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The main literary source of the ghost in an Elizabeth revenge play is the Senecan ghost. The main dramatic
purpose of this character was to serve as prologue or chorus of the whole play and thus make the audience
aware of the circumstances out of which the main action of the play results; in that way, the ghost prepared
the atmosphere of revenge and horror. The ghost was an artificial and constrained convention since it had
not an essential dramatic function in the play and on most occasions it had pagan traits since it was believed
to come from Hades, the mythological realm of the dead. Hamlet’s ghost also serves as prologue to the play
and it introduces the theme of revenge. However, its construction was a groundbreaking dramatic novelty
at the time since certain elements of its characterisation are closely related to main themes of the play and
because it is the one who sets the plot of the play in motion. Additionally, Shakespeare’s ghost was highly
appealing to the playgoer since it was Christianised and depicted by following the current popular,
philosophical and theological beliefs about ghosts at the time.

“Who’s there?” is the first of many questions that pervade Hamlet. Barnardo’s inquiry could be applied to the
questionable nature of the Ghost. There has been critical discrepancy about this issue. For example,
whereas for Bradley he is a “messenger of divine justice”, for Wilson Knight it is a demon, “the devil of the
knowledge of death, which possesses Hamlet”. This divergence of ideas is due to the fact that the Ghost is
characterised as an enigmatic figure. Shakespeare presents its identity as a problematic issue since he offers
us different theories regarding the ghosts’ origins and their purposes on earth. Shakespeare makes his play
participant of one of the social debates at the time. Through the different perspectives offered by
Marcellus, Barnardo, Horatio and Hamlet about the nature of the Ghost, Shakespeare is exposing the
different theories about the philosophical and theological ideas about ghosts during the Elizabethan
period. Dover Wilson argues that there were three main theses about the existence and origin of ghost in
the England that in the play correspond, first to Marcellus and Barnardo’s view about the Ghost, second to
Horatio’s and third, to Hamlet. The first theory referred to the Catholic doctrine of Purgatory. Ghosts were
then considered as spirits of the dead that came back from Purgatory in order to ask a pious soul to solve a
problem so that the ghosts could find eternal rest. A second vision about ghosts would be the Protestant
one. Since the Church of England had explicitly rejected the Roman Catholic conception of Purgatory, it did
not consider that ghosts were spirits of the departed. The dead went either to heaven or to hell. For
Protestants, ghosts could be angels but most of the time they were devils who took the shape of dead
friends or relatives. Their aim was to abuse those who to whom they appeared. The third view about ghosts
was the one promulgated by Reginald Scot in Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584). He believed in the existence of
spirits but he considered that they do not take any kind of visual forms. Ghosts are mere hallucinations of
melancholy minds. This sceptical view is the one adopted by Horatio initially in the play. Barnardo clearly
rejects such an idea by exclaiming to Horatio “Is not this something more than fantasy?”. Barnardo,
Marcellus and Hamlet do not doubt the existence of the Ghost. But Hamlet’s attitude towards its nature and
origin is one of hesitation. From the very beginning, he is conscious of the fact that it could be a hellish spirit,
however he is determined to talk to it if it takes his father’s shape. When he actually sees the Ghost, his
words epitomise the play’s debate about its nature and even the contemporary uncertainty about the
nature of the ghosts. Are they good or bad spirits?Though he first considers the possible source of the Ghost
as hell he finally assures Horatio that it is “an honest Ghost”. However, Hamlet’s certainty about the Ghost’s
nature turns into a hesitancy that does not allow him to carry out his revenge. The Ghost could have been
the devil in disguise and its design could be to harm him. Shakespeare also mentions in Hamlet’s following
words the current theory that melancholy men were prone to see apparitions. Since he cannot be sure about
the Ghost’s real intentions he has to verify Claudius’s participation in his father’s death by setting up the

The Ghost is presented as an essential element within the dramatic structure of the play. The uncertainty
about its nature leads Hamlet to devise new plans in order to check whether “It is a damned ghost that we
have seen/And my imaginations are as foul/As Vulcan’s stithy”. Despite the fact that Hamlet describes life
after death as “the undiscovered country from whose bourn/no traveller returns” denying in this case the
good nature of the Ghost, Claudius’s reaction to the play finally makes Hamlet believe the Ghost’s
accusations . However, the nature of the Ghost is again called into question when the Ghost is presented in a
different way. It is just Hamlet who sees it. Gertrude’s explanation of Hamlet’s reaction is that “this is the
very coinage of your brain”. Again Shakespeare alludes to the belief that melancholy men were liable to see
hallucinations. The nature of the Ghost is so variable throughout the play that every single playgoer would
recognise his or her own idea about the existence of ghosts at a certain point during the performance. What
is clear is that, despite the fact that the play is setting an obvious debate about the nature and origin of
ghosts, the dramatic existence and relevance of the Ghost is beyond doubt. It is central to the development
of the play and especially for Shakespeare’s depiction of Hamlet’s mental functioning. The encounter with
the Ghost, the remembrance of its murderous revelations and the assigned task of revenge are the centre
of the entire dramatic action.

The apparition of the Ghost is for example linked to Denmark’s political disorder. Marcello’s expression
after Horatio’s question about the motive of the Ghost’s presence “something is rotten in the state of
Denmark” confirms such an idea. Barnardo considers that the presence of the Ghost is due to Fortinbras’s
intention to attack Denmark in order to recover his father’s lands. By relating the Ghost to the story of
Fortinbras taking revenge for King Hamlet’s murder of his father, the play is clearly anticipating its main
theme, that is, a son’s revenge of his father’s murder and its political implications.The Ghost is described as
a sign of ill omen. Horatio describes the portents preceding Caesar’s death and compares the Ghost’s
apparition to one of them. That is, it is a prophetic indication of negative events in their “country’s fate”, the
“precurse of feared events”. Hamlet is the last one to confirm the idea that the Ghost’s presence is a clear
sign that “all is not well”. In a subtle way Shakespeare alluded to the political issues of the Elizabethan reign.
(Essex’s rebellion).

Hamlet’s conversation with the Ghost, shapes, anticipates and reinforces several of the most important themes in the
play. The Ghost’s description of King Hamlet’s death highlights the comparison between the king’s body and the body
of the state. Hamlet’s father dies because Claudius pours a venom in his ear. The Ghost’s statement that “the whole ear
of Denmark/Is by a forged process of my death/Rankly abused” establishes an obvious link between the king’s body
and the body politic. By poisoning the king’s body, Claudius contaminates the state. When Hamlet’s father is murdered,
he dies without receiving the sacrament, confession or extreme unction. Thus, he dies in a sinful state. When Hamlet,
after testing Claudius’s guilt in his father’s death finds him praying, that is “in the purging of his soul” he decides not to
kill him because he would send him to heaven. The Ghost’s words to Hamlet about Claudius’s sexual relationship with
Gertrude have been considered by critics as the first textual reference that points to Gertrude’s sexual relationship with
Claudius before her husband’s death. What is certain is that the Ghost’s description of Gertrude as a “most seeming-
virtuous queen” and Hamlet’s assertion that “one may smile, and be a villain” reinforce one of the key issues in Hamlet,
that is, the discordance between reality and appearance and the fact that everybody in Denmark, except Horatio,
seems to be playing a role, at the same time that everybody acts as an audience, a witness of everybody else’s actions.
The Ghost’s revelations confirm Hamlet’s suspicions about his uncle’s nature. Hamlet is given the task of taking revenge,
which he will have to carry out after the Ghost leaves him. Hamlet is left in an agitated state that makes him see the
world as “out of joint” and himself as “born to set it right”.