Often in literature writers choose to include characters that appear for only brief amounts of time, yet have substantial significance. In his drama Hamlet, William Shakespeare writes about a Danish Prince (Hamlet) thirsty for revenge on his step-father (Claudius) for the murder of his father (King Hamlet) and marriage of his mother (Gertrude). “It has a ghost who demands revenge for a murder and a hero who promises to achieve it, pretends to be mad, indulges in philosophic soliloquies, and does not succeed in his purpose till the end of five acts” (Bell 311).
While Hamlet uncovers new truths, his lust for revenge churns. Pretty early on in the drama, a ghost which was said to resemble the deceased King Hamlet is introduced and later becomes only visible to Hamlet. Based on the impact of the ghost on Hamlet’s actions, its role in forming the drama’s complex revenge plot, and its indirect impact on other characters, it is clear that this “minor” character is actually quite important in catalyzing the play’s plot.
The play opens up with Barnardo and Marcellus recounting their story of a ghostly figure appearing in front of them for the past two nights. Suddenly the ghost they spoke of appear and Barnardo reveals that it is “In the same figure like the king that’s dead” (1.1.3). This description is not a coincidence because if the reader could somehow associate the ghost with King Hamlet this early on in the play, then they could use it to foreshadow its effects on Hamlet himself. As a loyal son, Hamlet would feel obligated to avenge his father’s murder to once again bring honor to his name.
However he seems to be on the fence about this decision, needing something to give him that push of courage. The ghost takes up this role and nourishes the seed for revenge in him. To make this easier for us, Shakespeare chooses to reveal that the ghastly figure is in fact, “the ghost of your [Hamlet] father, doomed for a certain period of time to walk the earth at night, while during the day I’m [Ghost] trapped in the fires of purgatory until I’ve done penance for my past sins.
If I weren’t forbidden to tell you the secrets of purgatory, I could tell you stories that would slice through your soul, freeze your blood” (1.5.1). There are many things we can pull out of this quote, such as the confirmed identity of the ghost as well as a more complete understanding of the potential impact the ghost could have on Hamlet’s actions. By detailing that he could tell Hamlet stories that would slice through is soul and freeze his blood, the ghost is effectively getting inside his head and more specifically urging him to take vengeful actions upon King Claudius.
As a play, Shakespeare intended Hamlet to fill the once popular genre of a revenge tragedy. Expanding on the topic of Hamlet’s actions reveals one of the main themes of the play: vengeance. Mark Rose writes in his journal article “‘Hamlet’ and the Shape of Revenge” about Hamlet’s plot for revenge against Claudius and how, “the ghost has bound him to vengeance.” Furthermore he adds that, “Hamlet’s master turns out to be even a more formidable figure than the king” (Rose 133). What Rose is trying to say is that the ghost is responsible for driving the revenge plot of the play. Its sole thematic purpose is to drive Hamlet to murder by first convincing him that his father should be avenged. It proposes that “the real snake that stung your father is now wearing his crown” (1.5.2). This quote is a clever way of the ghost explaining to Hamlet that its was his uncle Claudius who murdered his father while also acting as a call to action to for Hamlet to avenge it. Whether the ghost or not is actually his father’s dead spirit trapped in purgatory isn’t clear but either way Hamlet seems convinced enough by the ghost’s message to carry out the murder of Claudius by the end of the drama.
The ghost’s impact on the characters of the play didn’t just stop with Hamlet and Claudius. At the end of the final act, Horatio speaks of the tragedy involving, “violent and unnatural acts, terrible accidents, casual murders, deaths caused by trickery and by threat, and finally murderous plans that backfired on their perpetrators” (5.2.18). While this quote isn’t from the ghost itself, it does illustrate the impact the ghost ended up having by the end of the drama. As Hamlet’s quest for vengeance advances, many characters like Polonius, Ophelia, Laertes, and even his own mother got caught in the crossfire.
When Polonius decided to eavesdrop on Hamlets intense conversation with his mother, the ghost suddenly appeared and through a series of unfortunate events, Hamlet ended up stabbing Polonius. Though it was unnecessary to kill him on the spot as he did, Hamlet was under the vengeful influence of the ghost and was blinded by fury. When Hamlet’s girlfriend Ophelia found out that her father (Polonius) was murdered by the man she loved, she was driven to insanity.
This lead to her eventual demise as well as another revenge plot. Laertes, Ophelia’s brother, became eager do right by his sister and exact revenge on Hamlet for leading to her implied suicide. In the final scenes of the play the ghost is nowhere to be seen. Laertes ends up dying along with Gertrude, Claudius, and Hamlet himself. The ghost ended up being the indirect cause of the majority of the deaths in the drama’s plot.
Though the ghost didn’t get as much stage time as many of the other characters in Hamlet, it ended up being an extremely important asset to the play. If it weren’t for its presence throughout moments in the play, there would be no underlying revenge plot and therefore no deaths or tragedy to drive the plays plot. It was the ghost that ignited the spark of revenge in Prince Hamlet and drove him to exact revenge upon his evil uncle to make his dead father proud. It was the ghost that ended up being the indirect cause of around a half dozen deaths by the end of the play and it was the ghost that ended up being the reason Hamlet was the successful revenge tragedy it is remembered for.
- Bell, Millicent. “Hamlet, Revenge!” The Hudson Review, vol. 51, no. 2, 1998, pp. 310–328. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3853055.
- Crowther, John, ed. “No Fear Hamlet.” SparkNotes.com. SparkNotes LLC. 2005. Web. 3 Dec. 2018.
- Rose, Mark. “‘Hamlet’ and the Shape of Revenge.” English Literary Renaissance, vol. 1, no. 2, 1971, pp. 132–143. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/43446750.