Taking the Ghost's Word: Transcendence and the Rationale of Hamlet's Choices in William Shakespeare’s
HAMLET. Angels and ministers
of grace defend us!
Be thou a spirit of health or goblin damned,
Bring with thee airs from heaven or blasts from hell,
Be thy intents wicked or charitable,
Thou com’st in such a questionable shape
That I will speak to thee . . . (1.4.20-25).
Although the ghost in
William Shakespeare’s Hamlet purportedly appears “in the same figure like the King that’s dead,”
any attempt at using words in the play appears woefully inadequate when the characters try to describe the phenomena to which
they are witness (1.1.39). Worse yet, formulating decisions based upon acceptance
of this eerily transcendent figure's unsubstantiated words leads Hamlet, the protagonist, inexorably to the plays tragic end
for it is the insubstantial ghost which seemingly drives the concrete action of the play.
As the audience, we see that Hamlet’s own misgivings and the misgivings of other characters reflect our own doubts,
particularly when faced with the ghostly form of what we may assume to be the spirit of Hamlet’s dead father. Many critics like Harold R. Walley buy into the assumption that Hamlet was indeed “called upon for
vengeance by the ghost of his murdered father” (784). M. D. Faber accepts
the plays premise as well, taking for granted the identity of “the ghost”
as “Hamlet’s father”
attempting to determine whether or not the ethereal figure is even a “‘real’ ghost” or, in fact, a
creation of Hamlet’s tormented imagination (132). Yet for all that,
the rationale behind Hamlet's choices derives from one unmistakable act of faith in the ghost's testimony, and by exploring
the root of this faith in the play we may discover something about ourselves, as I shall explore below.
This question as to the
ghost's identity touches upon the very same issue of transcendence and knowledge that we sometimes face in our own lives as
we struggle to give meaning to events which shatter our conception of the world. There
exist questions in the minds of the characters and audience alike, uncertainties that are as haunting and familiar as the
ghost itself. “Spectators,” writes Aaron Landau, “would have
found the ghost in the play at least as ’questionable’ as the characters do” (222). We are little different from our Elizabethan counterparts in longing to comprehend the nature of this
visitor from another place and time, for etymologically a ghost represents not a natural phenomena of the here-and-now, but
rather a supernatural, spiritual one that is said to propel itself from the dark grave of yesterday into the current world
of the living. Landau asserts quite skillfully “disagreement about ghosts,
firmly embedded in contemporary religious debates, were pretty much the order of the day” during England’s
Reformation (221-22). Thus, in “a world where the very fundamentals of
religious knowledge were continuously contended . . . the ghost functions as the very emblem of such confusion” (220,
221). I could not be in more agreement with Landau’s acute assessment. I would add further that 400 years later, neither religion nor technology has brought
us any closer to an understanding of that which is transcendent and metaphysical. Still,
on many levels, humans often tend to put faith into metaphysical phenomena, sometimes
to the point of sacrificing their own lives while carrying out the mission of a mysterious, ambiguous supernatural figure.
Linguistically, I would note how the application of reliable and original literary critique requires a
certain subset of knowledge upon which to base one’s literary theories and assertions.
One could argue from a post-structuralist view that practically nothing within the work can be known because of a combination
of the ambiguity of language, interpretive fissures and aporia. Yet where issues concerning transcendent concepts and the supernatural arise, ambiguity and linguistic
inadequacy always lead to unreliable interpretations, faulty logic and weak conclusions, just as they do in our own world. More importantly, language fails us in our attempt to understand and decipher that
which is inherently indecipherable simply because we have no common experiential denominator with the transcendent from which
to share and draw upon, unlike our physical existence from which we share a common, quantifiable experience.
So why, then, does the
image of the ghost and its foreboding testimony strike a cord with our human nature, so much so that we are still discussing
the impact of the ethereal figure and its words four centuries later? Although
audiences in the modern, post-industrial world may inherently scoff at the idea of the existence of real ghosts -- due in
part to the rational, almost nihilistic, scientific method – we nonetheless have little problem accepting the premise
of Shakespeare's play and, ultimately, the ghost's account of the story and its call for revenge. Somehow, we seemingly suspend disbelief and allow the ghost's words to lap at the shore of our own consciousness
even as we struggle with the concepts of transcendence, the afterlife and our own mortality.
One could argue the necessity of accepting Shakespeare’s premise that the
ghost is the father of Hamlet without reservation, yet this makes for poor critical
investigation and may cheat careful readers out of a wealth of theatrical and literary interpolation and extrapolation, particularly
when examining Hamlet's faith in the spirit in relation to the faith many in the audience carry with them both then and now.
“What art thou .
. . ” are Horatio’s first words spoken to the ghost, a rhetorical question that readers and audience members alike
cannot help but ask themselves (1.1.44). The first impulse of the characters
in the play is, naturally, to accept the apparition as what it appears to be: the “image” of the “last king”
(1.1.79-80). As the ghostly figure first arrives in Act 1 Scene 1, Barnardo
cries out, “Looks it not like the King?” and when Marcellus, too, asks, “Is it not like the King?”
