What is the dramatic funtion of the ghost in Act 1 of Shakespeare's Hamlet and how does the ghost's presence contribute to the central themes of the play?

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vangoghfan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The ghost who appears in Act 1 of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet serves a number of functions and contributes in various ways to the themes and effectiveness of the play. Those ways include the following:

  • Even before his actual appearance, the ghost creates mystery, suspense, fear, and an atmosphere of the supernatural.
  • Horatio is chosen to speak to the ghost because he is a “scholar” (1.1.42). Thus an important aspect of Horatio’s personality is here disclosed.
  • The ghost’s initially brief appearance grabs our interest and makes us want to learn more about him and his circumstances.
  • By the time of his second appearance, the ghost has begun to inspire respect, not simply fear – thus foreshadowing the ways in which the ghost will be received by Hamlet himself (1.1.143-46).
  • When Horatio tells Hamlet about the ghost, we have evidence that a very rational and sane man takes the spirit seriously. We also have evidence of the close bond that already exists between Hamlet and Horatio (1.1.189-220). Horatio’s testimony helps Hamlet immediately take the ghost seriously.
  • Hamlet’s responses to the ghost help characterize Hamlet in a wide variety of ways.  When he first sees the ghost, for instance, he says,

Angels and ministers of grace defend us!

Be thou a spirit of health, or goblin damned . . .

. . . I will speak to thee. (1.1.39-44)

His initial response is one of fear, and fear is what the other characters have felt and what the audience should also feel in the presence of the ghost. Yet Hamlet is also curious, and curiosity is a major trait of his character.  He wants to know – just as we want to know – whether the ghost is good or bad, heavenly or hellish.  The nature and purposes of the ghost are two of the most hotly debated aspects of the whole play, and how one interprets the ghost usually has a major impact on how one reacts both to Hamlet and to Hamlet. The ghost, therefore, raises and epitomizes some of the central spiritual and ethical questions the play explores. Hamlet the father – at least as a ghost – is in some ways just as mysterious and intriguing as Hamlet the son. All the questions that Hamlet has about the ghost (1.1.40-57) are questions the audience shares.

  • Hamlet’s first question to the ghost when he is alone with the spirit – “Whither wilt thou lead me?” (1.5.1) – is in many ways emblematic. Where, indeed, will the ghost lead Hamlet? Should Hamlet follow the ghost (in both senses of “follow”)?
  • It is the ghost who explicitly raises the issue of “revenge” (1.5.7) – one of the major themes of the play. Should Hamlet indeed take revenge, or should he leave revenge to God, as Christianity taught? This is a crucial issue throughout the drama, and the way one answers that question helps determine how one responds to the entire work and its central character.
  • The ghost accuses Claudius of having murdered him (1.5.41-83), thus raising another crucial issue: is the ghost lying or telling the truth? Hamlet will spend a good part of the play trying to discover for sure the answer to this question.
  • Finally, the ghost instructs Hamlet not to punish Gertrude (1.5.84-88), thus raising yet another highly important question: how, indeed, will Hamlet deal with his mother?

In all these ways, the ghost lays the groundwork for the plot of the rest of the drama.

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