The Hamlet read-along is still underway, and as expected, it’s given me plenty of opportunities to consider the play from different angles. Almost since the beginning of this read-along, one question in particular has nagged at me: is the ghost really who he says he is?
On my first reading of Hamlet, I pretty much took the ghost at his word. Both Hamlet and Horatio raise suspicions about the ghost’s identity early on, but I always found a way to dismiss their doubts. In Horatio’s case, I took it for a type of intellectual snobbery that wouldn’t admit the possibility of anything “not in [his] philosophy.” In Hamlet’s case, I believed that his doubt is less genuine than it sounds: he knew he should be cautious of the spirit, but what he really wanted to do was run straight to it (1.4.44-50).
After taking a second look, however, I’m the one who’s starting to have doubts.
The social climate of Elizabethan England, for one thing, makes it likely that the ghost isn’t as benign as he seems. Ghosts, as it turns out, were a very popular topic among scholars and theologians during the Renaissance. There were even formal treatises written about the nature of ghosts, whether they existed, and how to approach them (if you must). Ghost theory (if I can call it that) was also one of the main issues that divided Protestants and Catholics. While the Catholic Church had taught for centuries (and to some degree, still does teach) that dead people sometimes return to earth in order to deliver messages, ask for help, etc., Protestants generally believed that any disembodied spirit was likely a demon and should be avoided. Since Elizabethan Catholics were a minority–and not a very well-tolerated minority, either–this play was probably written with a Protestant audience in mind.
And even if, as some critics like to conjecture, Shakespeare was a closet Catholic whose plays are rife with pro-Rome propaganda, that still doesn’t mean that the ghost is a good guy. According to Catholic clerics of the day, one of the tells of a good spirit is that it will never say or do anything that contradicts Scripture or church doctrine. Contrary to what many people assume, vengeance was strongly condemned both by Elizabethan law and by ecclesiastical authorities. This doesn’t mean that revenge killings never took place, but nevertheless, Elizabethan society as a whole was making progress away from more barbaric concepts of justice like revenge. This means that even the most fervent of Catholic ghost-believers would have been horrified as Hamlet accepts the ghost’s demands implicitly.
Far and above all of this, I think that the way the ghost operates in the play itself suggests most strongly that he’s an impostor.
First, there’s the textual evidence of the ghost’s actions and reactions in scenes 1 and 5 of Act 1. For example, when Horatio bids the ghost “By heaven” to speak, he stalks away and, in Marcellus’s words, “is offended” (1.1.57-62). One scholar claims that this–the invocation of heavenly authority scaring the ghost away–is evidence enough that the ghost is an evil spirit. I find it hard not to believe her. Also in Act 1, we learn that the ghost is only seen at night (1.1.76-77; 1.4.3-7; 1.5.65-66) and that he vanishes as soon as he hears a rooster crow (1.1.162-164). As Marcellus describes in scene 1, both traits were believed, in the Middle Ages and beyond, to denote a demon.
When I studied Hamlet in school, I was told that the definition of an Elizabethan tragedy is a story in which forces outside of the protagonist conspire to destroy him (physically, spiritually, or both) and, through some serious moral flaw on his part, he allows them to succeed. The best example of this that I can think of comes from another Shakespearean play, Macbeth: in this play, the malevolent spirit Hecate, acting through her servants the Weird Sisters, takes advantage of Macbeth’s innate ambition and uses it to bring about his ruin. Macbeth is still entirely culpable for the crimes at his door, but without that malignant influence, they might never have happened.
That led me to wonder: what if the ghost is Hamlet‘s version of Hecate? What if it was his design all along to destroy Hamlet and his family? If you think about it, most of the terrible things that happen in this play flow directly from the ghost’s directions to Hamlet. Without his interference, Hamlet would not have felt compelled to kill Claudius and the chain reaction that eventually leads to his and several others’ deaths would have never taken place.
We do learn later that the ghost’s account of the Elder Hamlet’s murder is completely factual (3.2-3), but does that really prove anything? Couldn’t a demon have just as easily come by the same knowledge? Maybe more easily? Suppose this is the very demon that tempted Claudius to murder!
And that gave rise to another thought. In Act 1, Horatio tells the guardsmen (and consequently, the audience) about what a mighty king Hamlet I was (1.1.92-101); at the end of the play, however, his greatest achievement has been undone when Fortinbras comes to overthrow Denmark. We also see throughout the play that the old king’s son and possible heir is clever, dogged, and resourceful. Suppose, then, that this play isn’t about a prince whose personal struggles destroy him and two whole families, but about a devil whose mission is to stand in the way of all of the good this dynasty did and could have done? What if what’s lost here is not only several lives or Hamlet’s mind, but also the glory and the honor which could have belonged to Hamlet and his family if only they had not given in to their baser instincts? To me, the narrative makes far more sense when viewed through this lens. It also gives the audience fewer opportunities for self-indulgence. It teaches us to identify not with Hamlet in his woes so that we can commiserate, but with Hamlet in his corruption. It turns the focus onto the evil of man rather than on his troubles, which, to my mind, is what tragedy plays are meant to do in the first place.
So much for my own interpretations. Do you agree? Disagree? Do you have some of your own interesting thoughts on the ghost in Hamlet? Let me know in the comments.