Horatio responds, “As thou art to thyself” (1.1.41, 57-58). Neither
common soldier nor aristocrat can ignore the striking resemblance the ghost bears to the former king of Denmark. In an eloquent assessment
of the problem the ghostly spirit represents in Hamlet, Alice Brittan observes the following:
“The impossible question [‘What art thou?’] resonates, repeating
anxious interrogations that open the play, and showing us that haunted
men become fastidious about identifying the living because there are no
answers to the questions ‘What art thou?’ and ‘Who is there?’
make an apparition knowable or explain its trespass” (40-41).
for mortals, there remains nothing but inadequate knowledge and the word of the ostensibly unfathomable entity - “I
am thy father’s spirit” - upon which to base their belief (1.5.9). For
Hamlet, that claim – and his faith in the supernatural – becomes everything,
forsaking “all trivial fond records” of family, friends and even love as he moves forward in a religious-like
pilgrimage of faith alone (1.5.99). We find this scene repeated daily throughout
much of human history as devout adherents of one religion or another base their actions upon faith without the slightest regard
for empirical evidence.
Although, as Walley observes,
Hamlet is “disillusioned . . . with even the validity of his father's ghost,” the protagonist nonetheless tells
Horatio after the presentation of “The Mousetrap” that “I'll take the Ghost's word for a thousand pound,”
illustrating to the contrary that Hamlet indeed possesses a zealot-like adherence to the ghost's words (Walley 794) (3.2.217,
263-64). The fact that the king rises and departs after the scene in which the
players unknowingly reenact old Hamlet's murder does not necessarily imply that the ghost's account of events is wholly accurate. There is limited textual evidence to suggest little more than the fact that Claudius
appears guilty of a crime, not necessarily that he is guilty of murder exactly how it appeared. Yet like Hamlet, readers and audiences alike want to believe in the ghost’s testimony and in that
witness Claudius as guilty. Although the scene of false repentance assures the
audience that Hamlet's uncle did kill the rightful king, at no time does Claudius admit to the details of the crime, only
that the crime was committed. We may assume that the ghost's tale is factually
accurate, but is it possible that the theme – rather than the finer details - of the enacted death scene did just as
much to prompt the guilt-stricken Claudius to flee the room? As Landau observes,
“the fact that the King rises in the middle of the play itself does not necessarily prove his guilt” in as far
as it provides a “'decisive' epistemological tool” for assessing the truth of the ghost's claim (227). There remains about the ghost an air of unknowability and suspicion that cannot be easily erased with
the creation of one play-within-a-play. Instead
of introducing an element of secure knowledge into the larger play Hamlet, the ghost represents all that is unknowable
and uncertain, a world, in the words of Landau, of “religious opacity,” “partial judgments, and theological
As example, take the story
of Jesus Christ's crucifixion and his later appearance before the disciples. Near
countless generations of faithful over two millennia have put their faith into the testimony of a few witnesses who allegedly
chronicled the events of Jesus' death and resurrection. Like those who espouse
concrete religious convictions, Hamlet and the others – despite any claims of apprehension – readily believe the
ghostly entity. It appears to be a faith – theatrical or real - that both mirrors the faith that Renaissance characters would have had in Christianity even as they struggle
to rectify inconsistencies in religious dogma that science had begun to uncover in matters such as the Copernican Revolution. It is in this context that Shakespeare crafts the play to convey an artful sense
of verisimilitude. Although Elizabethan audiences and characters alike may struggle
with an epistemology that includes ghosts, demons and the like, the very fact that Protestant and Catholic teachings allow
for faith in the transcendent, ever-present spiritual world by necessity dictates at least the possibility that, like Christ,
the ghost is real although not readily understood.
Additionally, Susan Zimmerman
utilizes psychoanalytic critical theory in a similar attempt to unmask and make sense of the ghostly armored figure. She poignantly states that although “the
ghost replicates the living King Hamlet,” his appearance “evokes an unsettling question: who/what inhabits this
dead-Hamlet-armor” (105)? There exists a certain duality of existence
which touches upon the idea that ultimately what lies inside the visible exterior is unknowable:
“. . . what makes [old Hamlet] an 'illusion' is the mystery within. The
singularity of this revenant is that its indeterminate
status . . . is literally
figured as a contradiction: steel exterior vs. 'no/thing,' an apprehensible
outside enclosing and containing an unviewable exterior” (105-6).
Zimmerman believes that the being inside the armor is a “corpse,” she notes that “in the end the paradox
of Shakespeare's material/indeterminate ghost eludes captivation” (106-07).
It is a sound argument,
for Zimmerman touches upon the very issue that I have been addressing here, namely the fact that the entity is ultimately,
like our faith or lack thereof, unknowable as all attempts to quantify the transcendent figure result in failure since the
“apparition emblematizes an unfixable margin between life/death” (106).
The human experience cannot allow, I assert, even a cognitive journey to the “undiscovered country” of
the afterlife, for since none have ever returned to report on the realm of the metaphysical, it therefore lies incongruous
with temporal human understanding (3.1.81). This is why we find the characters
of Shakespeare's play attempting, albeit haphazardly, to categorize and compartmentalize their experience with the abstract
entity, to make some kind of objective delineation within their minds that allows them to process that which is unequivocally
beyond their understanding just like they do when they adhere to a religious faith. Thus we find Horatio, presumably a “scholar” and intellectual, supplying
potential rational explanations for the ghost's appearance as he attempts to speak with the spirit for the last time: “If there be any good thing to be done . . . If thou are privy to thy country's
fate . . . Or if thou hast uphoarded in thy life extorted treasure . . . speak of it, stay and speak.” (1.1.111-20). In attempting to decipher the meaning of the ghost's
visit, Horatio and the soldiers are confronted with the problem of probing “the inexpressible” (Zimmerman 107). Their lack of belief and fright can even be said to mirror that of the apostles in
the New Testament of the Bible when Jesus appears after his crucifixion:
“In their panic and fright they thought they were seeing a ghost. [Jesus]
said to them, 'Why are you disturbed? Why do such ideas cross your
mind? Look at my hands and feet; it is really I.
