Hamlet Questions and Answers
by William Shakespeare

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Comment on the role of the ghost in Hamlet.

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Jason Lulos eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Prior to the ghost's presence and interaction with Hamlet, Hamlet is not concerned with revenge. In fact, he's mostly moping and in a state of hopeless gloom about his father's death and his mother's quick marriage to Claudius. When the ghost finally speaks, to Hamlet, the ghost tells him to take vengeance upon Claudius. This is what sets Hamlet's convoluted plan for revenge in motion. 

There has been and continues to be debate amongst critics and readers as to the reality of the ghost. Some say the ghost did actually appear to Horatio, Hamlet, Barnardo, and Marcellus. Others say that the ghost was a hallucination; and although being a hallucination to more than one character is difficult to prove, such critics could argue that these characters were predisposed (perhaps because of a communal openness to the supernatural) to want to see apparitions. Still others, suppose that the ghost was a demon (comparable to the witches in Macbeth) who leads Hamlet on a wild revenge chase. 

However, it...

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rienzi | Student

Here is the "reality" of the Ghost. The Ghost stands in stark contrast with Claudius. As much as the Ghost is an image, Claudius is the reality. Or so it seems and that is one aspect of one of the major themes in the play. As the play progresses we get the sense that the Ghost is becoming more real and it is Claudius who begins to look more image than reality.

The next thing we know is that the Ghost is right. Though Hamlet and the others are right to challenge their perceptions, the Ghost's information turns out to be true. Particularly for Hamlet this helps in establishing the Ghost's reality and the reality of its message. 

Third, and Shakespeare is very clever to tie this to another major thematic element in the play, the Ghost's image is tied directly to each character's memory of the dead King Hamlet. Notice that I did not say that the Ghost looks like the dead king because there is no such direction in any of the received texts of the play. All the Ghost tells us is that "I am thy father's spirit...' The realities of the play world vary wildly as to how the Ghost is portrayed to any given audience and so to all of us, the audience, the Ghost looks the same. Such is the limitations of the stage. But this reflects directly back to the subtlest aspect of the first theme I mentioned and that is for the characters the whole play is built on perceptions and misperceptions of one another. But I digress. Each character sees the Ghost as they remember him in life. This is why Gertrude cannot see the Ghost. She has completely forgotten her dead husband. And that ties to another thematic element in the play. That is bestial oblivion vs. God-like reason.

The real remaining question is what is the true purpose of the Ghost within the context of the play? I suggest he is one of the three father figures in the play for Hamlet that prompts him to grow up before he is willing. (As I suppose it is with us all.)  The two affirmative duties the Ghost charges Hamlet with in one aspect are opposites. One in "remember me" the Ghost is saying use you head. The other in seeking revenge it is saying use your heart. The play makes clear that revenge is not a rational act. The difficulty for Hamlet through the play is governing the two.