Hamlet and Its Foul Ghost
Shakespeare has always been able to create characters richly dichotomous in nature. In “Hamlet, Prince of Denmark,” the portrayal of the ghost of Hamlet’s father vacillates through the play from Hamlet’s uncertainty of whether “it is an honest ghost” (144, l.5) or “a goblin damned” (40, l.4). In one sense, the ghost is honest in that he tells Hamlet the truth about his own murder Claudius is truly guilty. On the other hand, while the ghost appeals to Hamlet on the seemingly rational grounds of avenging “murder most foul” (28, l.5) “if thou didst ever thy dear father love?” (24, l.5), it is arguable that the ghost manipulates Hamlet to continue spreading the rottenness and foul play already present in Denmark. Just as Hamlet later accuses other characters of “putting on” or “playing” to him, it is also very likely that the ghost “puts on” for Hamlet by playing on Hamlet’s grief and love for his dead father, in order to get his revenge. The madness, destruction, and death which this leads Hamlet and almost every other character in the play to, suggests far from virtuous intentions on the ghost’s part. In parallel to Elizabethan ideas about the dead, it becomes clear how Shakespeare is able to dramatize Elizabethan uncertainty and fear of the dead through “Hamlet” while also commenting on the ambivalent nature of good and evil through the ghost’s similarly ambivalent nature.
Shakespeare purposefully portrays the nature of the ghost as intricate and complex by making the ghost a consummation of various Elizabethan ideas about the dead. Elizabethans thought the dead contacted the living for two reasons: to warn the living and make them reform, or to ensure through any means possible that the living remembered them. Elizabethans considered forgetting the dead to be a sin. Shakespeare’s ghost fulfills both these ideas by telling Hamlet not to “Let the royal bed of Denmark be/A couch for luxury and damned incest” (92, l.5).
The ghost comes to Hamlet in armed warrior costume already suggesting conflict and death. His vague allusions to his “prison house” reflect the Elizabethans’ ideas of purgatory:
Doomed for a certain term to walk the night,And for the day confined to fast in fires,Til the foul crimes done in my days of natureAre burnt and purged away. But that I am forbid To tell the secrets of my prison house, I could a tale unfold?(11, 1.5)
Interestingly enough, the ghost never says that by avenging his death, Hamlet will save the ghost from his present state of torture. Instead, the ghost will have to continue in purgatory “Til the foul crimes?” “are burnt and purged away” (13, l.5). This raises the idea that the ghost could be sincerely concerned with the debauchery in Denmark and indifferent to his own fate; Elizabethans viewed the present world as vile and in need of reform, placing great emphasis on the next world. On the other hand, it is possible that the ghosts wants the living to suffer simply because he has to suffer, less so, if at all, to set things right in Denmark. Again, this is supported by another Elizabethan notion that the dead are vindictive of the living for wrongs committed against them in the past, or simply because they are still alive.
This evil nature of the ghost is more likely, since the ghost gradually begins to emerge as an impure character. The ghost describes his murder as “foul and most unnatural” (28, l.5), suggesting that Claudius, who committed the sin, is also foul and unnatural. In the same passage, the ghost recognizes that his own “days of nature” are in the past, implying that he is now something unnatural. This places the ghost in the same group as Claudius who carried out the “foul and most unnatural” murder.
Above all, the fact that in Hamlet’s quest for revenge, there are a total of eight deaths Polonius, Ophelia, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Laertes, Claudius, Gertrude, and ultimately Hamlet himself supports the idea that the ghost is a messenger of evil. Again, Shakespeare emphasizes the image of rottenness spreading through Denmark. Perhaps it is the ghost’s desire to have Hamlet, as his son and heir, continue his reign of sin which he even admits to: “cut off even in the blossoms of my sin” (77, l.5). The possibility that Hamlet is the ghost’s tool of evil is supported by the fact that Hamlet is directly responsible for every death but his own and his mother’s. Even in these cases, Hamlet clearly welcomes, if not desires, his death as well as his mother’s. For example, when Polonius asks Hamlet, “Will you walk out of the air, my lord?” Hamlet replies, “Into my grave?” (210, l.2), suggesting to him that death is preferable than life. Similarly, when Hamlet finally slays Claudius, he says “Follow my mother,” condemning them both to death and hell without hesitation (329, l.5.2).
