The Importance of the Ghost in Hamlet

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Words are like leaves; and where they most abound,

Much fruit of Sense beneath is rarely found.

(Essay on Criticism, ll.309-310)

Any investigation of Shakespeare's Hamlet that wishes to harvest "fruit of sense" must begin with the ghost. Dover Wilson is right in terming Hamlet's visitor the "linchpin," but the history of critical opinion regarding its origin has been diverse and conflicting. Generally, critics have opted for a Purgatorial ghost: Bradley speaks of "...a soul come from Purgatory," (1) Lily Campbell believes "Shakespeare has pictured a ghost from Purgatory according to all the tests possible," but adds, "Shakespeare chose rather to throw out suggestions which might satisfy those members of his audience who followed any one of the three schools of thought on the subject." (2). G. Wilson Knight fuses Purgatorial origin with ambiguity: "With exquisite aptness the poet has placed him, not in heaven or hell, but purgatory," adding "It is neither 'good' nor bad', True its effects are mostly evil." (3) In another work he notes, "The ghost may or may not have,., been a 'goblin damned': it certainly was no 'spirit of health,' (4) Wilson terms his 'linchpin' as Catholic: "...the Ghost is Catholic: he comes from Purgatory."(5)

A flurry of critical opinion began, however, in 1951 when Roy Battenhouse argued, "The ghost, then, does not come from a Catholic Purgatory, but from an afterward exactly suited to fascinate the imagination and understanding of the humanist intellectual of the Renaissance." By that he meant, "...the purgatory of the Ancients, or their hell...since all are Hell from a Christian point of view: an inhabitant of any one of them is a "damned" spirit...(6...

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...et: Pagan or Christian?" The Month. 9 (1953), pp. 233-234.

(8) Robert West. "King Hamlet's Ambiguous Ghost:" PMLA. 70 (1955), p. 1116.

(9) Harry Levin. The Queftion of Hamlet. New York: Oxford Books, 1970), p. 43.

(10) Sister Mariam Joseph. "Discerning the Ghost in Hamlet." PMLA 76 (1961), p. 502

(11) Eleanor Prosser. Hamlet and Revenge. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1091, p. 252.

(12) Stephen Greenblatt. Hamlet in Purgatory. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001.

(13) K.R. Eissler. Discourse on Hamlet and Hamlet: A Psychoanalytic Inquiry. New York: International Universities, Press, 1971, p. 68.

(14) Harold Boom. Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. New York: Riverhead Books, 1998. Hamlet and Falstaff is treated throughout the book as touchstones for all other characters. Chapter 23 discusses Hamlet specifically.
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