Shakespeare's Presentation of the Ghost in Hamlet
Elizabethans would cry in horror at the prospect of seeing a ghost
appear on the stage and, depending upon the religious leanings of the
audience, the reasons for that appearance would differ. The impact of
the ghost itself upon the play does not rely on endless moaning and
sighing throughout each scene. The fact that the ghost
only appears in
two scenes does not lessen its importance and the imagery and language
it uses leave a lasting picture through to the end. The presentation
of the ghost is an important part of the play, as Charles Marowitz
wrote in his Collage Hamlet
: 'What is frightening about a ghost is not
its unearthliness, but its earthliness: its semblance of reality
divorced from existence.' The modern audience may have the need for
more complex phantasms but the apparition on stage or screen must be
presented in a way that is convincing and not trite.
There is a certain ambiguity concerning the Ghost and his purpose.
Elizabethan audiences were moving more toward Protestant beliefs that
Ghosts were angels or devils who could assume the form of a relative
or friend to cause harm. In a translation of Lavater in 1572 he
explains how the Ghost may,' Take the form of a Prophet, an Apostle,
Evangelist, Bishop, and martyr, and appear in their likeness; or so
bewitch us, that we verily suppose we hear or see them in very deed!'
Hamlet himself when faced with the Ghost for the first time asks;
'Be though a spirit of health, or a goblin damned?'(Act1, Sc.4
Line40). This indecision may have been a deliberate ploy by
Shakespeare as it has been suggested by some modern critics that he
could have been a closet Catholic, therefore his understanding of
varying religious attitudes
to ghosts and spectres may have been vast.
Purgatory was the home of the Catholic spirit who returns to achieve a
purpose so he can be put to rest. The ghost's own reflections on his
sufferings confirm this;
'Doomed for a certain term to walk the night,
And for the day confined to fast in fires,
Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature
Are burnt and purged away.'Act1, Sc.5 Lines 10-13.
Now we are faced with the problem of religious and political thinking
of the time. The genre of the play is revenge that was popular in the
sixteenth century but private revenge was unlawful according to the
Church and the State. Would a Father ask his child to commit a crime
and had he taken advantage of his grieving son?
Michael Pennington (Hamlet: A User's Guide) wrote;' Imagine a father
returning but refusing love and relief, dispensing only pain.' This
statement, in line with the revenge genre of the play, is on the whole
true but for one important comment made by Hamlet after the Ghost had
told him he was murdered;
' O my prophetic soul!'(Act1 Sc.5 line40). Hamlet may have had an
intimation that all was not well and possibly, because of this he
could not accept his Father's death as;
' Passing through nature to eternity.'(Act1 Sc.2 Line 72). He needed
confirmation of his suspicions and the Ghost returning did exactly
that. A Father would not leave his son in an earthly kind of
purgatory; therefore, the request for revenge may have been an
unlawful necessity but the validation of Hamlet's suspicions could
have been done out of an obligation of love.
Hamlet's discovery of his father's murder comes from the Ghost itself
but does he manage to persuade Hamlet that he has spoken the truth?
Shakespeare's change in language and imagery concerning the Ghost may
have ensured this and its opening lines leave Hamlet in no doubt that,
good or bad, this spirit has come from some unearthly place that he
cannot speak of.
"But that I am forbid
To tell the secrets of my prison house,
I could a tale unfold whose lightest word
Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,
Make thy two eyes like stars start from their spheres."Act1 Sc5 Lines
15-17. The imagery conjured up here leaves Hamlet breathless and the
Ghost's description of his suffering after the poison has been
administered would have disturbed an Elizabethan audience immensely.
"And with sudden vigour it doth posset
And curd, like eager droppings into milk,
The thin and wholesome blood. So did it mine,
And a most instant tetter barked about,
Most lazar-like, with vile and loathsome crust,
All my smooth body." Act1 Sc5 Lines 68-73
The rhetorical language the Ghost uses has a powerful effect on the
play. There is a solemnity to it that at times has a biblical
" 'Tis given out that, sleeping in my orchard,
A serpent stung me. So the whole ear of Denmark
Is by forged process of my death
Rankly abused. Act 1 Sc 5Lines 35-38.
There is a certain universality within those few words as, more often
than not during times of religious or political upheaval, the throne
was gained by underhand methods. Shakespeare has written the Ghost's
opening emotive speech in blank verse, a superb way to echo the sombre
rhythm of the death march and the atmosphere in which it is set.
