Spectral Encounters: Hamlet and the Ghost

IN this article I examine the various appearances of the infamous Ghost that haunts the theatrical scenes of William Shakespeare’s famous play, Hamlet, which was written between 1599 and 1601. The Ghost is said to be the spirit of Hamlet’s father and was inspired by Shakespeare’s own familiarity with the story of a Jutish chieftain by the name of Horwendill, who had earlier appeared in two twelfth-century Danish manuscripts: the Chronicon Lethrense and the Gesta Danorum.

As the play begins, there are certain references that seem to indicate an uneasiness among the Castle Sentinels. Even before the audience has caught its first glimpse of the Ghost, it is clear that Barnardo and Marcellus have already witnessed something rather unusual. Horatio, rather doubtful that a supernatural event has taken place, is keen to know whether

this thing appear’d again tonight?

and when Barnardo answers him in the negative, Marcellus is aware that Horatio is unconvinced of the validity of such a tale:

Horatio says ’tis but our fantasy, And we will not let belief take hold of him

Marcellus, determined to prove to Horation that something very strange has occurred, has

entreated him along / With us to watch the minutes of this night,

although Horatio is still very firm in his dismissal of the whole affair:

Tush, tush, ’twill not appear.

Horatio is asked to sit down as Barnardo recounts

What we have two nights seen.

As Barnardo begins to tell his story, the Ghost suddenly appears to the great surprise of all three Sentinels. Barnardo is the first to recognise that the Ghost looks remarkably

like the King that’s dead

and when he asks Horatio for his opinion, Horatio is forced to admit the similarity –

Most like. It harrows me with fear and wonder.

– and asks:

What art thou that usurp’st this time of night? Together with that fair and warlike form In which the majesty of buried Denmark Did sometimes march?

We can learn a great deal from Horatio’s statement, such as the fact that the dead king has appeared in battle-dress. This suggests that all is not well, especially as Horatio is quite obviously taken aback by the warrior-like appearance of the Ghost. This indicates that the apparition is signalling the approach of a particularly bad period for Danish nation.

The Ghost does not remain still for long, and begins to stalk away. The Sentinels are curious as to the nature of such an episode and Horatio is clearly convinced that the Ghost is a representation of the country’s former king:

As thou art to thyself.

The Ghost had worn

the very armour he had on / When he th’ambitious Norway combatted

and had even resembled the king in a more idiosyncratic sense:

So frown’d he once, when in an angry parle / He smote the sledded Polacks on the ice.

Horatio is also fearful for the future –

This bodes some strange eruption to our state

– and suspects that the Ghost is an omen for Denmark’s impending doom. Marcellus also notes the militaristic overtones and makes references to warfare and weaponry, urging Horatio to elaborate upon the meaning of the Ghost’s martial appearance. Horatio’s reply gives the impression that there is an element of a sub-plot within the play, whereby the story in general is presently concurrently with the history of the deceased monarch’s struggle against Fortinbras of Norway, and attributes the form of the Ghost to the political turmoil in Denmark at the time –

And this, I take it, / Is the main motive of our preparations. / The source of this our watch, and the chief head / of this post-haste and rummage in the land

– a supposition with which Barnardo agrees:

I think it be no other but e’en so. / Well may it sort that this portentous figure / Comes armed through our watch so like the King / That was and is the question of these wars.

Horatio then remembers the Ides of March and the fall of Julius Caesar, inviting the audience to make a connection between the superstitious events which took place in Ancient Rome and what may well be the eventual decline of contemporary Denmark.

At this point in the play, it seems as though the sudden disappearance of the Ghost indicates that it was unwilling to elaborate upon the precise nature of its entrance, but the night-spirit soon appears once again. Horatio pleads with the Ghost to speak to him of the purpose of such a visitation and to reveal what lies in store for the country, but the Ghost disappears almost immediately as the cock begins to crow, signifying the approach of dawn. It is as though the spectre intended to convey an impression of national unrest, although it seemed that the Ghost also wanted the Sentinels to make Hamlet aware of its very appearance. This seemingly futile second visitation suggests that the Ghost had wished to speak to the Sentinels but that, with the arrival of morning, eventually ran out of time.

