Before discussing the character of the ghost in Hamlet, one must do a little research on the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church in Denmark at this time. The presence of a ghost in the play has certain connotations and, when presented in light of religion, makes more sense. The Catechism taught that a specter of any sort could be considered either “good” or “bad.” In the former case, a soul after death (because it was not in the state of grace) may not be able to make it to heaven due to sins in the past. This unsettled soul, although eventually destined for the Beatific Vision, would have to complete some kind of task on earth before achieving its goal. Its time on earth, then, would be seen as that soul’s “Purgatory,” or the place the soul needed to go in order to be purged of said sin and made possible for the future state of grace. After being “purged” through its mission, the soul could then eventually enter heaven. In the latter case (or the case of a specter being “bad”), the Roman Catholics of Shakespeare’s time were not far removed from the demonic. In other words, there is also the possibility that the ghost might be a demon sent from hell to inflict some kind of evil on characters. This evil could be in the form of death or damnation. Is the ghost of Hamlet’s father an angel or demon? Let’s look at the evidence in order to find out.
Hamlet admits that either is possible. Hamlet says that the spirit of his dead father might be “a spirit of good health,” but he also admits a bit later that it could be “a goblin damn’d,” therefore admitting the second possibility.
Let’s look at the evil possibility first. There are seven pieces of evidence to be considered here:
- The ghost only appears on dark and gloomy evenings.
- The ghost “beckons [Hamlet] to go away with it. . . alone.”
- Hamlet’s honorable friends with good reputations ask Hamlet to leave the ghost alone.
- The ghost inspires Marcellus to say a very famous line: “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.”
- The ghost insists on silence and, further, that Hamlet and his friends swear to tell not another soul what they have seen or heard in regards to the ghost.
- The ghost is continually referred to as “beneath” in Shakespeare’s stage directions.
- Even though the reader isn’t sure whether Hamlet’s soul went to heaven or hell, one thing is for sure: Hamlet dies at the end.
The second possibility, of course, is that the ghost is good and has a mission to help Hamlet. Different than the evidence above, the evidence for the goodness or honesty of the ghost isn’t direct, but it is still no doubt important. Firstly, and least importantly, most first-time readers believe the ghost to be good because he says he is and because Hamlet follows the ghost’s advice. Ironically, this is not good evidence for the ghost being on a mission from heaven. A second argument is the assumption that because Shakespeare’s play already has a villain (Claudius), there can’t be another. Why not? To get to the meat of the angelic evidence, the ghost asks for his death to be avenged. This does stand in compliance with the divine order of kings. In Hamlet’s time (and in Denmark), it was considered honorable to avenge the death of a king. Hamlet’s father was, in fact, killed by Claudius, so revenge is just here. Next, the ghost is correct: Claudius did kill Hamlet’s father. At the beginning of the play, the cause of Hamlet’s dad’s death isn’t really known. Everyone is simply sad that Hamlet’s father has died. It is only when Claudius suggests his own guilt during The Murder of Gonzago and then confirms it to the reader while praying for forgiveness that we learn the ghost is really telling the truth. Finally, perhaps the ghost can be considered to be from heaven because the tragedy (as is the case with most tragedies) ends on a note of hope. Hamlet is honored (not defamed), and the kingship of Denmark is restored to glory.