Touch me, and see that a
ghost does not have flesh and bones as I do'”
(New American Bible, Luke 24.37-39).
though Christ's appearance above illustrates that he is not a ghost, the characters in
Hamlet such as Barnardo, Marcellus and Horatio experience profound fear upon sighting this all-too-real ghostly
figure, and though they recognize the ghost as appearing like old Hamlet, they still wonder at the sight. Fifteen centuries after Christ's appearance, audiences recognize and accept at least the possibility of
the appearance of transcendent characters in a ghost-like form, whether real
or not. Still, such supernatural appearances
are beyond the experience of those who witness the event, and witnesses are faced with the prospect of either accepting
the appearance as real or doubting its existence. This, I assert, is part of
the allure of the ghost in Shakespeare's Hamlet and what compels us to accept the playwright's proposition, for faith
is a shared sociological and cultural experience which even atheists can define if not understand. Without willing it, the ghost impacts us all.
Yet the most important
figure in the tragedy, and the personage most affected by the ghostly visitor is Prince Hamlet, son of the dead king and nephew
to the new king, Claudius, since it is Hamlet for whom the ghost reserves his words
of “fearful summons” and from whom the driving action of the play henceforth is derived (1.2.130). Coupled with the inherent lack of knowledge about anything concerning the nature of the ghost, nearly
all subsequent actions which Hamlet takes balances precariously upon this epistemological precipice. Landau would agree: “As in the beginning of the play, so in its
later phases, it is the insufficiency or absence of knowledge which marks the actual turn of events” in the play (228). Hamlet, already steeped in misery and speculation in Act 1 Scene 2 of the play, is
virtually preconditioned to accept the veracity of the ghost’s identity, and although the protagonist vacillates between
belief in the ghost’s story and moralistic self-doubt, he nevertheless capitulates to the spirit’s command though
in a way he could never have foreseen. In fact, it is the impetus of the ghost's
words calling for revenge that propel the tragic hero down a road of destruction. “Hamlet's
attitude toward Ophelia,” says Carol J. Carlisle, commenting on the play's complexity as seen from the actors' perspective,
is the result of “changes in his outlook which must have developed between the Ghost scene and the nunnery scene”
(139). Moreover, I believe that it is the inexplicable influence of the play's
least understandable and, therefore, least reliable character – the ghost – that is responsible for all of the
mayhem and bloodshed of both the innocent and the guilty. Thus, as the spirit
unfolds its purgatorial “tale…whose lightest word would harrow” Hamlet’s “soul,” the latter
substitutes visceral trust in place of rational skepticism (1.5.15-16). In telling
its story, however, the ghost leaves us with more questions than it answers.
For example, in descriptive
language nearly as reminiscent of hell as it is of purgatory, the ghost says he is “doomed for a certain term to walk
the night . . . till the foul crimes done away in [his] days of nature are burnt and
purged away” (1.5.10-14). Dennis Taylor’s review of Stephen Greenblatt’s
Hamlet in Purgatory points out that part of the “genius of Shakespeare”
lies in his “accomplishment of ambiguous nuance” in describing a ghost in purgatory (337). It is likely that most contemporary audiences easily understand the purgatorial reference, yet an allusion
to this theological view of the afterlife does not necessarily imply truth. Like
the near countless variations of the Western Christian tradition, truth seems to grow increasingly subjective. The ghost’s words certainly conform to Renaissance views widely held by Roman Catholics and would
have been generally understood by audiences whether in theologically schizophrenic Elizabethan England or today. Just what that “certain term” may be is left unmentioned as the ghost is “forbid to
tell the secrets of [its] prison-house” (1.5.13-14). Yet forbid by whom
we are never told and are left to puzzle whether the forbidder is God, an angel, a devil or some other Dantean-like entity. Unsatisfying though the explanation may be, the ghost dismisses smartly any further
explanation by asserting “. . . this eternal blazon must not be to ears of flesh and blood” (1.5.21-22). For audiences and readers alike, the ghost’s tidy explanation is not wholly
unlike the mystery of any religion which ultimately also demands an acceptance of its own internal premise just as we see
in Hamlet. In this light, we can
certainly understand how Hamlet’s faith in the transcendent mirrors our own subliminal urge to believe in something
Such a description of
the afterlife, however, is far from convincing. Should we choose to accept the premise of the play as the protagonist has done, it is not altogether unlikely that a demon would
be as privy to the conditions in purgatory as any soul residing there. Were
Satan himself to stand before Hamlet in the gossamer-steel trappings of his departed
father, we would expect no less a harrowing description of a sinner’s afterlife, and with the ignoble, biblical title
of “liar and the father of liars,” it is not beyond the devil’s ability to deceive Hamlet and the other
soldiers -- including the audience (John 8.42). After all, did not Satan allegedly
deceive the perfect progenitors of all men and women, Adam and Eve? Yet quite
like modern audiences, the characters seek to understand the ghost in terms of their religious upbringing, for by its very
nature, the language of the ghost recalls the imagery of Judeo-Christian theology to which many of us have at least been introduced
if not inculcated. As we struggle, therefore, to comprehend the ethereal entity's
appearance and words, we imitate the act of faith which countless others have done over the centuries and continue to do today. Faith and doubt, in fact, work in tandem in the listener's mind, a spiritual polar
opposition in which the one cannot be defined without the other. Though many
have faith, like Hamlet there nevertheless remains the specter of doubt.
