What is the function of having super natural elements in Hamlet? Why did Shakespeare put a ghost in the play?

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Modern audiences consider the apparition to be the "ghost of Hamlet's father," but an Elizabethan audience would not. Ghosts were spirits that could take on any shape, for any purpose; it could be angelic or satanic, and the opening scene suggests the great anxiety of the guards in not "just having seen a ghost," but in trying to comprehend what it was and what its purpose was. When Horatio addresses it, he states:

What art thou that usurp'st this time of night, 
Together with that fair and warlike form 
In which the majesty of buried Denmark 
Did sometimes march? by heaven I charge thee, speak!

"Usurp" (from the Latin, usurpare,  'to seize for use') is the key word here -- the ghost shouldn't have disturbed the evening peace, so it has usurped "this time of night," and it has also ("Together") usurped the image of the dead king. Horatio demands it disclose its true identity and purpose. And of course, the action of the play follows the usurpation of the throne.

Asimov's Guide to Shakespeare, Gramercy Publishing,  (c) 1970, pg. II-82.

 

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I agree that the supernatural was of great influence to the Elizabethans. For example, Shakespeare included the supernatural in Macbeth based upon the fact that King James I was very interested in this area. Also, based upon the fact that the play is a tragedy, a dark mood easily parallels that of the supernatural.

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Ghosts were a subject of great controversy during the English Renaissance. Some people believed that ghosts were inevitably damned spirits or Satanic illusions. On the basis of these kinds of beliefs, some critics have argued that Hamlet is duped by an evil force.  The supernatural, then, adds an element of mystery and ambiguity to the play.  It has certainly led to many critical disagreements.

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The supernatural was of great interest to the Elizabethans, so the audience's attention is riveted after the introduction of the mysterious ghost of Hamlet's father.  And, most importantly, as already mentioned, the ghost is the messenger of Claudius's heinous act, as well as being a source of conflict for Hamlet.  Can he take the word of a spirit? What evidence does he have?  What if the ghost is mere illusion and he commits regicide?  Not only is the ghost important, he adds interest.

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Hamlet might have dreamed about his father. He could have subconsciously known, I suppose. He might have found a letter. However, I agree that the ghost was necessary for the exposition to be most dramatic. As Dickens notes in the beginning of "A Christmas Carol" that nothing wonderful can happen unless it is distinctly understood that the ghosts are dead. Dickens loved this play.
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Ghosts and the supernatural are very useful from a dramatist's view as well.  In plays, they lose their effect if over used, but we must remember that in Shakespeare's time most people were highly sensitized to the nuances of the metaphysical and how it affected their lives on a minute by minute basis. Heaven, hell, astrolgy, rewards,punishments, runes ,soothsayers and fortune tellers were part of everyday life and entertainment and many lived in terror of the after life and what it might hold for them. All playwrights had to do was to harness the already present credulous nature of the audience to create a great and magical effect.

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The appearance of a ghost is the only way that Prince Hamlet would learn that his father had been murdered. Up until the revelation by the ghost, everyone in the kingdom believes that the king has been bitten by serpent while he was napping in his garden. It is a perfect crime until the ghost reveals that "the serpent that did sting thy father's life now wears his crown." The ghost also adds an extra element of complication because the audience would understand that Hamlet can't just take the word of the ghost on face value; he must investigate the charge and have real proof before he takes his revenge because ghosts aren't always true ghosts, sometimes they are the devil in disguise and only come to cause trouble.

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