How Does Shakespeare Present the Ghost in Act 1 Scene 1?
A common feature in a revenge tragedy play, the introduction of the ghost in Hamlet serves to produce a sense of fear and mystery, creating a tragic atmosphere. The ghost plays an important role in foreshadowing the key themes of revenge and betrayal, while also helping the Elizabethan audience to understand and appreciate the play, as Shakespeare has utilised the popular concept of the supernatural.
Firstly, the appearance of the ghost raises questions about the state of Denmark and establishes the political nature of the play. Written in prose, Shakespeare immediately creates a sense of mystery and an atmosphere of uncertainty and suspense in the opening lines, “who’s there?” This develops the theme of uncertain reality, making the audience question whether the guards are imaging the ghost as the fragmented speech create connotations of fear and confusion. Moreover, the arrival of the ghost is seemingly a bad omen that “bodes some strange eruption” to the state of Denmark, signifying corruption within the country. The ghost appears to be making a political point, “of this post-haste and romage in the land” by presenting the disorder in Denmark. Taking on the “same figure” of the “old king that’s dead” the ghost resembles the brave and heroic old King Hamlet. Shakespeare presents their physical resemblance as a bad omen that symbolises something uncertain about the stability of Denmark. Arguably, Shakespeare is questioning the Divine Right of Kings, where kings were believed to be chosen by God and so could not be held accountable for their actions by any earthly authority other than God. Thus the appearance of the ghost of old King Hamlet raises questions about the state of Denmark, as arguably the visit of the late king is in connection with the impending danger to Denmark.
Secondly, Shakespeare uses the ghost to illustrate the battle between logic and supernatural elements. Elizabethan audiences had mixed attitudes towards ghosts, they neither disputed or believed in them, therefore the supernatural elements add an extra dimension of mystery and fear, the nature of the ghost is unknown and its purpose is ambiguous – the audience would be unsure on how to react to the ghost’s presence on stage. Indeed, devout protestants did not believe in ghosts, and theologians argued that supernatural apparitions could be used by the Devil to disturb and mislead Christians. This is reinforced when the ghost is described as a “portentous figure” as the adjective implies that it is a bad omen, a warning for the characters that a tragedy is about to unfold. J. Dover Wilson wrote in ‘Discerning the Ghost of Hamlet” that the three characters who see the ghost in the opening act represent the differing points of view expressed in theological controversies in the Elizabethan era. Guards Mercellus and Barnardo symbolise the traditional Catholic belief that a soul arrives on Earth from purgatory often in human form whereas Horatio exhibits the skeptical attitude of Reginald Scott who rejected the idea of ghosts assuming material form and thereby appear to men. Horatio’s point of view is trusted by the audience as he is educated and God-fearing, seeing things for himself; Shakespeare arguably is using Horatio to symbolise the turning away from traditional Catholic beliefs during the English Reformation. Towards the end of the scene, Shakespeare creates a tonal shift, as the mood changes from fear, tension and anxiety to lyrical, poetic language, “walks o’er the dew of yon high eastward hill” which creates a sense of religious awe and wonder. Indeed, the ghost disappears at the mention of heaven, “wherein our saviour’s birth is celebrated” reflecting Shakespeare’s reputedly Catholic point of view, while illustrating that even the supernatural is overwhelmed by Jesus’ birth, setting Denmark up as a Christian country.
Finally, the ghost plays a key role in introducing the key theme of revenge and catalyses the plot. The apparition of old King Hamlet brings the play into the revenge tragedy genre, as ghosts are usually people who died in a violent and premature way which has connotations of murder – Shakespeare is inviting the audience to wonder about the nature of his death, who killed him and most importantly why has he returned? David Scott Kastan sees “uncertainty” as being “the point (…) of Shakespearean tragedies” saying that “characters may commit themselves to a confident sense of the tragic world they inhabit; but the plays inevitably render that preliminary understanding inadequate”. This is certainly the case in Hamlet, as the appearance of the ghost is very ambiguous, Shakespeare leaves the role of the ghost open-ended to allow the audience to form their own opinion on its true intent. Indeed, Horatio noted that the ghost “was about to speak when the cock crew” which is a potent religious symbol for revenge and betrayal, the ghost is reflecting Christ who condemned the thirst for retribution. Furthermore, the appearance of the ghost is described as “a mote it is to trouble the mind’s eye” foreshadowing a sense of danger. Shakespeare wrote Julius Caesar shortly before Hamlet and the sinister omens that preceded the death of Caesar were fresh in his mind. Thus Horatio uses the language of classical allusion which gives his speech a lofty, important style, as the ghosts provides a catalyst for the revenge in the play.
The ghost is an integral part of the structural design of the play, initiating the theme of revenge thus initiating the tragic action. Establishing the political nature of the play, the ghost sets the scene, portraying the instability in Denmark while preparing for war with Norway. The Elizabethan audience would be apprehensive about the ghost resembling the late King Hamlet, as they believed that only people who died without the chance of confessing their sins returned to Earth as troubled spirits. Shakespeare’s use of the ghost as a dramatic feature is hugely successful at building a sense of mystery right from the beginning, which would sustain the audience’s’ interest while building suspense for the rest of the play.