Shakespeare’s Definition of a Ghost
The American Heritage Dictionary, published in 1973, defines a ghost as, «the spirit or shade of a dead person, supposed to haunt living persons or former habitats.» Unfortunately, this simple definition does not explain where a ghost comes from or why it haunts. When used in the context of Shakespeare's Hamlet, this definition seems to suggest that the ghost who visits Hamlet truly is his dead father seeking revenge. To the modern reader, this straightforward interpretation adequately characterizes the ghost and his purpose; however, to the Elizabethan audience the ghost's identity proved more complex. For the Elizabethans, four different types of ghosts existed, each with its own purpose and qualities. Before they could determine the meaning behind the ghost's appearance, the Elizabethans had to classify the ghost in one of the four categories. Similar to the modern definition, the Elizabethans believed in the possibility of the ghost being an actual dead person sent to perform some task or mission. On the other hand, the ghost could be the devil disguised in the form 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 troubled time ahead, or simply as the hallucinations of a crazed person or group. Shakespeare recognized the complexity of the Elizabethan ghost's identity and played off of the confusion, making the question of identity a key theme to his play. Throughout Hamlet Shakespeare explores each of the possible identities of the ghost with each one adding a new twist to Hamlet's plight.
When news of the ghost's presence first reaches Hamlet and Horatio, they declare it an omen of forthcoming evil. Hamlet's reaction indicates that he is not surprised, «My father's spirit - in arms? All is not well. / I doubt some foul play. Would the night were come! / Till then sit still, my soul. Foul deeds will 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 marrying Claudius and the ghost's appearance supports Hamlet's anger. At the time, Hamlet does not know of his father's murder, but he suspects there may be more behind the 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 the downfall of them all, «In what particular thought to work I know not; / But, in gross 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 the coming tragedy in Shakespeare's Hamlet.
When Hamlet first encounters the ghost he truly believes it is his father. 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 the ghost causes him to promise revenge before he has clearly processed the possible consequences; Hamlet does not ask questions, he simply believes. According to custom, if a father was killed it was up to the son to seek the proper reparations, often the death of the murderer. Thus it is no wonder that Hamlet's thoughts rapidly turn toward revenge once he hears the ghost's story. Hamlet cannot be blamed for his initial trust; it is typical of a first emotional reaction to rush blindly without considering consequences or repercussions. Furthermore, Shakespeare makes it clear at the beginning of the play that Hamlet's mourning is especially deep and prolonged, «How is it that the clouds still hang on you?» (I. ii.65) questions Claudius. Hamlet wants to believe the ghost because its presence allows him to converse with a father he so dearly misses, and whose untimely death prevented Hamlet from saying his proper good-bye.
Hamlet's initial trust and belief quickly dissipates as he begins to have doubts; in fact, Hamlet's view of the ghost reverses and he comes to see it as the devil disguised as his dead father. Within a relatively short period of time, Hamlet emotionally changes from extreme trust to extreme distrust. While at first he anxiously seeks revenge, his new view of the ghost causes him to ask questions and doubt the necessity of such an attack on Claudius. Hamlet starts to consider the consequences of his actions and the possibility of damnation:
. . . The spirit that I have seen
May be a devil, and the devil hath power
T' 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 damn me. . . (II. ii.610-615)
Hamlet's doubts lead him to use The Mousetrap to determine the guilt of Claudius and the validity of the ghost. Hamlet reasons that if Claudius shows signs of guilt 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 in the possibility of the devil telling the truth to acquire Hamlet's soul for his dark purposes.
As the play progresses, Hamlet's insanity grows and in Act III, the ghost appears for the last time as a hallucination. When the ghost appears in Gertrude's chamber, only Hamlet is able to see it, causing the Queen to question his 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 the beginning of the play, Horatio and the others all saw the ghost, yet now only Hamlet can see it. In this context, Shakespeare uses the hallucination of the ghost to bolster Hamlet's insanity and to indicate that Hamlet has made his decision to seek revenge and kill Claudius. Before, the ghost was the only proof Hamlet had of his father's murder and he needed its assurance in order to act out his revenge. After The Mousetrap and Claudius' reaction, Hamlet has seen with his own eyes the King's guilt and has enough evidence to seek revenge on his own - the reality of the ghost is no longer needed.
Depending on the view of the ghost, the tragedy of Hamlet can be understood in several distinct ways. When seen as an omen, the blood bath with which the play ends is both unavoidable and foreshadowed. If the ghost is truly Hamlet's father, than Hamlet dies heroically, revenging his father's untimely murder. On the other hand, if the ghost is really the devil, Hamlet has been tragically tricked into relinquishing control of his soul; sadly Hamlet knew better, but his reasoning and intelligence were no match for the devil's guile. Finally, the hallucination view of the ghost presents Hamlet as a tragic
character whose obsession with his father's death and his mother's incestuous marriage lead to his downfall. Regardless of the reality or validity of the ghost, Hamlet's death and thus his tragedy, remains.
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