Shakespeare\'s Definition Of A Ghost


Shakespeare’s Definition of a Ghost
The American Heritage Dictionary, published in 1973, defines a ghost as, "the spirit or shade of a dead person, supposed to haunt living persons or former habitats." Unfortunately, this simple definition does not explain where a ghost comes from or why it haunts. When used in the context of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, this definition seems to suggest that the ghost who visits Hamlet truly is his dead father seeking revenge. To the modern reader, this straightforward interpretation adequately characterizes the ghost and his purpose; however, to the Elizabethan audience the ghost’s identity proved more complex. For the Elizabethans, four different types of ghosts existed, each with its own purpose and qualities. Before they could determine the meaning behind the ghost’s appearance, the Elizabethans had to classify the ghost in one of the four categories. Similar to the modern definition, the Elizabethans believed in the possibility of the ghost being an actual dead person sent to perform some task or mission. On the other hand, the ghost could be the devil disguised in the form of a deceased loved one, tempting to procure the soul of one of the living. The nonbelievers among the Elizabethans saw ghosts as omens, telling of troubled time ahead, or simply as the hallucinations of a crazed person or group. Shakespeare recognized the complexity of the Elizabethan ghost’s identity and played off of the confusion, making the question of identity a key theme to his play. Throughout Hamlet Shakespeare explores each of the possible identities of the ghost with each one adding a new twist to Hamlet’s plight.
When news of the ghost’s presence first reaches Hamlet and Horatio, they declare it an omen of forthcoming evil. Hamlet’s reaction indicates that he is not surprised, "My father’s spirit - in arms? All is not well. / I doubt some foul play. Would the night were come! / Till then sit still, my soul. Foul deeds will rise, / Though all the earth o’erwhelm them, to men’s eyes" (I.iii.255-259). Hamlet already believes that Gertrude has committed a "foul deed" in marrying Claudius and the ghost’s appearance supports Hamlet’s anger. At the time, Hamlet does not know of his father’s murder, but he suspects there may be more behind the ghost’s appearance and he is anxious to learn its complete meaning. Horatio, too, sees the ghost as an omen, but he also realizes that the omen may mean the downfall of them all, "In what particular thought to work I know not; / But, in gross and scope of my opinion, / This bodes some strange eruption to our state" (I.i.67-69). Thus, as an omen, the ghost does little more than foreshadow the coming tragedy in Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
When Hamlet first encounters the ghost he truly believes it is his father. Perhaps out of shock, Hamlet quickly certifies the validity of the ghost, "It is an honest ghost, that let me tell you" (I.v.138). Hamlet’s trust in the ghost causes him to promise revenge before he has clearly processed the possible consequences; Hamlet does not ask questions, he simply believes. According to custom, if a father was killed it was up to the son to seek the proper reparations, often the death of the murderer. Thus it is no wonder that Hamlet’s thoughts rapidly turn toward revenge once he hears the ghost’s story. Hamlet cannot be blamed for his initial trust; it is typical of a first emotional reaction to rush blindly without considering consequences or repercussions. Furthermore, Shakespeare makes it clear at the beginning of the play that Hamlet’s mourning is especially deep and prolonged, "How is it that the clouds still hang on you?" (I.ii.65) questions Claudius. Hamlet wants to believe the ghost because its presence allows him to converse with a father he so dearly misses, and whose untimely death prevented Hamlet from saying his proper good-bye.
Hamlet’s initial trust and belief quickly dissipates as he begins to have doubts; in fact, Hamlet’s view of the ghost reverses and he comes to see it as the devil disguised as his dead father. Within a relatively short period of time, Hamlet emotionally changes from extreme trust to extreme distrust. While at first he anxiously seeks revenge, his new view of the ghost