TRUSTShould Hamlet trust the ghost in Act 1, Scene 5?

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sfwriter eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I love this question -- I have always thought "NO!" when reading or watching the play, but if I put myself in Hamlet's shoes I may have felt differently.

What is happening in this scene (and this happens in other Shakespeare plays, too) is that the supernatural is interfering with the natural.  Hamlet, by all rights, should not ever have been able to see the ghost of his dead father.  The ghost even admits that he is not supposed to tell the "secrets of his prison-house" (line 16, that is, he cannot describe Purgatory, where he is being purged of his sins, "To ears of flesh and blood." , line 26).  It is clear from the moment their conversation begins that this is an unnatural communication.  It is not supposed to happen in the normal course of nature.  But it has happened, partially because Old Hamlet was murdered, and his son has come back to Elsinore.  Whether you take the ghostly visitation literally (as most of Shakespeare's audience probably would have), or in a more figurative sense, as a figment of Hamlet's (and Horatio's, and Marcello's and Bernardo's) fevered and overactive imagination, the consequence is the same:Hamlet is driven at least partially insane, and bad, bad things happen because Hamlet has knowledge that he could not have procured from any human source.

This is an old theme in literature, and generally a sound one.  When people get supernatural information (or, even, supernatural interference of any type,) or even if they only believe that they have supernatural information, the natural order of things is upset.  Hamlet had only suspicions of his father's murder when he returned to Elsinore from Wittenberg; once he talks to the Ghost he has first-hand reportage of the murder (something unobtainable in any other way than through supernatural intervention).  This means that Hamlet knows Claudius's sin, but he cannot prove it.  If he had been able to find out about the murder in some human fashion, he may have been able to bring Claudius to justice.  But with the testimony of the Ghost, Hamlet has certainty but no human recourse for it.

And it drives him mad, of course, and makes him vacillating and even more uncertain that when he only had suspicions of murder.  If he had only suspicions, which were never proved, Hamlet may, eventually, have healed psychologicallly from his father's death and mother's remarriage.  He may have been able to come to terms with uncertainty, and live a normal life.  But with the Ghost of his father urging him to revenge, there was little chance that Hamlet would be able to keep all of his sanity and judgment -- and the tragic consequences of this were to be expected.

kevinkirk eNotes educator| Certified Educator

This question, whether or not to trust the ghost, is in one sense, the central question of the play because so many layers and aspects of the play are involved, and so many aspects of this question branch off of this.  There are many considerations at stake. Some of them add to the ambiguity and the complexity of Hamlet's dilemma. Issues that contributes to the connotative (i.e. cultural, social, emtional, etc.) implications of the the ghost are some of the religious/theological beliefs of the day of the Elizabethan audience. One of these beliefs concerned the aspects of forgivenss of sins and trangressions. Hamlet, Sr. was murdered while sleeping in his orchard, as he reveals to his son Prince Hamlet, without being able to make a conscious contrition with his sins on his head; thus his soul is trapped in a 'purgatory' temporarily allowing him to 'walk' the castle at night with his mission to restore the the 'cosmic order' that is in serious imbalance due to the vile and serious nature of his murder by his brother, the now King Claudius. The tormented spirit has to try and save his soul, 'avenge the most foul murder' and have his son restore order to the kingdom, as it is his rightful duty to do so as next in line for the throne of Denmark. Another belief is that Elizabethans also thought that the 'Devil' could take on the ghostly semblance of a departed one to make mischief and cause mayhem. Hamlet articulates this, whether or not to believe in the ghost, in his reactions/responses. This idea and dilemma will also integrate itself again when Hamlet comes upon Claudius kneeling at prayer, supposedly bearing the (ironic) appearance that he is contritely and consciously asking forgiveness. Thus, if Hamlet kills him then and there, his soul 'goes to heaven' which is the last thing that Hamnlet wants for the detestable ursurper. If the ghost is to be trusted, Hamlet  then devises his plans of his 'antic disposition' and staging the play within the play to perform his 'detective work' to make sure of Claudius' guilt and honor his father's incredibly intense request to seek revenge. 

kristenfusaro eNotes educator| Certified Educator

While it is deemed necessary to trust the existence of the ghost, for Marcellus, Horatio, Bernardo, and Francisco see him within the first Act, it is also important to consider the conversations of the Ghost with Hamlet as another form of Hamlet's introspection.

Hamlet's major consideration in the play is whether or not existence is worth the trouble, for Hamlet to make moral considerations along with a ghost - a physical entity that demonstrates the destruction of an unworthy existence - is another statement about why we must make the most of our time.

The existence of the Ghost is yet another way for Hamlet to give purpose to this "weary life," for else why would he choose not "to sleep"? The physical manifestation of the Ghost is clear, for along with the eyewitness of the supporting minor characters, along with the only trusted character in the play - Horatio - the Ghost appears at the strike of midnight and when the cock crows, appealing to the pathetic fallacy that Shakespeare is always akin to using (think of the horses in when King Duncan was murdered in Macbeth). The supernatural disrupts the natural because we are being forced to become metaware of the existence of the supernatural -- if we had a heightened understanding of the supernatural, the truth would come to light. The Ghost speaks the truth of his death, but Hamlet is mistaken for crazy; the ghost of Banquo and the Witches speak truth about Macbeth's misdeeds, but we ignore it for logic.

susan3smith eNotes educator| Certified Educator

If Horatio, the scholar and skeptic, believes the ghost is real, then of course Hamlet should too.  But should he follow the ghost's command to avenge his "foul and unnatural murder"?  That, of course, is one of the key questions of the play.  This command to seek revenge presents a moral dilemma.  Should one obey his father and commit murder?  Or should one disobey his father and live in peace?  How important is family honor?  Or maybe these are impossible choices for Hamlet.  If such an egregious crime is committed against one's family, is it truly possible to forgive and forget?

ask996 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

By “trust the ghost” do you mean believe in it? There is no doubt that at this point the ghost is real. Multiple people have sighted it, and they have seen it multiple times. Hamlet, however, knows that “trust” in term of “good faith” is not appropriate as he implies with his “shall I couple hell”. He knew this was the start of the end for his soul.

nusratfarah | Student
  • To me, the ghost is portrayed as a believable character in Hamlet. The ghost is not only seen by Hamlet, but Marcellus and Horatio also see it. That is why the question should not create further suspicion whether the ghost really exists or not. But, from Hamlet's perspective, if we view, it is tough to have trust upon anything when his own blood relations have betrayed him. He is mentally shattered, and that is why it is difficult for him to take the spirit's words with full confidence. Yet, Hamlet has to believe the ghost's statements since the situation is against him now (act 1). He can at least pay heed to what the spirit utters, and then investigate on the basis of that. Otherwise, he has no other way as he is alone and helpless.
  • Shakespeare has deliberately made it a gothic and horror play. Like the witches in Macbeth, the ghost in Hamlet is also an important character in the tragedy. In my opinion, the haunting character does have a real existence in the play just like the three witches in Macbeth. these are not illusions. But, the difference is, the witches equivocate, the ghost does not.