Hamlet appears to be convinced of the Ghost's identity when he tells
"It is an honest ghost." Act 1 Sc 5 Line 138, but the truth is never
really known. Hamlet himself uses the play within a play to reaffirm
his belief in the Ghost's tale and Claudius's reaction to 'The
Mousetrap' confirms his guilt exceptionally well. Derek Attridge
wrote," The Ghost is as much an event as an object (the word
apparition holds both of these together) and nothing will be the same
again after it has appeared and spoken." Such is the effect of the
Ghost's words that they overshadow Hamlet's one main chance for
revenge while Claudius is praying at the altar. To kill him in silent
prayer would almost guarantee admission to heaven; Hamlet wanted
Claudius to suffer purgatory, as had the Ghost;
"Up sword, and know thou a more horrid hent,
When he is drunk asleep, or in his rage,
Or in th'incestuous pleasure of his bed,
At game a-swearing, or about some act
That has no relish of salvation in't-
Then trip him that his heels may kick at heaven,
And that his soul may be as damned and black
As hell wherteto it goes.Act 3 Sc 3 Lines 88-95.
In broad daylight with the sun blazing down how would you stage a play
set in winter with the first act starting at midnight? Add the
prospect of a Ghost's appearance and you may find the setting of time
and atmosphere slightly difficult. Language and props were all
important in establishing these and in Hamlet the opening scene does
exactly that. The very first line;
"Who's there?" Act1 Sc.1 signifies it as being dark and the fact that
players are carrying torches also implies this. The time is placed
" 'Tis now struck twelve, get thee to bed Francisco." Act1 Sc 1 line7.
Directors of modern day productions rarely have to deal with these
problems as the technology of the twenty first century enables us to
identify time, place, era and character within the first few moments
of a film. The atmosphere in which Elsinore is set leads us into the
appearance of the Ghost. In Laurence Olivier's 1948 film the castle is
positioned close to the sea, which creates a sense of untamed, raw
power. The scene opens with a mist floating across the battlements
(Modern audiences may find this a rather obvious way to create
atmosphere) and, when the Ghost appears, he is portrayed as a smoky,
whispery image that speaks gently and longingly. Kenneth Branagh's
1996 version opens on a cold wintry night with the castle surrounded
by snow and ice. Hamlet follows the Ghost to a dark wood where the
trees are black and forbidding. When the Ghost speaks he gives urgent
orders that come out more as a dull roar. Both films create a cold,
stark atmosphere even though they are staged so very differently and
the imagery used in both films is often thought to reflect the cold,
hard time of war that was taking place in Denmark at that time both
politically and religiously.
Not having the camera close ups we all know and love the Elizabethan
Ghost would be identified by the accompaniment of loud music or
thunder and when it came time for the Ghost to leave it would
disappear into a trap door that led into the cellarage. Bearing this
in mind, the voice of Hamlet's Ghost rising from below would surely
have confused the audience as to whether it was good or evil, demon or
The Olivier production keeps to the dark moodiness of his Hamlet by
only having the Ghost cry out once from below. Branagh follows the
whole scene through chasing the Ghost's voice around giving us a
skilful display of momentary lunacy. The Elizabethans often enjoyed a
farcical touch to their tragedies perhaps to enlighten the mood of the
play. The jesting would not seem out of place as the audience would
look back to the old Morality Plays that showed a vice sharing
jovialities with a hidden underground demon.
The scene in Gertrude's closet acts as a reminder for Hamlet when the
Ghost appears wearing his habit rather than the armour from his first
appearance. Pennington writes that Hamlet sees him as,' A father
remembered from childhood at bedtime." It has been suggested that the
Ghost's appearance here was, in fact, Hamlet's hallucination;
HAMLET; Do you see nothing there?
Gertrude; Nothing at all, yet all that is I see.
Hamlet; Nor did you nothing hear?
Gertrude; No, nothing but ourselves. Act3 Sc.4 Lines131-134. He may
have imagined the interruption because of a guilty conscience
concerning his anger toward his mother rather than Claudius;
Ghost; Do not forget. This visitation
Is but to whet thy blunted purpose. Act 3 Sc.4 Lines 109-110.
This is the last time the Ghost supposedly appears to Hamlet before he
is sent to England.
Many intellectuals and critics have written endless books on the
reasons for Hamlet's delay in fulfilling his promise to the Ghost.
Directors of film and stage have interpreted Hamlet as a coward, a
narcissus, a lunatic and a comedian. The Oedipus theory claims that he
could not kill Claudius until his mother had died because that would
have left her too available for his own sexual desires. 'Hamlet' has
been analysed extensively by 'truth' hungry scholars. Every production
of 'Hamlet' has its own understanding of the text that may be true to
Shakespeare's tale from the darkness of Olivier to the emotional
crumbling of Branagh. Modern audiences have had the benefit of being
able to witness so many different interpretations of the Ghost as to
whether he was good or evil but each individual will have his own
differing views. Shakespeare's ambiguous tale will go on creating
speculation and, as Ian Johnston (English 366-Studies in Shakespeare)
so rightly noted;" If one of the really important functions of great
literature is to stimulate thought provoking conversation, which force
us to come to grips with the text and about ourselves, then Hamlet is
a particularly valuable work."