Shakespeare’s Definition of a GhostThe American Heritage Dictionary, published in 1973, defines a ghost as,”the spirit or shade of a dead person, supposed to haunt living persons orformer habitats. ” Unfortunately, this simple definition does not explain where aghost comes from or why it haunts.
When used in the context of Shakespeare’sHamlet, this definition seems to suggest that the ghost who visits Hamlet trulyis his dead father seeking revenge. To the modern reader, this straightforwardinterpretation adequately characterizes the ghost and his purpose; however, tothe Elizabethan audience the ghost’s identity proved more complex. For theElizabethans, four different types of ghosts existed, each with its own purposeand qualities. Before they could determine the meaning behind the ghost’sappearance, the Elizabethans had to classify the ghost in one of the fourcategories.
Similar to the modern definition, the Elizabethans believed in thepossibility of the ghost being an actual dead person sent to perform some taskor mission. On the other hand, the ghost could be the devil disguised in theform of a deceased loved one, tempting to procure the soul of one of the living. The nonbelievers among the Elizabethans saw ghosts as omens, telling of troubledtime ahead, or simply as the hallucinations of a crazed person or group. Shakespeare recognized the complexity of the Elizabethan ghost’s identity andplayed off of the confusion, making the question of identity a key theme to hisplay. Throughout Hamlet Shakespeare explores each of the possible identities ofthe ghost with each one adding a new twist to Hamlet’s plight.
When news of the ghost’s presence first reaches Hamlet and Horatio, theydeclare it an omen of forthcoming evil. Hamlet’s reaction indicates that he isnot surprised, “My father’s spirit – in arms? All is not well. / I doubt somefoul play. Would the night were come! / Till then sit still, my soul. Foul deedswill rise, / Though all the earth o’erwhelm them, to men’s eyes” (I. iii.
255-259). Hamlet already believes that Gertrude has committed a “foul deed” in marryingClaudius and the ghost’s appearance supports Hamlet’s anger. At the time, Hamletdoes not know of his father’s murder, but he suspects there may be more behindthe ghost’s appearance and he is anxious to learn its complete meaning. Horatio,too, sees the ghost as an omen, but he also realizes that the omen may mean thedownfall of them all, “In what particular thought to work I know not; / But, ingross and scope of my opinion, / This bodes some strange eruption to our state”(I.
i. 67-69). Thus, as an omen, the ghost does little more than foreshadow thecoming tragedy in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. When Hamlet first encounters the ghost he truly believes it is hisfather. Perhaps out of shock, Hamlet quickly certifies the validity of the ghost,”It is an honest ghost, that let me tell you” (I. v.
138). Hamlet’s trust in theghost causes him to promise revenge before he has clearly processed the possibleconsequences; Hamlet does not ask questions, he simply believes. According tocustom, if a father was killed it was up to the son to seek the properreparations, often the death of the murderer. Thus it is no wonder that Hamlet’sthoughts rapidly turn toward revenge once he hears the ghost’s story.
Hamletcannot be blamed for his initial trust; it is typical of a first emotionalreaction to rush blindly without considering consequences or repercussions. Furthermore, Shakespeare makes it clear at the beginning of the play thatHamlet’s mourning is especially deep and prolonged, “How is it that the cloudsstill hang on you?” (I. ii. 65) questions Claudius.
Hamlet wants to believe theghost because its presence allows him to converse with a father he so dearlymisses, and whose untimely death prevented Hamlet from saying his proper good-bye. Hamlet’s initial trust and belief quickly dissipates as he begins tohave doubts; in fact, Hamlet’s view of the ghost reverses and he comes to see itas the devil disguised as his dead father. Within a relatively short period oftime, Hamlet emotionally changes from extreme trust to extreme distrust. Whileat first he anxiously seeks revenge, his new view of the ghost causes him to askquestions and doubt the necessity of such an attack on Claudius. Hamlet startsto consider the consequences of his actions and the possibility of damnation:. .
. The spirit that I have seenMay be a devil, and the devil hath powerT’ assume a pleasing shape, yea, and perhapsOut of my weakness and my melancholy,As he is very potent with such spirits,Abuses me to damn me . . . (II.
ii. 610-615)Hamlet’s doubts lead him to use The Mousetrap to determine the guilt of Claudiusand the validity of the ghost. Hamlet reasons that if Claudius shows signs ofguilt than the ghost truly is his risen father, but if Claudius remains stoic,than the ghost is the devil in disguise. The fault in Hamlet’s reasoning lies inthe possibility of the devil telling the truth to acquire Hamlet’s soul for hisdark purposes.
As the play progresses, Hamlet’s insanity grows and in Act III, theghost appears for the last time as a hallucination. When the ghost appears inGertrude’s chamber, only Hamlet is able to see it, causing the Queen to questionhis sanity, “Alas, how is’t with you, / That you do bend your eye on vacancy, /And with th’ incorporal air do hold discourse?” (III. iv. 117-119). At thebeginning of the play, Horatio and the others all saw the ghost, yet now onlyHamlet can see it.
In this context, Shakespeare uses the hallucination of theghost to bolster Hamlet’s insanity and to indicate that Hamlet has made hisdecision to seek revenge and kill Claudius. Before, the ghost was the only proofHamlet had of his father’s murder and he needed its assurance in order to actout his revenge. After The Mousetrap and Claudius’ reaction, Hamlet has seenwith his own eyes the King’s guilt and has enough evidence to seek revenge onhis own – the reality of the ghost is no longer needed. Depending on the view of the ghost, the tragedy of Hamlet can beunderstood in several distinct ways. When seen as an omen, the blood bath withwhich the play ends is both unavoidable and foreshadowed. If the ghost is trulyHamlet’s father, than Hamlet dies heroically, revenging his father’s untimelymurder.
On the other hand, if the ghost is really the devil, Hamlet has beentragically tricked into relinquishing control of his soul; sadly Hamlet knewbetter, but his reasoning and intelligence were no match for the devil’s guile. Finally, the hallucination view of the ghost presents Hamlet as a tragiccharacter whose obsession with his father’s death and his mother’s incestuousmarriage lead to his downfall. Regardless of the reality or validity of theghost, Hamlet’s death and thus his tragedy, remains.