Hamlet’s Ghost: Character Analysis
The Ghost is one of the most important characters in William Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet. While the audience sees it only three times throughout the play, its role provided the impetus for critical turning points in the narrative. It first appeared before a pair of guards and Horatio, a foreign visitor, establishing the proposition that it was the ghost of the king. The audience sees him next when Hamlet was finally persuaded to wait for it in the designated time of appearance. This was the point where the Ghost revealed itself fully to everyone, finally speaking and making known its mission, which is the command for revenge. The third appearance was more of follow-through as he confronted Hamlet in Queen Gertrude’s closet for failing to carry out his retribution. The significance of the Ghost as a character is demonstrated in the amount of work devoted to explore and explain all aspects of its existence as intended by Shakespeare as well as its implications to the play its outcome and impact. There are numerous authors who investigated its nature because the outcome is expected to have a direct bearing on the main characters’ actions, including the audience’s perspective on each.
Eleanor Prosser, who studied the play’s protagonist and focused on the dimension of revenge, devoted a large part of the discussion on the Ghost. In this area, her approach was fundamental, opting to determine what kind of entity it is. She asked whether it is a spirit of health or devil from hell. For a time, Prosser ruminated about a dilemma. The play has earlier established itself to be guided by contemporary religious norms. However, when the ghost appeared, Hamlet considered the thing a “dead corse”, with the others uncertainly branding it as a usurping demon. Later, the Ghost would be recognized for what it is, as the spirit of Hamlet’s deceased father. These were problematic for Prosser because a ghost violates the Protestant or the Catholic teachings of the period (132). She tried to reconcile the concept of the Ghost with the rest of the play’s religious foundations by focusing on purgatory. It is her belief that the Ghost was not in a state of grace but, rather, a spirit on the process of cleansing that is why its return in the play to let man knows of its sufferings is believable. Even then, the ghost with its mission and effect on Hamlet was considered dubious in its origins although it was accepted as a spirit rather than the devil. Another work by Battenhouse exploring the same theme concluded differently. It was argued that the purgatory that the Ghost was describing was similar to one of Dante’s inferno. What these accounts demonstrate is the confusion about the uncertainties about the Ghost’s characterization. Whether it comes from an inconsistency or an inexact religion of the character, it was seemingly created to be controversial, appearing as a spirit, a devil and a puzzle all at the same time.
Another Dimension to the Ghost’s Nature
Another dimension to the Ghost’s nature that attracted attention was the fierceness that came with the graphic narration of his suffering in life and in purgatory. The Ghost summarized his pain as he finally exclaimed: “O horrible! O horrible! most horrible!” (Act 1, Scene 5). It encapsulated the pain and the terrible wrong wrought on the Ghost’s narrative beginning with injustice committed when his brother killed him up to the consequences of dying in a state of sin. Rosenberg was particularly keen about the Ghost’s desire for revenge. He stated that the command given to Hamlet was both an order and a plea (p.326). It supposedly indicated that the Ghost is consumed by revenge but one that could be considered as righteous. In this respect, one could turn to how Shakespeare successfully articulated the consequences of the complex tragedy of the Ghost’s existence. According to Rosenberg (1992), the potency of his command to Hamlet is infused by the undercurrents of the fact that it was a ghost, a murdered king, a father and a cuckolded husband (327). For the author, these were legitimate reasons that made the Ghost an aggrieved party, understandably capable of such a degree of violence. Rosenberg also pointed out that the Ghost did manifest a capability for familial and moral concern. Indeed, it declared:
Let not the royal bed of Denmark be
A couch for luxury and damned incest… (Act. 1, Scene 5)
The above variables underscored a multidimensional characterization on the part of the Ghost. Particularly, there is the glimmering suggestion that it is not entirely evil or one bent on sheer vindictiveness and nothing else. The Ghost even managed to remind his son:
Taint not thy mind nor let thy soul contrive
Against thy mother aught… (Act 1, Scene 5).
These explain to us that the command for revenge is not merely given out of spite. Instead, it was driven by a need for justice and setting something right. Also, as Battenhouse stressed, the Ghost is the linchpin of the entire play, without which the story would simply fall apart (161). The horrors of injustice and purgatory, for their part, served as the foundation for the Ghost’s nature and mission. They dramatized the Ghost and the things it must endure so that it served its desired effect not just on Hamlet but on the audience watching the events as they unfold.
Many Shakespearian scholars have different interpretations of the Ghost’s nature. Some criticized the character for being intent on revenge whereas others chose to see the factors that redeemed it or made its role complex and multidimensional. This is really not surprising because the characterization or its very presence in the story is mired with inconsistencies. Certainly, there is no way of telling whether such inconsistencies were intentional. However, they are helpful to think that the Ghost was made as a controversial figure, which is central to the way it affected the protagonist and outcome of the story. The Ghost’s nature served to remind us that Hamlet is not just a story about someone taking orders from a ghost. It made the audience believe that it is a story of a son avenging the death of his father.
Battenhouse, Roy. “The Ghost in Hamlet: A Catholic Linchpin.” Studies in Philology 48.2 (1951): 161-192. Print.
Prosser, Eleanor. Hamlet and Revenge. 2nd ed. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1971. Print.
Rosenberg, Marvin. The Masks of Hamlet. Cranbury, NJ: Associated University Press, 1992.