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The Importance Of The Ghost In Hamlet

1568 words - 6 pages

Words are like leaves; and where they most abound,

Much fruit of Sense beneath is rarely found.

(Essay on Criticism, ll.309-310)

 

Any investigation of Shakespeare's Hamlet that wishes to harvest "fruit of sense" must begin with the ghost. Dover Wilson is right in terming Hamlet's visitor the "linchpin," but the history of critical opinion regarding its origin has been diverse and conflicting. Generally, critics have opted for a Purgatorial ghost: Bradley speaks of "...a soul come from Purgatory," (1) Lily Campbell believes "Shakespeare has pictured a ghost from Purgatory according to all the tests possible," but adds, "Shakespeare chose rather to throw out suggestions which might satisfy those members of his audience who followed any one of the three schools of thought on the subject." (2). G. Wilson Knight fuses Purgatorial origin with ambiguity: "With exquisite aptness the poet has placed him, not in heaven or hell, but purgatory," adding "It is neither 'good' nor bad', True its effects are mostly evil." (3) In another work he notes, "The ghost may or may not have,., been a 'goblin damned': it certainly was no 'spirit of health,' (4) Wilson terms his 'linchpin' as Catholic: "...the Ghost is Catholic: he comes from Purgatory."(5)

 

A flurry of critical opinion began, however, in 1951 when Roy Battenhouse argued, "The ghost, then, does not come from a Catholic Purgatory, but from an afterward exactly suited to fascinate the imagination and understanding of the humanist intellectual of the Renaissance." By that he meant, "...the purgatory of the Ancients, or their hell...since all are Hell from a Christian point of view: an inhabitant of any one of them is a "damned" spirit...(6) The battle was joined. I. J. Semper's rebuttal warned that the tradition of critical commentary supported a Purgatorial spirit as best articulated by Wilson's beliefs.(7) Robert West argued in "King Hamlet's Ambiguous Ghost," published four years later, that the ghost "...leaves us where all living men must stand in relation to that country: weighted with its awe and terror and its uncertainties buffeted by conflicting theories..."(8) Harry Levine likewise endorsed the play as written in a "...grammar of doubt." (9) Sister Mariam Joseph's article confirmed a Purgatorial ghost: "...the abode of the ghost and his character fit descriptions of a purgatorial ghost in both doctrine and popular legend." (10)

 

More recent scholarship of course has not been silent. Eleanor Prosser's Hamlet and Revenge (1971) articulates a view of the ghost very much consistent with my own, noting "...the command [of the ghost] to murder is as malign as we sense it to be, and Hamlet is responsible for his descent into savagery." (11). She of course argues for a non-purgatorial ghost. In contrast, Stephen Greenblatt's Hamlet and Purgatory (2001), citing Medieval and Renaissance texts plus plays that feature ghosts...

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