Research Papers on the Role of the Ghost in Hamlet
The most straightforward term paper report of the role of the ghost in Hamlet is to set right the wrongs done by mortals. The ghost in Hamlet urges Hamlet to “Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder” (I v. 25). It is unnatural in the sense that some order to the world has been upset and something must be done to set it aright. Says the ghost, “Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature/Are burnt and purged away,” (I v, 12-13). But if Shakespeare were to change the state of the mortal world through simple supernatural edict it would tell us little of interest about ourselves. It is the way in which supernatural agency alters Hamlet’s psychology that is most interesting. The change experienced by Hamlet in confrontation with his father’s ghost is as profound psychologically as it is on the action of the play. When we meet Hamlet he is in the grip of ambiguous melancholy, but after his encounter with the ghost his pain is given object and his purpose made clear.
The knowledge that his uncle Claudius killed his father does not throw Hamlet into a state of insanity, but rather into a search for his own identity in terms of loyalty, duty, ancestry, and love.
- By way of Hamlet’s monologues, the audience learns that Hamlet uses the guise of craziness in order to carry out his plan of revenging his father’s death.
- His craziness then serves as a tool to distract those around him as he plots the carry out the duty given him by way of his father’s ghost.
The Ghost in Shakespeare’s Hamlet plays an important role in setting into motion the young Hamlet’s struggle to do what is right by both his father and his mother. It is not a stretch to suggest that the immediate introduction of the Ghost is a purposeful warning of unpleasant things both past and future for Hamlet and other key players. Horatio recognizes on his first vision of the Ghost that the familiar specter might be a harbinger of something awful for Denmark:
HORATIO: In what particular thought to work I know not,
But in the gross and scope of my opinion,
This bodes some strange eruption to our state.
This is Horatio’s take however. What is more important is how Hamlet responds to the Ghost, who becomes for Hamlet a vision and revelation of truth:
GHOST: But know, thou noble youth,
The serpent that did sting thy father's life
Now wears his crown.
By the Ghost’s words, Claudius also becomes for Hamlet the epitome of deceit and betrayal:
GHOST: Ay, that incestuous, that adulterate beast,
With witchcraft of his wit, with traitorous gifts--
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.
By his own words, Claudius confirms his guilt later in the play:
CLAUDIUS: What if this cursed hand
Were thicker than itself with brother's blood,
Is there not rain enough in the sweet heavens
To wash it white as snow? Whereto serves mercy
But to confront the visage of offence?.
The Ghost however warns Hamlet not to take out his revenge on his mother:
GHOST: Let not the royal bed of Denmark be
A couch for luxury and damned incest.
But howsoever thou pursuest this act,
Taint not thy mind, nor let thy soul contrive
Against thy mother aught--leave her to heaven.
Hamlet’s anger is quick however by the time he would approach his mother with his knowledge of the truth, he sets his boundaries to exclude her murder:
HAMLET: O heart, lose not thy nature; let not ever
The soul of Nero enter this firm bosom;
Let me be cruel, not unnatural:
I will speak daggers to her, but use none.
Hamlet would portend that he has every intention of avenging his father’s murder, going so far as to feign madness to avoid suspicion while carrying out his plan for revenge:
HAMLET: As I perchance hereafter shall think meet
To put an antic disposition on.
Interestingly, Hamlet fails to take any of several opportunities to kill his father’s murderer, Claudius. Instead, he takes the more circumspect approach of establishing Claudius’s guilt before the court by altering the play to imitate his murderous act. The confirmation of Claudius’s guilt however is not enough to fuel the emotion necessary for Hamlet to kill his uncle, even when he has the perfect opportunity to slay him as he kneels in a prayer of confession:
HAMLET: Now might I do it pat, now he is praying.
And now I'll do't… .
HAMLET: To take him in the purging of his soul,
When he is fit and seasoned for his passage?
The Ghost’s final visit underscores the fact that he expected his son Hamlet to avenge his death but even more important is his desire to see the woman he loved repent for her role in his murder:
GHOST: Do not forget. This visitation
Is but to whet thy almost blunted purpose.
But look, amazement on thy mother sits.
O, step between her and her fighting soul!
Conceit in weakest bodies strongest works.
Speak to her, Hamlet.
The role of the Ghost and Claudius as opposing symbols supports the broader plot line demonstrated in the opposing kingdoms that are Fortinbras’ Norway and Hamlet’s Denmark. Norway and Denmark are opposing forces that interestingly reflect similar conditions in their young princes, both of whom must wait to ascend respective thrones occupied by their Uncles. Just as they are from opposing kingdoms, the young princes Hamlet and Fortinbras also manifest opposing temperaments. While Fortinbras exhibits the courage and fortitude to avenge his father’s death at the hand of the senior Hamlet, Hamlet can stew in his desire to avenge his father’s death but cannot seem to act.
Here in lies the primary difference between the two princes, a disparity that is ironically very similar to the symbolic difference between the Ghost and Claudius. Fortinbras demonstrates the fortitude to act on both his own desires and the desire of his father to make Norway a political power. The Ghost would have Hamlet avenge his death while preserving the life of his mother. Claudius, by his role in seducing his mother to participate in his murderous scheme, makes her vulnerable to his vengeful wrath. Hamlet nevertheless fails to act in any purposeful way to restore his father’s kingdom and, when he does, it comes too late:
HAMLET: Here, thou incestuous, murd'rous, damnèd Dane,
Drink off this potion.
Is thy union here?
Follow my mother.