Textually, even, there
is no factual assertion from the ghost that it hails from purgatory, although this is what many believe. Hamlet himself admits this much on the eve of the play-within-a-play: “The spirit that I have seen
may be the devil, and the devil hath power t'assume a pleasing shape; yea, and perhaps, out of my weakness and my melancholy
. . . abuses me to damn me” (3.1.575-80). Paul Dean, reviewing Stephen
Greenblatt's Hamlet in Purgatory, says that although “Greenblatt proves . . . the Ghost does indeed come from
Purgatory . . . what he cannot prove is that its claim is reliable,
after all, if it is a devil, this is exactly the sort of claim it would make anyway” (521). And Dean points out rather smartly that due to “the uncertainty about the Ghost, its appearance
is not proof of anything about the afterlife” (522). Reason, then,
appears almost diametrically opposed to faith although Hamlet, certainly an example
of forethought and reason, struggles to believe despite the lack of credible evidence.
It is ironic that the least credible figure in the play turns out to be the one entity whom the serious Hamlet desires
most to believe.
For example, after a tantalizing,
albeit horrific, glimpse into the daily life of its nether existence, the ghost requests that which is perhaps the most troublesome
and enigmatic part of the scene:
List, Hamlet, list, O list!
If thou didst ever thy dear father love-
HAMLET. O God!
GHOST. Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder (1.5.22-25).
a request introduces a moral quandary into the fabric of the play that results, ultimately, in widespread and tragic repercussions. Since the figure is “doomed for a certain term” in what we assume to
be a hellish purgatory, it is inexplicable why the tormented soul would not seek prayers and indulgences over vows of vengeance
(1.5.10). David Scott Kastan notes the peculiar moral dilemma the protagonist
faces: “Revenge is, as Hamlet reluctantly discovers, a desperate mode of imitation, avenging wrongs with wrongs”
(113). Kastan points towards what at first reciting appears to be a rather innocuous
error in memory on the part of Hamlet that is, in fact, quite revealing of the internal struggle Hamlet is undergoing while
trying to resolve his ethical problem. The reference
is to Pyrrhus, a Classical Greek figure from the Trojan war who kills King Priam of the Trojans out of vengeance: “The
rugged Pyrrhus, like th’ Hyrcanian beast ‘Tis not so. It begins
with Pyrrhus- The rugged Pyrrhus, he whose sable arms . . .” (Kastan, 113) At least on a subconscious level, Kastan explains, “In projecting Pyrrhus as
‘th’ Hyrcanian beast [tiger],’ Hamlet betrays his unwanted awareness that revenge is an inhuman and pointless
activity” (114). Does this experience, too, reflect that of audiences
or has Shakespeare strayed too far from any semblance of verisimilitude?
Historically, I believe
we find that indeed the playwright has struck a cord with audiences everywhere, for the familiar literary motif of revenge
and spirituality pervades many religious texts. From God’s Old Testament
commands that the Israelites wipe out whole communities of enemies to the modern rise in popularity of mediums who can allegedly
speak with the dead, there exists some measure of willingness to believe, at least literarily, in the possibility of transcendent
calls for revenge from spirits not of this world. It is an all-too-human endeavor.
In a thought-provoking work, though, that strives to comprehend the apparent irony of this call for revenge, Grace
Tiffany questions whether in actuality “the Ghost’s request for revenge is the play’s greatest oxymoron
– a virtuous sin” (113). “Paradoxically,” notes Tiffany,
“Hamlet’s revenge must work like . . . a prayer” that releases his father’s spirit from further suffering
(123). She goes on to argue that revenge is actually “necessary for the
moral health of the state” and that “his impulse for private revenge is expanded into – even ennobled by
– a kingly concern for the moral welfare” of Denmark (120, 118). Regardless of the spirit’s “personal intentions,” it is ultimately Providence that works out a plan for Claudius’ redemption as “the soul in Purgatory
works to guide a living man heavenward by prompting his penitence” (116, 113).
Yet for all that, I believe Tiffany makes three errors that undermine the validity of her argument in as far as it
is applies to a shared human – not just an inter-textual - experience. The first is self-contradictory:
Ghost, like his brother, has been a usurper. Fortinbras’s patrimony
been wrongfully won, staked on the outcome of a
not from advice and consent, but from two men’s ‘emulate
point is that part of the old king’s “foul crimes” includes denying Fortinbras part of his inheritance when
the Danish king, challenged to combat by the Norwegian king, slew the old Fortinbras (127).
Thus, Tiffany surmises, by “delivering Denmark
to Fortinbras, Hamlet rectifies both Old Hamlet’s foreign usurpation [of Norwegian lands] and Claudius’s more
insidious domestic one” (129). My dissension, however, is that the whole
of Denmark is not in contention between the fathers of Hamlet and Fortinbras, only that property of which King Hamlet, “by
sealed compact well ratified by law and heraldry” did win in combat (1.1.85-86). Both
kings, it is important to note, wagered “a moiety competent” - or equal portion – of land which went to
the victor (1.1.89). By suggesting “the Ghost’s final peace is dependent
on Denmark’s restoration of Fortinbras’s
rights,” Tiffany disavows the prehistory of the play as told by Horatio and effectively annuls a legally binding contract
between rightful kings (127). How she rectifies this contradiction is never
argument makes the assumption that since Claudius unrightfully wrested the kingship away from his brother by committing regicide,
the repentance of Claudius remains the ghost’s ultimate goal. Yet “without
objective proof of his guilt,” writes Robert Palfrey Utter, Jr., “. . . everyone would have looked upon Hamlet
as the murderer instead of Claudius” (143).
