Hamlet's Father's Ghost

Shakespeare wanted to have the ghost of Hamlet’s father appear to his son and tell him a secret unknown to anyone else in Denmark: that he was murdered by Claudius in order to usurp his throne and marry his widow. The Ghost wants revenge. But Shakespeare had several problems. To begin with, how was the audience supposed to know the bearded actor was a ghost? In Macbeth, when Banquo appears at the coronation banquet, the audience realizes he must be a ghost because they have seen him murdered. Furthermore, one murderer assures Macbeth that Banquo is positively dead.

Ay, my good lord. Safe in a ditch he bides, With twenty trenched gashes on his head, The least a death to nature.

The audience has never seen the ghost of Hamlet’s father. Shakespeare had no way of making the Ghost look “ghostlike” without the ridiculous expedient of dressing him in a white shroud. Hollywood would have no such problem. The Ghost could be transparent or even hovering in the air.

Shakespeare decided he needed the bearded actor to appear to several witnesses who would all testify that this man looked exactly like the dead king. Shakespeare wanted his audience to recognize this actor as the Ghost before he ever talked to his son. Otherwise there would be too much time spent on the question of identity when the Ghost wants to confide his vital message. Shakespeare also decided to dress his bearded actor in armor so that, if he didn’t look much like a ghost, he would at least look somewhat strange and different.

In Act I, Scene 1, Marcellus, Bernardo, and Horatio all testify to each other that the Ghost looks exactly like the dead King Hamlet and that the armor he is wearing is the armor he wore in battle. Shakespeare did not want these men, or any member of his audience, to suspect that the Ghost was there to talk to his son. The author wanted to surprise the audience with the Ghost’s news that he had been murdered by his brother Claudius. The Ghost’s armor not only identifies him as the dead King Hamlet but also serves to mislead Marcellus, Bernardo, and Horatio, as well as the entire audience, into believing the Ghost must be concerned about the prospects of war. If it were not for Fortinbras’s aggressive movements, the audience might suspect that the Ghost was there to communicate something to his son.

The threat of war proves to be a red herring. Fortinbras’s uncle tells him to desist, and the whole issue is resolved by the opening of Act II. Once Shakespeare created Fortinbras and his army, he decided to use it as a subplot in this multifaceted play. At the end, the dying Hamlet even nominates Fortinbras to be king of Denmark.

Shakespeare had to have the Ghost, but at the same time he had to make certain that neither King Claudius nor anyone else—except for those Hamlet swears to secrecy—should have the slightest suspicion that a ghost had appeared on the battlements or that the ghost had a private interview with Hamlet. No one but Claudius knows his own guilty secret. If he thought Hamlet might have been talking to a ghost—any ghost—he would assume Hamlet had learned the terrible truth from the land of the dead. If Claudius murdered Hamlet’s father, he would have no compunctions about doing the same to the son. Hamlet himself senses it might be impossible to fool his uncle. How can he look the cunning king in the eyes without betraying that he knows something he didn’t know before? How can he treat Claudius with the requisite deference when he has so many reasons to hate him and is honor-bound to kill him?

This is what motivates Hamlet to pretend to be insane. His zany antics and weird words are a cover-up. Claudius is a hard man to deceive. He tells Polonius:

There’s something in his soul, O’er which his melancholy sits on brood, And I do doubt the hatch and the disclose Will be some danger.

Claudius is not really put off by Hamlet’s madness, real or feigned. If Hamlet is mad, what drove him mad? If Hamlet is sane, why is he pretending to be unstable? Claudius is intent on getting into Hamlet’s mind, and Hamlet is equally intent, for his own safety, on keeping him out. This is the main conflict in the play. Claudius wants to know what Hamlet is thinking and planning; Hamlet wants to keep Claudius from finding out. Hamlet is at a disadvantage because his uncle is older, experienced, cunning, powerful, and has many spies. Hamlet has one great advantage: the Ghost has told him the king’s guilty secret. Hamlet can read his uncle’s mind, but his uncle can’t read his.

It is an interesting situation. Claudius has a secret, and Hamlet has a secret. Hamlet knows Claudius’s secret, and Claudius doesn’t know Hamlet’s.

As Hamlet tells his mother:

O, ‘tis most sweet When in one line two crafts directly meet.