What is the Role of the Ghost in Hamlet?
Shakespeare never allows the supernatural to take the upper hand in the dramatic action of his tragedies. Shakespeare’s tragic world is essentially the human world in which man initiates actions and pursues them to their true end; they suffer for their own deed that issues out of their own characters. But Shakespeare thus makes an efficient use of the supernatural to add extra significance to the meaning of his plays. The appearance of the three witches in Macbeth and of the ghost of Hamlet’s father in Hamlet are two brilliant examples of the use of supernatural in his plays. These supernatural elements add an extra dimension of mystery and fear. The world we live in is not wholly intelligible to us. There are mysterious forces working and shaping our destiny when the ghost arrives from the other world. He comes bursting the frame of mortal understanding; he comes as a traveler from that country “from whose bourn no traveller returns.” The knowledge, the secret that the ghost brings with it not only puts Hamlet into a whirlwind of emotional response, it also denotes that something is rotten behind the happy and prosperous facade of the Danish Court. How murder has been committed and a betrayal of the worst kind has taken place.
The ghost is also structurally important in the play because real actions start with the ghost’s revelation of the secret to Hamlet. It is the commandment of the ghost to take revenge against Claudius that makes Hamlet put on “antique disposition” to plan the play within the play and to seek an opportunity to execute his task of revenge. The ghost reappears in the scene with Hamlet’s mother. Hamlet has been delaying in taking his revenge and the ghost reappears to remind him of his neglected duty.
The Elizabethan audience had a mixed attitude towards ghosts. They neither disbelieved their existence nor did they take them as a reality. The opening scene of Hamlet is one of the most striking openings in Shakespeare’s dramas. The whole world is asleep at midnight; only three watchmen are keeping watch in darkness and awaiting the arrival of a ghost with frightened hearts. The sense is a mystery and ominous overtakes the characters on the stage, as well as the audience critics, are almost unanimous in praising the creation of the atmosphere of uncertainty, suspense mystery, and fear in the opening scene.
Hamlet first meets the ghost of his dead father in Act-1, scene IV, and scene V. The ghost reveals a terrible secret that his uncle Claudius murdered his father by pouring poison into his ear when the king had died of a serpent’s sting. But the ghost says to Hamlet-
“The serpent that stung thy father’s life, now wears his crown”
The ghost, although now only a ghost retains some of the human feelings and emotions, it talks about the queen’s fickleness and shows his grief’s over her hasty remarriage. He also speaks in very harsh words of the murderer who has not only usurped the throne of Denmark but won the queen to his shameful lust. The ghost lays the duty of revenge on Hamlet:-
“If thou hart nature in thee,
Bear it not,
Let not the royal bed of Denmark
A couch for luxury and damned incest.”
But even in his indignation, the ghost shows wonderful chivalry towards the erring queen. It forbids Hamlet to do anything against his mother and—
“To leave to happen
And to those thorns that in her bosom badge
To prick and sting her.”
The ghost is thus an integral part of the structural design of the play. It provides the hero with the motive for revenge and thus initiates the tragic action. The ghost is indispensable from the point of view of the plot which hinges on the secret revealed by it to Hamlet. The impact of its appearance on Hamlet’s mind is tremendous. Hamlet’s known world is certainly usurped by the mysterious world of the dead. Hamlet immediately resolves to carry out the ghost’s order. But as the days pass we find Hamlet in a despondent mood, as he finds this task of killing a murderer irksome.
The second appearance of the ghost takes place in Act-III, Scene- IV, when Hamlet is talking to his mother in her chamber. This time it is visible only to Hamlet, while Hamlet’s mother feels surprised to see Hamlet gazing at nothing. In the first appearance, it was visible to Marcellus, Bernardo, Horatio, and Hamlet. So it had an objective existence, it was not just a figment of Hamlet’s imagination. But in the second appearance, it seems to be a hallucination of his guilty conscience. His conscience comes in the form of the ghost urging and spurring him to take revenge.
Shakespeare makes the ghost plausible to the audience by humanizing it. It is significant that after the closet scene, it does not appear again. By this time Hamlet has got the complete proof of Claudius’s guilt, this problem of “to be or not to be” is resolved. The ghost as an initiator and supporter of an action becomes redundant.