Extended Character Analysis
The Ghost of King Hamlet provides the inciting incident for the play by charging his son with the task of taking revenge on Claudius. The ghost tells Hamlet that he cannot move on to heaven until his “foul and most unnatural murder” is avenged. Hamlet is skeptical of the ghost at first, wondering whether it is truly the ghost of his father or an instrument of evil that has come to tempt him to commit sin. However, Hamlet already loathes Claudius, so when he uncovers evidence of Claudius’s guilt, Hamlet believes the ghost and embarks on the course of revenge.
The nature of the ghost remains vague throughout the play, with different characters proposing different theories. Marcellus, Bernardo, and Horatio initially assume that, due to its armored guise, the ghost has appeared to warn them about an impending threat to Denmark. They clearly doubt its intentions, only reluctantly allowing Hamlet to be alone with it. Hamlet is also initially unsure whether the ghost is truly his father or a devil in disguise. A significant aspect of Hamlet’s indecision to immediately kill Claudius is his uncertainty about the ghost’s nature.
Several different theories have been proposed regarding the ghost. By one reading, the ghost can be read as the literal manifestation of the late King Hamlet. That other characters see the ghost and that Claudius admits to murdering King Hamlet support such a reading. Using this interpretation, Hamlet’s revenge is successful, and the play conforms to the traditional model of Elizabethan revenge plays.
By another reading, the ghost can be read as a devil who disguises himself as the dead king in order to trick Hamlet into committing murder. Hamlet himself speculates on this possibility, wavering in his resolve to take revenge on Claudius because he cannot bring himself to fully trust the ghost. By this reading, the genre of the Elizabethan revenge play is subverted and vengeance becomes the sin that Hamlet must resist. The tragic ending of Hamlet and the frequent image of hellfire that accompanies the ghost support this reading.
A third reading postulates that the ghost is a figment of Hamlet’s imagination and a symptom of his madness. Alternatively, the ghost can still be read as real, but its message to Hamlet is a fanciful product of Hamlet’s existing hatred for Claudius. That the ghost only ever speaks directly to Hamlet and that Gertrude cannot see the ghost when Hamlet speaks with it support this interpretation. By this reading, Hamlet’s grief over the loss of his father and his resentment towards Claudius and his mother manifest in the form of the ghost, giving Hamlet permission to lash out against his uncle.
The most consistent force in the ghost’s characterization is its advocacy for Gertrude. While it is verbally harsh towards her, it does not condemn her in the same way that it condemns Claudius. It also specifically asks Hamlet to help her see the error of her ways. The ghost's apparent love for Gertrude supports a more literal reading of the ghost as King Hamlet in that Hamlet describes his parents’ relationship as a true romance.