The Supernatural in Hamlet
Though Shakespeare cannot claim the invention of the ghosts in tragedies, still he can claim to have clothed his ghost in Hamlet with convincingness. This essay concerns his one supernatural character in the tragedy.
Regarding the supernatural in Hamlet, Cumberland Clark says in “The Supernatural in Hamlet”:
At least six or seven years pass after the writing of Midsummer Night’s Dream before we find Shakespeare engaged on Hamlet, the second of the great plays with an important Supernatural element, and, in the opinion of many, the greatest tragedy ever penned. What a profound change has come over his attitude towards the Unseen! No longer does he handle it in . . . [a] cheerful, jocular, irresponsible spirit. . . .
Shakespeare’s attitude towards the Supernatural coincides, as we should expect, with his general view of life. He is in no mood now to deal with the empty, frivolous, meaningless little fairies. The form of the Supernatural, which he adopts at this stage, is the eerie, horrible, terrifying ghost [. . .]. (99)
Maynard Mack in “The World of Hamlet” elucidates the reader on how the Ghost introduces the problem of appearance versus reality:
The play begins with an appearance, an “apparition,” to use Marcellus’ term – the ghost. And the ghost is somehow real, indeed the vehicle of realities. Through its revelation, the glittering surface of Claudius’ court is pierced, and Hamlet comes to know, and we do, that the king is not only hateful to him but the murderer of his father, that his mother is guilty of adultery as well as incest. Yet there is a dilemma in the revelation. For possibly the apparition is an apparition, a devil who has assumed his father’s shape. (247)
So there is considerable doubt regarding this spirit within the mind of the protagonist – until after the decisive action of the play when both Horatio and Hamlet witnessed Claudius’ reaction. W.H. Clemen in “Imagery in Hamlet Reveals Character and Theme” describes the pervasive influence which the Ghost’s words have on the entire play:
Perusing the description which the ghost of Hamlet’s father gives of his poisoning by Claudius, one cannot help being struck by the vividness with which the process of poisoning, the malicious spreading of the disease, is portrayed:
Sleeping within my orchard,
My custom always of the afternoon,
Upon my secure hour thy uncle stole,
With juice of cursed hebenon in a vial,
And in the porches of my ears did pour
The leperous distilment; whose effect
Holds such an enmity with blood of man
That swift as quicksilver it courses through
The natural gates and alleys of the body,
And with a sudden vigour doth posset
And curd, like eager droppings into milk,
The thin and wholesome blood: so did it mine;
And a most instant tetter bark'd...