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 causes him to ask
questions and doubt the necessity of such an attack on Claudius. Hamlet starts
to consider the consequences of his actions and the possibility of damnation:

. . . The spirit that I have seen
May be a devil, and the devil hath power
T\' assume a pleasing shape, yea, and perhaps
Out of my weakness and my melancholy,
As he