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...
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... 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.