The fact that the figure departed with the crowing of the cock is extremely significant, representing a tradition that goes far back into antiquity; a period in which spirits are said to return to wherever they came from originally. As the first scene ends, the Sentinels agree that

Hamlet must be informed about the night’s events, with Horatio certain that

This spirit, dumb to us, will speak to him.

Hamlet is told about the appearance of the Ghost in Act II, Scene III, and is also convinced that it is indicative of increasing turmoil within Denmark:

My father’s spirit – in arms! All is not well.

The Ghost then appears for a third time, in Act I, Scene IV, on this occasion with Hamlet himself in attendance. Shortly before the arrival of the Ghost, Hamlet, Horatio and Marcellus are aware that it has gone midnight and that it

draws near the season / Wherein the spirit held his wont to walk

which, once again, remains keeping with the old European belief in ‘the witching hour’. When the Ghost suddenly appears in the middle of Hamlet’s philosophical soliloquy, the latter is extremely surprised. Hamlet is clearly keen to determine the actual nature of the Ghost –

Be thou a spirit of health or a goblin damn’d, / Bring with thee airs from heaven or blasts from hell, / Be thy intents wicked or charitable

– and is unsure whether it is good or evil. Hamlet obviously recognises the Ghost to be that of his late father –

I’ll call thee Hamlet, / King, father, royal Dane

– and entreats the vision to speak to him and

tell / Why thy canoniz’d bones, hearsed in death, / Have burst their cerements, why the sepulchre / Wherein we saw thee quietly inurn’d / Hath op’d his ponderous and marble jaws / To cast thee up again.

Apart from being curious as to the reason why his father has risen from the dead as a Ghost, Hamlet is also eager to determine what he requires of him:

Say why is this? Wherefore? What should we do?

The Ghost beckons to Hamlet to follow him to a place of seclusion and privacy, and seems eager to satisfy his curiosity, but Horatio and Marcellus suspect a trap and urge Hamlet not to follow. However, Hamlet is nonetheless determined to get to the root of the mystery and ignores their advice, seeing little harm in following a mere spirit, much to the frustration of the wary and protective Horatio.

The behaviour of the Ghost in continuing to summon Hamlet conveys immense importance and adds an element of great urgency to the play. Hamlet is aware of this –

It waves me still

– and continues to follow with both courage and obstinacy. Scene V opens with the primary dialogue between Hamlet and the dead king. Hamlet is impatient and beseeches the Ghost to stop and talk to him, whilst the Ghost, finally content that both he and Hamlet are alone, urges Hamlet to listen carefully as

My hour is almost come / When I to sulph’rous and tormenting flames / Must render up myself.

This suggests that the King has been residing in Purgatory, which, for the Church, denotes a spiritual antechamber in which one pays for sins committed during one’s lifetime and where the only means to obtain the eternal joys of heaven lies in attracting the prayers of the living.

Although Hamlet feels pity for his dead father, aware that he did not have time to receive Last Orders from a priest at the time of his death, the Ghost is unconcerned with this show of pity and merely wishes to relate his tale to Hamlet in the brief period that has been allocated to him.

In those sixteenth-century plays which are contemporary with Shakespeare’s own, there existed a large number of themes centred around revenge. This play is certainly no exception and we receive the first hint of a revenge plot in the words of the Ghost:

So art thou to revenge when thou shalt hear.

We then hear the Ghost confirm our suspicions about Purgatory, as he describes his twilight existence in the realm of spiritual turbulence:

Doom’d for a certain term to walk the night, / And for the day confin’d to fast in fires, / Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature / Are burnt and purg’d away.

The Ghost then explains why he is forbidden to relate the actual details to any living person and warns the young Hamlet that

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, / Thy knotted and combined locks to part, / And each particular hair to stand on end / Like frills upon the fretful porpentine.