“Hamlet could never have proved Claudius’ guilt; instead, he would have
been the guilty one. Nothing would have been righted in any sense of
word; instead, wrongs would have been multiplied” (143).
argue, though, that Hamlet’s killing of Claudius and all of the bedlam which ensued in the closing scene never did prove
Claudius guilty of murdering the old king. Laertes only informed the onlookers
of Claudius’s double plan to kill Hamlet, which was not altogether a secret since official news of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s
death was to arrive shortly, and Claudius himself – utilizing the same argument Tiffany makes to justify Claudius death
-- may have been perceived as justified, in the end, of attempting to protect the state of Denmark by ridding it of an apparent
murderous madman, namely Hamlet. Gertrude, poisoned by the cup meant for Hamlet,
knew nothing of the truth, and Horatio, whom one might think would serve as adequate witness to the truth of these events,
was witness to nothing except hearsay. Hamlet told him what the ghost said,
Hamlet told him of the execution letter to the king of England,
and at no time did Horatio personally hear, see or otherwise witness anything incriminating Claudius for old Hamlet’s
murder. And, of course, it is unlikely the ghost will be coming out of the shadows anytime soon to testify on Hamlet’s behalf.
In all, there is nothing in the final scene, no cathartic event of revelatory significance, that proves Claudius’s
guilt. All that remains is Horatio’s third-party story and much conjecture.
The third error Tiffany
makes is not wholly unlike that made by both the characters and many critics of the
play, namely assuming that the supernatural entity is indeed what it claims to be: the spirit of Hamlet's departed father. Once we give in to the understandable compulsion to simply accept the ghost's word
at face value in order to understand the play, we unintentionally divest ourselves of
any responsibility of holding the creature up to scrutiny and, like the protagonist, engage in a true act of faith. And, as critic Anna K. Nardo observes, the Ghost makes “two sets of contradictory demands”
on Hamlet, namely “‘Avenge my murder’” and don’t
“‘allow your character to become depraved’” (187). How
Hamlet can contemplate revenge and keep his mind free from taint is an astute question which Nardo ponders. Ultimately she argues, “his deed will entail defying the Christian prohibition against vengeance
and embracing the pagan code of retribution,” hardly the sort of behavior we may associate with a penitent soul in purgatory
(187). If the ghost’s demand for vengeance is, as Tiffany asserts, morally
justified and even Providentially encouraged, how does this explain the collateral damage in innocent lives lost in the commission
of this “kingly concern for the moral welfare of the state” (Tiffany, 118)?
Nowhere do we see the tragic result of faith in the ghost’s story more clearly than in the actions of the young
Prince Hamlet, for it often happens that in the exchange of unbelief for belief, reason must necessarily be subordinated to
In fact, Hamlet, immediately
following his first encounter with the ghostly figure, seemingly accepts the ghost’s claim “I am thy father’s
spirit” unequivocally, answering in soliloquy, “Remember thee? Yea, from the table of my memory I’ll wipe away all trivial fond records . . .” (1.5.9, 1.5.97-99). By having sworn revenge for his father‘s murder, Prince Hamlet - like the audience
- has bought into the ghost’s fragile claim of paternity. Far from the
role of madness he later pursues, Hamlet is cunning in his plans as he bids Horatio and Marcellus, “Never make known
what you have seen tonight” (1687). For Hamlet, the words of the ghost
are “commandments” that “shall live within the book and volume of [his] brain unmixed with baser matter”
choice of the phrase “baser matter” implies a distinction between the ghost and the living just as we today draw
lines between faith and reason (1.5.104). “Base” may be defined
as that which is low in place, mean, inferior or worthless. In order for there
to be “base” matter there must exist, then, some sort of “precious” matter which would by necessity
be defined as high in place, dear, rare or valuable. By inference, we may assume
that Hamlet makes a not-so-subtle distinction between that which ghost represents and that which the rest of his life represents,
since we find that Hamlet, in response to his vow to the ghost, casts off family (utter rejection of his mother), friends
(sends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to their deaths), and love (Ophelia) to obey what he admittedly considers a greater authority. The “baser” matter, then, would be temporal, earthly and mortal, while
the opposite of that by Hamlet's distinction would be transcendent, preternatural and immortal. Because the ghostly figure is not base, or temporal, there remains an etymological mystique about the
figure that is defined not by what it is but instead by what it isn't. This
is similar in the way in which religion requires a measure of faith in that which is immaterial and unseen. For example, though we cannot say with certainty that the ghostly simulacrum is the spirit of Hamlet's father, a soul in hell, a soul in purgatory, a demon, a poltergeist or something else altogether,
we may certainly say what the ghost is not. It is not temporal or of this world
for we do not find its like in our everyday experience; it is not physical or material as we know it for it cannot presumably
be hurt by weapons; and it is not a creature of the natural world for it does not abide by physical laws as we know them,
mysteriously appearing and disappearing with an alacrity not found in nature. Like
the ghost, God, too, is similarly defined such that in the act of trusting the ghost, Hamlet’s rationale is not necessarily unjustified although the leap of faith is unquantifiable.
Once again, in the figure of Hamlet the audience may see itself.