Certainly Hamlet is largely responsible for Ophelia’s death by cruelly driving her to madness through his own madness. He puts a curse on her: “I’ll give thee this plague for/thy dowry: be thou chaste as ice, pure as snow/thou shalt not escape calumny” (136, l.3.1). Tragically, these words emphasize the cruelty and madness in Hamlet’s transformed nature since it is likely that Hamlet and Ophelia have already consummated their love. Ophelia alludes to their sexual relationship when she admits to having “sucked the honey of his music vows” (159, l.3.1). “Blown youth/Blasted with ecstasy” implies a destruction of youth and innocence, by way of passion and ecstasy, clearly suggesting the classic de-flowering of a virginal maid. Ironically, Ophelia hands out flowers in the scene preceding her suicide.
Hamlet could have saved Ophelia from sin and death by marrying her. Instead he pushes her to her downfall?”I loved you not” (120, l.3.1) leaving her the only option Elizabethans believed they had in such a situation. Even Gertrude acknowledges this when she says to Ophelia’s corpse: “I thought thy bride-bed to have deck’d, sweet maid/And t’ have strew’d thy grave” (267, l.5.1). This implies that Ophelia’s “bride-bed” where she would have consummated a marriage with Hamlet has now become her deathbed. This supports the notion of Hamlet as the ghost’s instrument of evil.
While Hamlet may become an instrument of evil for the ghost, there is also evidence to suggest that Hamlet realizes this, yet continues on headstrong. While the ghost certainly plays on Hamlet’s vulnerable state, it is Hamlet in the end who consciously succumbs to madness through the ghost’s wishes. He even admits his madness to Laertes before they fight: “What I have done/That might your nature, honor, and exception/Roughly awake, I here proclaim was madness “(228, l.5.2). This also suggests that Hamlet feels remorse for Ophelia’s death.
In this sense, it is of Hamlet’s own free will that he descends into madness. At first sight of the ghost, Hamlet exclaims, “Angels and ministers of grace, defend us!” (39, l.4), as if to ward off an evil force. He admits the ghost “com’st in such a questionable shape” but is still intent on speaking to it. Here, Hamlet’s use of the word “shape” already hints at his knowledge that the ghost may “put on” or try to lead him astray. This echoes what Hamlet later says to Ophelia, and which is actually in reference to potentially everyone else in the play except Horatio: “God hath given you one face, you make/yourselves another” (145, l.3.1).
Despite his acknowledgement that the ghost may “Bring with thee airs from heaven or blasts from hell” (41, l.4), he feels a passionate need to fulfill the ghost’s wishes. For example, when the ghost pleads, “lend thy serious hearing,” (5, l.5), Hamlet replies “Speak, I am bound to hear” (7, l.5) as if he has no other choice. In addition, Hamlet says to Horatio at the close of Act One, “O cursed spite/That ever I was born to set it right!” (197, l.5). Here he feels that his very existence makes it his duty to right this wrong. Ironically, Hamlet rights this wrong by using a wrong murder and sin to make it “right.” Again, this points to the conclusion that Hamlet is being used by the ghost as an instrument of evil.
While the ghost may “play” Hamlet, the power of good ultimately wins at the close of the play when the state of Denmark is left in the virtuous hands of Fortinbras. Hamlet says to Horatio: “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends” (10, l.5.2). This could imply that Hamlet does view the ghost as a “divinity,” a messenger of God. It could also mean that the “divinity” he refers to is separate from the ghost, and that while the ghost may be leading Hamlet astray, it is what God intended for Hamlet.
Here, Hamlet can be viewed as a sacrificial figure who gives up his life for a moral and restored Denmark. Hamlet serves as the living force who reminds the sinners to honor and remember the dead. Certainly Shakespeare is commenting on the forces of good and evil God and the devil by allowing good to ultimately reign over Denmark. Simultaneously, Shakespeare comments on the ironic nature of revenge: Hamlet atones for the sin committed against his father by repeating the sin. Therefore, if the ghost is a messenger of evil, Shakespeare is doubting the ideas of absolute evil and absolute good, by having a gooda restored Denmark result from evil the ghost.
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