Subsequently, Hamlet realises why his father has appeared to him in such a manner and the Ghost claims that he must

Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder

which was

Murder most foul, as in the best it it, / But this most foul, strange and unnatural.

Hamlet is more than willing to avenge what has been described as ‘foul murder,’ but requires more information as to how and why his dear father came upon such a violent and untimely end.

The Ghost then begins to describe how he was murdered by drawing a comparison between a ‘serpent’ and his murderer, accusing Hamlet’s own uncle of committing the foul deed and of wearing his crown. Naturally, Hamlet is astonished by such a claim and the audience, by this time deeply engrossed in the events of the play, are then subjected to the Ghost’s main soliloquy.

The accusative speech of the Ghost tells us a good deal about what has taken place, referring to the new King as

Ay, that incestuous, adulterate beast,

and charges him with the seduction of his

most seeming-virtuous queen,

bringing into question the very purity of the Queen herself. Indeed, when the Ghost describes her relationship with Hamlet’s uncle as descending

Upon a wretch whose natural gifts were poor / To those of mine

it reflects the base immorality of their incestuous lust for one another, especially when equated with


The act of murder itself is then described to Hamlet and what the Ghost described as a ‘serpent’ is most certainly Cornelius, who poured poison into the King’s ear whilst he slept in his orchard. The effects of this poison are also described in some detail, possibly to acquaint Hamlet with the full horror of his father’s death and encourage him to seek revenge as part of his duty. The Ghost sadly relates how his death was made even worse by his state of mortal sin. The condition of the nation itself is also referred to –

Let not the royal bed of Denmark be / A couch for luxury and damned incest

– which gives extra credence to a forthcoming political sub-plot. As the Ghost finally departs, he asks his son to remember him and Hamlet faithfully pledges to do so, now thirsting for revenge.

When Horatio and Marcellus find Hamlet alone, the latter asks the men to swear absolute secrecy and when Marcellus tells him

We have sworn, my lord, already,

the voice of the Ghost orders them to swear once again, this time upon Hamlet’s sword, as if to confirm the extreme gravity of the entire affair.

The final appearance of the Ghost takes place in the Queen’s closet during Act III, Scene IV, after Hamlet has told his mother how Cornelius had murdered the former King. Hamlet attributes this latest encounter with the Ghost to his own perpetual neglect of duty and as a result of not carrying out the act of revenge. He asks the Ghost:

Do you not come your tardy son to chide, / That laps’d in time and passion, lets go by / Th’important acting of your dread command? / O say.

The Ghost begins to answer Hamlet with the words

Do not forget

which suggests that Hamlet has indeed forgotten the parting words that were uttered by the Ghost during their first encounter. the Ghost is also clearly concerned about the Queen, asking Hamlet to comfort her during her struggle to come to terms with the damning words of her son. This scene is also important in that the Queen does not actually see the Ghost herself, believing Hamlet to have been subject to nothing more than an hallucinatory vision as a consequence of what she deems to be his insanity:

O gentle son, / Upon the heat and flame of thy distemper / Sprinkle cool patience. Whereon do you look?

Hamlet urges his mother to see the Ghost for herself as it begins to steal away towards the portal, but she cannot see anything. This denotes that the Ghost only wanted his son to see him, especially as Horatio, Barnardo and Marcellus had also witnessed its appearance on previous occasions in Scene I. The stage directions of the play present the Ghost in a nightgown, which bis certainly a major departure from his original appearance in full battle-dress. This change suggests that the Ghost is making Hamlet draw upon his mother’s conscience by appearing in the form that she and her son would have commonly recognised during his life. This has an effect on the Queen and she begins to take Hamlet seriously, asking –

What shall I do?

– to which Hamlet replies that she must reject the incestuous advances of his uncle, and that he has only been feigning madness and displaying such behaviour prior to carrying out his father’s lust for revenge.

Finally, the way in which the Ghost appears throughout the play is a method of manipulating Hamlet and ensuring that he does not forget the momentous task that lies before him. This is achieved, not merely through speech, but also by using the clothing of the Ghost to make an association with with particular events and situations.

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