Yet for all that we may
be able to deduce or more narrowly define concerning the nature and composition of the spirit, there remains an even greater
linguistic gulf of knowledge as to the entity's intent. By choosing to believe
that the ghost is indeed his dead father's spirit, Hamlet must set aside his doubt and choose to unequivocally accept the
ghost's account, for questioning the spirit's claim – like questioning the edict of God - is to admit the possibility
that the figure is something other than that which it appears to be, namely, his father’s spirit. For Hamlet's anguished mind, the ghost's words are worth more than “a thousand pound” (3.2.263-64). By exchanging healthy, honest scrutiny with faith-like resolve, Hamlet unknowingly
rears against the reins of better judgment and hurtles toward his doom and, consequentially, the doom of many others. This is not to say definitively that the spirit is not that of old Hamlet nor that
the act of faith is wholly unjustified, but the evidence supporting such a belief is no more convincing than evidence which
supports the belief that the ghost is a demonic spirit or, by analogy, that God exists.
In context to the modern audience, reports of literal ghost sightings and poltergeists
are often met with healthy, secular skepticism. Yet no matter how strongly our
rational minds inform us that such supernatural phenomenon should be met with skepticism, there remains a part of the human
psyche that cannot interpret or rationalize the unknown. Whether attributable
to sheer chance, God, the devil or even something more incomprehensible, events of a seemingly transcendent nature –
from an eerie sense of dejavu to a sudden start during a scary movie – draw from within us a reaction of fear or trepidation. The fact that we may rationally deconstruct such an event after it occurs does little to prevent our initial reaction. Yet still
we doubt, dissecting the event in linguistic terms that assist us in painting the world in familiar colors of rationality
and meaning. It is Hamlet’s internal war between faith and reason that
resonates so markedly with the audience, for in questioning his fate, Hamlet by analogy brings to mind the struggle with faith
which we ourselves undergo.
Take, for instance, the
ghost's account of King Hamlet's murder. Rather than elucidating the mystery
behind the old king's death, the ghost's account is strangely problematic. “Tis
given out that, sleeping in mine orchard, a serpent stung me,” the figure confides in Hamlet, “So the whole ear
of Denmark is by a forged process of my death rankly abused” (1.5.35-38). Obviously being asleep at the time of his death, there is no logical way that the
ghost could have known what the citizens of Denmark were saying about the incident; either it would have gotten the account
from another soul who joined it in purgatory after the king's death, or it would have had to overhear what the living were
saying about the unfortunate event. So far, this tale neither affirms nor detracts
from the ghost's claim that it is the spirit of Hamlet's father, yet it is henceforth that the being's words, like the mysterious
articles of many faiths, grow logically inconsistent. “But know, thou noble youth,
the serpent that did sting thy father's life now wears the crown” (1.5.38-40).
As the ghost goes on to elaborate the finer details of the alleged murder, we have to ask ourselves how the entity
knew this information. Obviously, the old king was sleeping at the time of his
death so certainly he did not witness it himself unless one can add time travel to the supernatural entity's many abilities. We know that there are no indications in the play that witnesses to the event exist
or else the outcry likely would have gone forth throughout the land and Claudius held
accountable for regicide. Indeed, the ghost himself claims Claudius “stole”
into the orchard indicating he stealthily entered lest he be witnessed undertaking the foul act.
Who, then, is the entity
that gives such a detailed account of the crime scene? Is it indeed the ghost
of Hamlet's father who is inexplicably privy to all knowledge past and present like some omniscient yet powerless deity, able
to perceive all things while affecting none? Is it Satan, who from the spiritual
realm witnesses all that goes on in the temporal world through demonic spies and tempters?
Is it an angel who makes the suffering spirit aware of the unseen act? Or,
perhaps, is the account of his death a complete fabrication designed to simply manipulate young Hamlet into taking quick,
intemperate action? If it is indeed an angel or other agent of God who allegedly
the soul of things he did not know, then is not heaven, ironically, responsible for the ghost’s call for vengeance? Yet if it is Satan or an agent of hell who reveals the hidden knowledge to the spirit,
then how can any call for revenge be morally justified? Or, did the ghostly
entity learn of his fate as part of a larger purgatorial scheme, an explanation that must be inferred as much as it is implied? It is an epistemological gulf as great as that of any religious tenant of faith.
As we can see, the means by which the supernatural entity acquired the knowledge of old Hamlet’s
death is crucial to our understanding of the ghost itself. Since knowledge concerning
the afterlife and the spiritual ream is understandably absent from both the play and from the audience’s everyday experience,
it is a more compelling argument for us to be skeptical than not even though that which is accepted through faith can never
Therefore, the words “what
art thou . . . ” pose a question that is never fully answered in the text of the
play, for even though it appears before witnesses in Act 1 Scene 1, is mysteriously invisible to all but Hamlet Act 3 Scene
4 when Hamlet confronts his mother, Queen Gertrude (1.1.44). How does an entity
visible to all around it in the first act become selectively visible by the third act?
Carol Thomas Neely makes a distinction between the speeches of Ophelia and Hamlet to indicate that the latter way of
speaking “almost never has the ‘quoted,’ fragmentary, ritualized quality of Ophelia’s” (325). She goes on to observe that historically:
“. . . madness was seen as the point of intersection between
the human, the
divine, and the demonic. It was viewed alternately or simultaneously
possession, sin, punishment, and disease, and it confirmed the
of the human and the transcendent” (318).
we see, the attempt to characterize the nature of the ghost’s visit in the scene with Gertrude as madness runs into
epistemological problems, too, for attributing madness as its source is to inevitably invoke imagery of the mystical or transcendent,
the very same issues which cloud our understanding of the ghost’s physical, literal appearance, too. Whether the appearance of the ghost in act three is real or a projection
of Hamlet’s mind, the language necessary to comprehend the event inevitably touches upon the transcendent and non-temporal. It would seem that where the ghost is concerned, all roads lead to linguistic
indeterminism. Faith alone seems to be the driving force behind this play.
