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The Ghost in Hamlet

Updated on April 2, 2013

Shakespeare's tragedy, Hamlet, has received an enormous amount of literary criticism since its publication around 1600, as scholars everywhere have been determined to provide their insights on the abundance of enigmas that stalk the pages. Perhaps one of the greatest mysteries within the play is the intentions of the Ghost of Hamlet's murdered father, appearing in Act 1, Scene 5 and Act 3, Scene 4. Despite this brief stage time, the apparition manages to dictate much of the psychological trauma and therefore action throughout the play, in a manner that lends great interest to his character and that renders a study of his purposes within the play enlightening, if not absolutely necessary.

Despite the Ghost’s seemingly honourable intentions to restore nobility within Denmark, his eerie tale of torture and purgatory, with its vivid imagery of ‘tormenting flames’ and illusion to vague horrors that can ‘freeze’ the ‘blood’, is perhaps a tool of manipulation utilised in an attempt to provoke Hamlet into a maddeningly vengeful position. Similarly, the Ghost’s insistence for Hamlet to take revenge if he ‘didst ever thy dear father love –’ carries an underlying sense of exploitation, as the Ghost appeals to Hamlet’s sense of family. Furthermore, his closing insistence for Hamlet to ‘taint not thy mind’ against Gertrude seems to reveal a desire for her to be uppermost in Hamlet’s mind. This suggests that the Ghost’s words are an illusion, a reverse psychology concealing the reality of his yearning to damn his past wife. The technique appears to seize Hamlet given the fact that, despite his father’s demand, he bitterly reflects on his ‘pernicious mother’ before turning his thoughts to the ‘smiling, damned villain’ Claudius. Hamlet's inability to rid his mind of his mother's betrayal permeates throughout the entire play, heavily contributing to his mistrust of women in general. Presented as his father's son, it seems unlikely that Hamlet's bitterness towards his mother would be in such contrast to his father's insistence for her to be left alone whilst all anger is directed at Claudius, especially as it is Hamlet's father who has, to the highest degree, been scorned by her. Additionally, the Ghost's reappearance in Act 3, Scene 4, serving to calm Hamlet's vicious anger that verges on madness through the command for his son to 'step between her and her fighting soul' and to '[s]peak to her' rather than resort to violence, actually interrupts both Gertrude's attempts to repent her actions and to confess that within her soul she discerns such 'black and grainèd spots', perhaps revealing a desire for her damnation. Despite the Ghost's seemingly moral intentions, a character analysis accentuates the complexity within him, suggesting that his words and actions might all be a clever deception employed with the intention of confusing Hamlet and provoking his already enflamed nerves towards his mother.

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On the other hand, the Ghost’s desperation to see justice triumph over the ‘adulterate beast’ who ‘wears his crown’, bears a striking resemblance to Hamlet’s disgust of Claudius, implying that the Ghost, like his son, can perceive the poisoned state of Denmark and is honestly preoccupied with the restoration of its nobility. The length of time with which he dwells upon the ‘eternal blazon’ to which Claudius has condemned him, along with his carefully detailed, horrific description of the ‘leprous distilment’ that ‘curd[s] … [t]he thin and wholesome blood', also highlights his determination to provoke Hamlet’s anger specifically against Claudius. The furious tone imbedded into the Ghost’s lengthy discussion of the ‘rankly abus’d’ and poisoned ‘ear of Denmark’, when compared to the relatively calm and short account of his desire for Gertrude to be left ‘to heaven,’ further reveals his preoccupation not with Gertrude, but with the cleansing of the state from the poisonous influence exerted by Claudius, suggesting that the Ghost’s words are true to his intentions. His sudden appearance in Gertrude's closet also appears to have been delayed for a considerable amount of time, initiated only after Hamlet's unquenchable rage despite his mother's triple insistence for him to 'speak no more,' as he appears to have worked himself into a state of anger from which there can be no relief and from where he can hear no reason. As this anger has, only moments earlier, resulted in the murder of Polonious, the Ghost's reappearance at a time when Hamlet's fury seems to have truly rendered him insane is quite reasonable, particularly if he honestly is concerned about Gertrude's welfare. Read in this manner, the Ghost appears to be a rather moral character, true to his word and familiar enough with his son to recognise the necessity of reminding him to direct his revenge only towards the ones who deserve it.

In addition to the question of the Ghost's morality and the enigma of his seemingly simultaneous virtue and treachery, Shakespeare utilises his character and brief appearances to fester in the minds of not only the audience, but also the other characters. Indeed, Hamlet's original insistence that 'it is an honest Ghost' and consequential solemn promise to abide by all it says, is later replaced, after lengthy consideration, by his acknowledgement that, 'it is a damnèd ghost that we have seen,' and that Claudius' guilt ought therefore to be measured on more than mere trust of the apparition's word. This introduces the notion of appearance versus reality, as Hamlet questions whether the Ghost is as real as he appears, and debates whether Claudius' reality is only an appearance, forcing the audience to similarly ask whether the Ghost's words are real or an illusion spun to deceive Hamlet. Furthermore, Hamlet's torturous conflict between the honour code - the desire to carry out revenge - and the religious stipulation against murder, powerfully highlights the question of religion, as Shakespeare, writing in Protestant England and bestowing these beliefs on Hamlet, contradictorily subscribes to the Catholic belief of Purgatory.

There you have it, my brief analysis of the Ghost's role in Hamlet. I hope this has helped shed some light (or perhaps the opposite) on one of the grand enigmas within this exceptionally complex, incredibly brilliant, tragedy.

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