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...