Once again, this lead us to the unanswered question of whether the ghost’s invisible appearance to all but Hamlet
in act three is a characteristic of the spirit of the slain king or of something else altogether. And why, again, does an apparition, claiming to be “doomed for a certain term to walk the night…till
the foul crimes done in my days of nature are burnt and purged away” add to its
alleged crimes by demanding revenge instead of pleading for prayer and indulgences (1.5.10-14)? This question has never been fully explicated to the satisfaction of many if, like faith, it ever can
be. Additionally, although the ethereal being claims, “I am thy father’s
spirit,” why does it switch to the third person, saying, “If thou didst ever thy dear father love…revenge
his foul and most unnatural murder” (1.5.11, 1.5.24-25)? It may be that
the ghost is simply waxing eloquent by interchanging first- and third-person language in its speech to Hamlet, but what if
it was not?
For instance, during the bulk of the Ghost’s speech in Act 1 Scene 5, from lines 9 to 91, there are 26 times where the ghost utilizes the first-person narrative (“I,” “me,” “mine,”
etc.) but only three times where he refers himself in the third-person (“his,” thy father,” etc.). There is the impression, faint though it may be, that the entity is going out of
its way to impress upon Hamlet the certainty that it is, indeed, the spirit of Hamlet’s father. This may be quite natural since it is not unreasonable that the real spirit of King Hamlet would be aware
of the awkwardness of returning from beyond the pale and presenting himself before his
still-living son. In this case, the ghost would be anxious to convince Hamlet
of the solemnity of its words. Alternatively though, the possibility exists
that the supernatural creature presenting itself before the young prince is, in fact, an imposture, and that the three times
in which it refers to the dead king in the third-person is a slip of the tongue. Textually,
there is little evidence beyond the spirit’s claim that it is the purgatory-entrapped soul of old Hamlet “doomed
for a certain term to walk the night” (1.5.10). Audiences and critics
alike have struggled with an inherent metaphysical dilemma. Yet how different
is this dilemma when compared with the leap of faith some make in adhering to the commands
and edicts of other supernatural beings like God? How certain can one's own
personal faith be when that which he or she believes in is no less indecipherable than Hamlet's ghost? Is there, in fact, a distinguishable line between what is real and what is imagined to be real? What does seem certain is that Shakespeare uses the ghost as a rhetorical representation of the struggle
among three forces: the natural world, the supernatural world and that world which stands between the two, the world of madness.
day,” writes Faber, “a ghost was either real…fantastic…or diabolic” (131). She uses a succinct analysis to argue that although the ghosts witnessed by characters in other plays
like “Julius Caesar” and “Macbeth” are “supernatural fantasies” created in the characters
minds, “the ghost of Hamlet’s father as we see it in the play’s first act is Shakespeare’s only ‘real’
ghost” (132). Although her argument concludes that the ghost in Act 3
Scene 4 is a figment of “Hamlet’s conscience,” I am curious as to why Faber never fully explores the possibility
that the ghost Hamlet and the others see is a demon or other creature of the nether world.
It is almost as though the diabolic nature of the ghost is never even considered. This is an important issue, I assert, which
I have already touched upon and which I shall explore in more depth shortly.
In a wider textual context,
the question Faber poses concerning the ability of the apparition to appear before many in one scene, then only Hamlet in
another scene, is a legitimate one. It is not unreasonable for an audience to
assume that, once a particular set of abilities and characteristics are set forth, those abilities would remain in place throughout
the play. Twice we see the ghost appear in the first act, and we are told by
Marcellus that twice before this night the “dreaded sight” appeared as well (1.1.23). Indeed, should the phantom subsequently appear again, we would expect
that any living people in its presence would, naturally, be able to see the apparition since it conforms to the precedent
set in the beginning of the story. However, this is not what we find, leading
Faber to the conclusion that the appearance in Act 3 is fantastical.
How, though, can the audience
know with any certainty that this in itself qualifies the episode as a figment of Hamlet’s imagination? Setting our own and the audiences’ experience aside, we may be relatively certain that the appearance
of the ghost is not at all common for we find that the two sentinels, Barnardo and Francisco, address one another in almost
frenetic terms as they anticipate the approach of the apparition:
BARNARDO. Who’s there?
FRANCISCO. Nay, answer me. Stand
and unfold yourself.
BARNARDO. Long live the king!
FRANCISCO. You come most carefully upon your hour. (1.1.1-4)
a soldier who, we assume, is expecting his relief to arrive shortly, the doubt with which
we hear him cry “Barnardo?” is in all likelihood attributable to a fearful expectation of the ghost’s arrival
(1.1.3). When the figure finally does appear, Horatio says, “It harrows
me with fear and wonder,” and even Hamlet, having already been told of the ghost’s appearance, cries, “Angels
and ministers of grace defend us” when confronted with the apparition for the first time (1.1.42, 1.4.20). Yet when Hamlet meets the ghost a second time in his mother’s room, evidence of his previous fear
is nowhere to be found: “What would you, gracious figure” (3.4.95)? His
greeting is not unlike that
one would deliver to a close friend or family member, and in fact, even Rosencrantz and Guildenstern receive similar greeting
from Hamlet in Act 2 Scene 2, when the latter says, “My ex’llent good friends.
