Is the ghost in Shakespeare's Hamlet actually his father, or some sort of demon?

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William Delaney eNotes educator| Certified Educator

For a while Hamlet suspects that the ghost he spoke with in Act 1, Scenes 4 and 5, might be an evil spirit of some sort. He says this to himself in a soliloquy in Act 2, Scene 2.

The spirit that I have seen
May be a devil; and the devil hath power
T' assume a pleasing shape; yea, and perhaps
Out of my weakness and my melancholy,
As he is very potent with such spirits,
Abuses me to damn me. I'll have grounds
More relative than this. The play's the thing
Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the King.

It is during this soliloquy, which represents him thinking aloud, that he comes up with the idea of testing both his Uncle Claudius and the Ghost by staging a play which will hopefully get Claudius to reveal his guilt. This play within a play is presented to the court in Act 3, Scene 2. In that Italian play, which Hamlet says is called "The Murder of Gonzago," the villain does something very similar to what the Ghost said was done to him by Claudius. Both Hamlet and Horatio are watching the king closely when the villain in the play pours poison in the sleeping king's ear. Claudius is horrified. He calls for lights and makes a big spectacle of himself as he flees from the room. Hamlet is delighted. He says:

O good Horatio, I'll take the ghost's word for a
thousand pound!

From this point on, Hamlet believes the Ghost is really the ghost of his dead father and that every word the Ghost told him was true. This is a significant moment in Shakespeare's play because it makes Hamlet determined to kill Claudius, as the ghost of his father ordered him to do. It also clears up any doubts the audience might have about the identity and credibility of the Ghost they saw. The audience has seen the same thing Hamlet and Horatio have seen because they have been conditioned to focus their attention on Claudius' face. Furthermore, the success of Hamlet's trick solidifies the friendship between Hamlet and Horatio, which is why Hamlet says, "O good Horatio." Hamlet has been all alone up till now, but in Horatio he has a friend he can trust and confide in. Horatio's confidence in Hamlet is also cemented because the success of Hamlet's trick convinces Horatio that Hamlet is completely sane and knows the whole truth about his father's murder and his uncle's guilt.