like a friend on Denmark” (I, ii, 68-69). Soon after, the ghost appears,
insisting, “If thou didst ever thy father love, revenge his foul and most unnatural murder”
(I, v, 24-25). As Hamlet decides to scourge the past and present evils in Denmark, the
ghost unleashes death and malice onto the stage.
The first and most obvious change which the ghost instills into Hamlet is a
vengeful spirit. Not only must Hamlet destroy Claudius, but he must also stop Fortinbras
from invading Denmark. Although less obvious, the second task can be inferred from the
fact that the ghost appears wearing “the very armor he had on when he the ambitious
Norway combated” (I, i, 60-61). Hamlet spends the entire play trying to carry out these
orders, eventually causing the downfall of his spirit. Partly because he feels reserve and
guilt for his task, Hamlet delays taking action throughout the play. However, this
paradoxical delay only makes Hamlet feel more guilty. He questions his self-worth and
even considers suicide, pondering, “To die — to sleep — no more; and by a sleep to say
we end the heartache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to” (III, i, 60-63).
He cannot accept the goodness of life or destroy its evils.
Because of the ghost’s words, Hamlet also becomes increasingly concerned with
his mother’s sexual relations with his uncle. In his first appearance to Hamlet, the ghost
insults his brother saying, “Ay, that incestuous, that adulterate beast… O wicked wit and
gifts, that have the power so to seduce!–won to his shameful lust the will of my most
seeming-virtuous queen” (I, v, 42-45). Hamlet, adopting this malicious spirit, later
responds to the ghost with a fervent, “O most pernicious woman! O villain, villain,
smiling, damned villain” (I, v, 105-106). Hamlet now has a valid reason to be disgusted
with both his uncle and his mother and proceeds to confront his mother on this incestual
issue. He does this by comparing his father, a “combination and a form indeed which
every god did seem to set his seal to give the world assurance of a man” (III, iv, 61-63),
to his uncle, a “mildewed ear blasting his wholesome brother” (III, iv, 65). Hamlet
focuses on a minute and inconsequential part of avenging his father’s murder; thus, he
The ghost also induces Hamlet’s preoccupation with death and decay, seen
through Hamlet’s many allusions to the subject. Hamlet makes puns involving death:
“Your worm is your only emperor for diet. We fat all creatures else to fat us, and we fat
ourselves for maggots. Your fat king and your lean beggar is but variable service-two
dishes, but to one table” (IV, iii, 21-24). He ponders and foresees death: “I see the
imminent death of twenty thousand men that for a fantasy and trick of fame go to their
graves like beds… O from this time forth, my thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth”
(IV, iv, 60-66). Hamlet even seems fascinated by death: “That skull had a tongue in it,
and could sing once… That might be the pate of a politician… might it not?” (V, i,
67-71). We can assume that Hamlet was not previously obsessed and intrigued by death
and decay. However, with the ghost’s appearance, and with his increasing feelings of
guilt, Hamlet becomes more macabre and (covertly) depressed.
The ghost ultimately causes Hamlet’s destruction by requiring that his son avenge
his death. The ghost also causes Hamlet’s feelings of self-doubt and guilt thanks to
Hamlet’s procrastination — he never even reaches the task of stopping Fortinbras — and
to his somewhat incestual preoccupation with his mother’s and uncle’s relationship. The
ghost’s influence wrenches Hamlet’s spirit out of its normal frame so that he destroys
himself while simultaneously destroying his enemies.