How dost thou . . . (2.2.220)? It would seem that this language of familiarity
represents a moment of textual distinction in the play, a change in the apparition’s ability to cause fear among its
viewers and indicative of a shift in actual substance. This seems to support
Faber’s argument that the distinction between the ghost in Act 1 and the ghost in Act 3 is real. Nonetheless, the question as to the nature and identity of the transcendent figure is still unresolved,
for even if the ghost found in Act 3 is a creation of Hamlet’s tormented imagination, this still begs the question as
to what the earlier appearance of the ghost is in as far as Hamlet seems to draw upon during his mad confrontation with the
queen. If indeed Hamlet is mad during the scene, then by necessity, we as the
audience are witness to this madness, prompting an unsettling yet enigmatic thought: since we see and hear the apparition
as Hamlet experiences it in this scene, dismissing Hamlet as mad is to perhaps label our own impulses toward faith in the
invisible as neurotic, too. Unlike Gertrude, for whom the actions of Hamlet appear erratic and discordant with reason, we are allowed a broader insight into the scene and are
allowed to experience what Hamlet experiences. Thus to accept or reject Hamlet's
perception is to accept or reject our own.
Even if the ghost meets
Faber’s minimum qualifications to be labeled both “real” in one act and “fantastic” in another,
the very act of qualifying such an otherworldly, transcendent being is not without a certain logical incongruity that assumes
that a distinct body of knowledge exists concerning the nature of the unnatural (131).
There exists no epistemology that I am aware of that readily defines that which is beyond the comprehension of humans, and language itself is inadequate at lending understanding to that which defies both comprehension
and definition. Any claim at understanding a metaphysical event such as the
ghostly figure in “Hamlet” necessitates the use of language. Yet
language is nothing more than a construct of humans who live in the natural, temporal world.
Any attempt to use linguistic constructs in the temporal world to both quantify and qualify events and beings from
the non-temporal world is a hazardous endeavor that at best is fraught with indeterminism, misinterpretation and misunderstanding. With what authority may the qualities of supernatural entities be called rational
or distinct? There is an innate indeterminism in the problem of the ghost that
prevents critics and audiences alike from readily distinguishing between what is knowable and what is not exactly like we
find in any internal debate over faith and reason, theism and atheism. Is the
ghost exactly what it says it is? Is it a spirit of the netherworld or an agent
of hell? Or is it something more, a poltergeist from Hamlet's deep anguish and
sorrow or perhaps an allegory for madness itself? We simply cannot know, for
Shakespeare has not offered us enough clues to accurately decipher the identity of the
ghost, let alone analyze its intent.
By the plays conclusion,
all we have to evaluate the ghost are the tragic results of the paradoxical “commandment” that it demands of Hamlet
(1686). Tiffany's assertion, therefore, that the ghost is “bettered”
by Hamlet's actions and that “Providence” is “served” by turning “private
vengeance to public justice” is intellectually unsatisfying and metaphysically troubling, for how, one may ask, are
both the ghost and Providence served by the tragic, meaningless
deaths of Ophelia, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (129)? It too, like deciphering
the nature of the ghost, presents a quandary that creates
questions than it answers.
It is not intellectually
unreliable to simply depict the ghost in these post-structuralist terms, for it is the only character, the only phenomenon,
in the play that transcends the natural world and supersedes common human experience.
Although others may argue that in deconstructive language – if one can accept such an oxymoron – nothing
of certainty may be ascertained about any of the characters or facts of the play due to the nuances of language, textual fissures
and breaks in structural logic, there are practically no human characters in Hamlet that by their very nature evade
all attempts at qualitative and quantitative analysis and understanding. In
fact, Shakespeare himself poignantly summarizes the quandary of comprehending an afterlife in any terms known by humans as
when Hamlet observes, “. . . the dread of something after death, the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler
returns . . .” (3.1.80-82). Therefore, unlike the scathing skepticism
of post-Cartesian philosophers like Nietzsche and Derrida who indiscriminately dissect almost all attempts at formulating
linguistic and textual knowledge, I assert that the flesh-and-blood characters of Shakespeare's tragedy are just that -- flesh-and-blood. No such defense may be made
on behalf of the ghost, for although the theatricality of the play necessitates an actor to play the role of the spirit, it
is what the ghost represents that defies explanation. Beneath the ethereal armor
resides nothing comprehensible, nothing verifiable behind its own claim. What
is verifiable, even if language fails to adequately articulate its nature, is the metaphor that the ghost represents for onlookers
both then and now, a struggle to believe when little empirical evidence exists to support one's faith.
As an audience, we share
a fundamental, cultural pool of human knowledge from which we may draw upon, utilizing
language as the primary means to both define and place parameters upon our understanding, conceptualizations of religion and
faith, spirituality and identity that in turn define and reinforce our perception of the world, both natural and transcendent. By accepting the ghost's word and, by analogy, the premise of the play, we mimic
Hamlet's choice to place his faith in that which is clearly indefinable and together partake in a journey of faith that is
wholly human. Like the play-within-a-play, the tests that we devise to challenge
or confirm the veracity of supernatural claims and experiences inherently convey limited clarity to substantiate our belief. Ultimately, we, too, must choose our path by either accepting or rejecting what we
perceive as otherworldly, unknowable and transcendent just as Hamlet chose to believe in the ghost by eventually adhering
to its aporetical command.
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